The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

the leg­endary English ac­tor’s life is des­tined for the screen

He’s our in­est liv­ing Shake­spearean ac­tor who has thrilled a new gen­er­a­tion as enig­matic wizard Gan­dalf in Lord of the Rings. As a ilm of his life lights up the sil­ver screen, Juliet Rieden talks to Sir Ian McKellen about the pain of los­ing his mother, how com­ing out changed his life and the un­ex­pected fun of plan­ning his own funeral.

It’s al­most mid­night and Sir Ian McKellen has just ar­rived home from his lat­est tri­umph. He’s play­ing King Lear in Lon­don’s West End. The play is more than three hours long with six per­for­mances a week. Quite a feat for a 79-year-old, but aside from a slight hoarse­ness in those mel­liflu­ous tones, recog­nis­able world-over for wizard Gan­dalf’s boom­ing dec­la­ra­tion “You shall not pass!”, Sir Ian is sur­pris­ingly alert. Part of that is down to his se­cret weapon – Pi­lates – and part, he says, is thanks to the Bard.

“Shake­speare is very kind to King Lear. He gets a nice big break in the mid­dle. So I some­times man­age to catch a nap, have a bit of sleep, and start up again. I don’t feel tired at the end of the evening.”

This is likely to be Sir Ian’s last big Shake­speare role. “Of the lead­ing parts, there isn’t any­thing I re­ally want to do,” he tells me, so tick­ets are like gold dust as his mul­ti­far­i­ous fans – theatre lovers, tourists, Lord of the Rings and X-Men geeks, rain­bow war­riors, the en­tire act­ing fra­ter­nity – all try to catch the swan­song which is gar­ner­ing rave re­views. But don’t panic, it’s not Sir Ian’s nal cur­tain!

“I’m still alive and I can still work, so I’m still ped­dling around and that’s es­sen­tial if you’re go­ing to act. I’m not stop­ping act­ing, no,” he quickly adds.

But in ad­di­tion to Lear, there is a no­table sense of legacy to Ian McKellen’s cur­rent port­fo­lio, though not en­tirely by de­sign, he ex­plains.

We are here to talk about Ian’s new lm, a bi­o­graph­i­cal doc­u­men­tary of his life which he jokes is a bit of an obit­u­ary. The lm is called Play­ing the Part and stemmed from an out-of-the-blue re­quest from an up-and-com­ing English lm di­rec­tor. “It was an un­ex­pected role for me be­cause I’d ad­mired Joe Stephenson, the di­rec­tor, so when he said could he do this doc­u­men­tary on me I thought, ‘oh well, that could be good prac­tice for him’ and in a rather con­de­scend­ing way I agreed to do it,” Ian says with a chuckle. “And then it turned out to be a proper thing with a crew and he turned it into this lit­tle con­struct with all my friends in it. I didn’t know they were go­ing to be a part of it. And even I've en­joyed watch­ing it.”

The re­sult is ac­tu­ally a com­pelling, can­did and en­gag­ing retelling of Ian’s life to date, from his child­hood in the Lan­cashire mill town where his fa­ther was a civil en­gi­neer and his mother was his proud­est sup­porter, through his early pas­sion for act­ing, com­ing out at age 49, and his sparkling ca­reer. In short, a glo­ri­ous, emo­tional ride nar­rated by Sir Ian him­self with some elec­tric clips of his early act­ing roles and a dy­na­mite be­hind-the-scenes ex­change with Rings di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son in which a grumpy Ian with­er­ingly mut­ters “this is not why I be­came an ac­tor!”.

“That was only one morn­ing, one day and I was there – in and out of Welling­ton [New Zealand] – over 13 years,” pleads Ian. “I cer­tainly en­joyed play­ing Gan­dalf … I didn’t quite un­der­stand when a friend of mine who lived in Hol­ly­wood said, ‘You know, your life’s about to change for­ever more’. And it did be­cause I’m now in­ter­na­tion­ally known among an aw­ful lot of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly young peo­ple and I'm a part of their lives, and that’s a won­der­ful thing.”

At the start of the doc­u­men­tary,

Ian con­fesses that he ap­proaches in­ter­views with jour­nal­ists as an­other act­ing role, pre­sent­ing a ver­sion of him­self, but here it feels as if we’re nally see­ing the real Ian McKellen.

“I wasn’t re­ally think­ing about who might be watch­ing it, so I didn’t have to put on any elab­o­rate façade,” Ian ad­mits. “I must say I do think it is me.”

Act­ing genes

Ian’s love of theatre, we dis­cover, was very much a fam­ily mat­ter. “It came from our mother and fa­ther who did am­a­teur act­ing. In fact, the rst time I ap­peared on stage was with my par­ents as their child,” he says. His el­der sis­ter, Jean, who died in 2003, also acted, both as a child and as an adult in am­a­teur pro­duc­tions, which Ian of­ten at­tended.

His own pas­sion for the stage was nur­tured es­pe­cially by his mother. Sadly, she never got to see her son as a multi-award-win­ning ac­tor, the toast of Lon­don and Hol­ly­wood, but Jean told Ian that their mother, Margery, once said: “If Ian de­cides to be­come an ac­tor, that’ll be all right be­cause it will bring a lot of plea­sure to peo­ple.” Ian gets teary when he thinks of his mother’s prophecy and has fond mem­o­ries of dress­ing up as Charlie Chap­lin as a young lad and com­ing down­stairs to en­ter­tain the fam­ily.

Los­ing Margery when he was just 12 years old, was dev­as­tat­ing. “I was on school camp and Un­cle John came down to tell me … She died of breast

“I was liv­ing at a time when to be gay was against the law.”

cancer. Hugs, kisses, com­fort went with her,” Ian says. “I don’t think

I ever got over it. I still think of her a lot and she would, of course, be dead now of old age, but I never re­ally knew her ex­cept as a lit­tle boy. An ador­ing mum and I adored her, too.

“My fa­ther [De­nis] was an ex­tremely car­ing man and I think it was partly to look after me that he got mar­ried quite shortly after­wards. Per­haps for his own sake as well – I’m sure. So, I had a step­mother look­ing after me and she was a very nice per­son, too, and even­tu­ally I be­came ex­tremely fond of her.

“You can get by but emo­tion­ally, I think, it leaves you fear­ful that any re­la­tion­ship that you care a great deal about, that it might end, for some un­for­tu­nate rea­son other than that it ends. I think per­haps peo­ple who have a nor­mal child­hood with two par­ents whom they see into old age, they have a quite dif­fer­ent sense of what re­la­tion­ships can be.”

Feel­ing di er­ent

A year after that loss, Ian started to feel that he was dif­fer­ent from his con­tem­po­raries at school, a feel­ing that stayed with him through­out his ado­les­cence. He can’t say for sure that this was about his sex­u­al­ity but, look­ing back, re­alises it cer­tainly had some­thing to do with it.

“When peo­ple say, when did you know you were gay? I say, when did you know that you weren’t? Sex­u­al­ity creeps up on one and be­comes a part of you, and you ac­cept it,” Ian muses. “It’s only [when] peo­ple point at you and say, ‘Oh, your sex­u­al­ity is dif­fer­ent’, and in my youth worse than that. Then the dif­fer­ence is de­spi­ca­ble and you’re a freak and you’re queer and your dif­fer­ence is rep­re­hen­si­ble. That be­comes a prob­lem.

“I was liv­ing at a time when to be gay was against the law, to prac­tise sex was against the law; and I was aware of that. It wasn’t much talked about but oc­ca­sion­ally you saw it in the news­pa­pers, and John Giel­gud, a fa­mous ac­tor, was not im­pris­oned, but ned for meet­ing a man in a pub­lic place. Ap­palling! But ev­ery­body coped in the way that they could.

The way I coped was by not wor­ry­ing about it at all and even­tu­ally, when I fell in love up at Cam­bridge [Univer­sity], when I was about 20, then it seemed to be ne and I ended up liv­ing with a man for eight years, through my 20s into my 30s, as other gay peo­ple did then: but we had to just be very dis­creet about it. I had plenty of straight friends and I was open to them; I just didn’t talk about it in an in­ter­view like this.”

It’s ironic that the rea­son Ian nally de­cided to come out was in re­sponse to “a rep­re­hen­si­ble law [called Sec­tion 28] say­ing you couldn’t re­ally talk about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity in schools”.

Ian was 49, a huge star, and de­cided to use his celebrity to ght for gay rights. He ap­peared in ral­lies, or­gan­ised bene t per­for­mances and ap­peared on TV. “It’s the best thing I ever did,

re­ally,” he says. “A weight lifted off my shoul­ders that I didn’t know was there. My shy­ness was gone. I felt proud. I wish it had all hap­pened a lot ear­lier. I would have been a lot more con dent about my­self and liked my­self more, liked the world more.”

Ian says de­cid­ing to be­come an ac­tor at the end of his rst year at Cam­bridge Univer­sity was prob­a­bly “the most cru­cial de­ci­sion” of his life. Im­me­di­ately he be­longed.

He de­scribes a rst night party fol­low­ing a per­for­mance of Co­ri­olanus when his dad and step­mum joy­ously met his new group of friends. “Dad sat on the oor chat­ting up the ac­tresses,” he says, smil­ing. Three weeks later, De­nis had a stroke while driv­ing and died. Ian never re­ally had the chance to talk to his fa­ther, some­thing he now re­grets. “I wasn’t much of a son … and that’s be­cause I was gay,” he says.

“The trou­ble was with me,” he ex­plains. “I was a dread­ful teenager, grumpy and in­ward­look­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, my dad died when I was 24. If he’d lived beyond 60, which he didn’t, to be 80 or 90, then there would have been plenty of time to for­get that and deal with it and apol­o­gise and get on.”

Find­ing fame

Act­ing be­came Ian’s life and he ex­celled. A young Mag­gie Smith spot­ted him and soon he was au­di­tion­ing for Lau­rence Olivier to be in the most ex­cit­ing theatre com­pany of the era. “He was just a great man, but there were plenty of other won­der­ful peo­ple there, like Mag­gie Smith and Al­bert Fin­ney and Tony Hop­kins, Mike Gam­bon, to make you feel that you were in a spe­cial place.” Ian re­mem­bers feel­ing ex­cited and ner­vous but ul­ti­mately de­cided if he wanted to score the big roles he needed to be coura­geous and leave this in­cred­i­ble troupe. “The com­pany was so tal­ented and there were so many peo­ple of roughly my age all lin­ing up want­ing to play the best ju­ve­nile parts and I re­alised I’d have to be there quite a long time be­fore I ever got to play Ham­let, let’s say ... It was a good move be­cause quite rapidly after that I was do­ing work that was more sat­is­fy­ing to me.”

Mov­ing into lm came much later and play­ing Gan­dalf and X-Men star Mag­neto meant Ian now had cur­rency with young peo­ple, some­thing that he uses to­day, go­ing into schools to talk about his ex­pe­ri­ences as a young gay man. I ask him if he thinks he missed out on par­ent­hood?

“Oh no,” he says, laugh­ing hard. “The best thing about be­ing gay was that you didn’t have to have chil­dren. No! I would have been a dread­ful par­ent. Far too sel sh. Parent­age is the most dif cult, de­mand­ing and I sup­pose, if it works, re­ward­ing job you could have, but oh my good­ness, you have to work at it.”

Ian cur­rently en­joys a sin­gle life in his Lon­don home. He’s re­cently in­stalled a lift in case of fu­ture in­ca­pac­ity but says he doesn’t need it yet. Mor­tal­ity plays heav­ily on his mind and he thinks about death daily. “You’re not told when you’re young that you think about death all the time but I think it means you’re ready.”

His for­mer part­ner, theatre di­rec­tor Sean Mathias, is the ex­ecu­tor of his will and de­cided to act on Ian’s mor­bid con­tem­pla­tion by ask­ing him to plan his wish list funeral and me­mo­rial. Ian was strangely thrilled and has had a ball stage-man­ag­ing the event. “There will be no re­li­gion at ei­ther event and I want the me­mo­rial to take place in a theatre. Free ad­mis­sion … It will end with One Sin­gu­lar Sen­sa­tion from A Cho­rus Line … When I nished I thought ooh, I’d love to go to that funeral!” AWW

McKellen: Play­ing The Part opens in cin­e­mas on Septem­ber 27.

This page: Ian with his sis­ter Jean and step­mother Gla­dys in 1979; A scene from the 1972 TV se­ries The Last Jour­ney.Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: Ian as Gan­dalf with TheLord of The Rings co-star Cate Blanchett and di­rec­tor Peter Jack­son; with mum Margery in 1941; at a gay rally in Lon­don in 2008; look­ing re­gal in his Cam­bridge Univer­sity days.

It was Mag­gie Smith (be­low, with Ian at Wim­ble­don last year) who first spot­ted his act­ing tal­ent.

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