SIR IAN MCKELLAN:
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.”
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.”
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.