I first met Ian McKellen six years ago when he was in New York for a production of King Lear. He was magisterial, a spry 68-year-old who was required to get naked on stage every night and still bore, after curtain call, a Shakespearean grandeur.
Now he’s back with two plays on Broadway – Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the latter of which allows him to use his native Wigan accent and, a few hours before the matinée, gives rise to a quieter, more contemplative McKellen. “If I look at my early films,” he says, “I’m using what seems to me now to be a ridiculous voice. Over the years, I’ve relaxed and let my own accent come back in.” He smiles faintly and cracks an almond between his teeth. “You can probably pick it up.”
We are in a windowless dressing room backstage at the theatre, McKellen grazing from a plastic box, his hair standing on end like he just got out of bed. At 74, he is a superstar – his turn as Gandalf, which he is reprising in the forthcoming sequel to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, has brought him a global audience of millions – and has the personal heft to match. His piercing blue eyes and bristling intellect are the components of a fierce humanity that underpins all his work; they are also artillery in his often caustic pronouncements. I wouldn’t like to get on his bad side. This morning, however, he is low-key and ruminative; I see only one flash of danger in the hour that we’re together.
The stamina required to carry off two plays, one of which, Godot, he performs almost bent double, is extraordinary, and McKellen admits: “Theatre’s a young man’s game really. It is very, very hard work.” He handles it by getting as much sleep as he can and having a personal chef. There is no time to shop and cook for oneself while rehearsing two plays, he says, and by going to restaurants “you are tempted to eat a lot of rubbish.”
He is also propelled by the sheer joy of acting opposite his friend, Patrick Stewart – much like the buzz he gets from filming ITV sitcom Vicious with Derek Jacobi, whom he met over 50 years ago at Cambridge, where, McKellen told me the last time we met, he was quite in love with Jacobi, and Jacobi with him, though neither knew it at the time. They are old friends now, and acting together is a rare treat. “There are plenty of plays with parts for a man and a woman,” he says. “But if you’re looking to do something with a mate, there’s not that much. Actors of the same age don’t often get to work together. Uncle Vanya’s one that works. Richard II and Bolingbroke I suppose. Hamlet.”
The 20-something McKellen would, surely, have been amazed to be told that 50 years on, he and his friend would be starring on primetime TV as a normalised gay couple. “Oh please,” says McKellen, “I’d have been amazed about a lot of things. I’d have been amazed at how many TV channels there were. I think I’m more surprised and delighted that people of the same gender have the option of getting married. Those are the huge advances.”
He wasn’t happy with his performance in the first series of Vicious – he realises now he was acting too much for the live studio audience. “If people thought it was a rather over-the-top performance, they were right.” He’ll correct it for series two. It’s his theatrical training, of course, the first principle of which is to project to the people in the cheap seats. Unlike screen work, theatre is a language-based medium, which actors coming to it from film sometimes struggle with. “They ask, ‘Why do I need all these words?’” says McKellen. “Well, because there are people at the back who can’t see your face properly. Your first duty in the theatre is therefore to be heard.”
After years in rep, McKellen joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre at the Old Vic in 1965 and has played every great stage hero there is. (He was knighted for his services to performing arts in 1991.) Given this, one wonders whether the rather workmanlike lines he must deliver as Gandalf don’t seem a little inadequate. “Ha,” says McKellen – he has thought the same thing. “I used to joke to Peter Jackson: ‘Why don’t you give Gandalf a few big speeches?’ And he said, ‘Because we don’t need them.’ The language of cinema is the language of the eye.”
It is also the conventional language of success. Being a star of the theatre is all very well, but movie stardom is construed as the greater achievement. McKellen was nominated for an Oscar in 1998 for his role in Gods and Monsters, but his screen success came relatively late, something that Damian Lewis, when I interviewed him recently, remarked rather cheekily on.
I read McKellen the quote, in which Lewis says that in his 20s he worried that if he didn’t get out of the theatre in time, “I would be one of these slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn’t start getting any kind of film work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards.” McKellen looks taken aback.
“So he feels sorry for me, does he? Well I’m very happy, he needn’t worry about me.” There is a pause and a brief warning look from those sparkly blues. “Yes, well, that’s a fair comment. To rebut it: I wouldn’t like to have been one of those actors who hit stardom quite early on and expected it to continue and was stuck doing scripts that I didn’t particularly like just to keep the income up. I’ve always wanted to get better as an actor. And I have got better. You’ve only got to see my early work to see that.”
He continues: “As for a fruity voice? Well, it may be a voice that is trained like an opera singer’s voice: to fill a large space. It is unnatural. Actors have to be heard and their voice may therefore develop a sonorous quality that they can’t quite get rid of, so you think actors are as pompous as their voice is large. I suppose Damian was thinking of that a little bit, too.” A pause. “To be allowed for the first time in your later career to play leading parts in extremely popular movies is not a situation to worry about. No one needs to feel sorry for me. Or Mike Gambon, or” – a divinely waspish tone here – “anyone else who has fallen victim to success.”
McKellen’s career could have taken a different track, not least when he came out, in 1988, at the age of 49. He could, he says, have gone the way of Derek Jarman and others like him. “They were gay people and their message to the world was that they were gay and therefore their work would be concentrated on that message. And they can do what they want, of course. But I said that heterosexuality is such a fascinating phenomenon, I couldn’t imagine not wanting to tell stories about it.” He adds, very drily: “The Macbeths are not gay.”
Does he have sympathy for gay A-list stars who won’t come out? “Yes. Because it’s true of A-lists all over the world – A-list priests, A-list politicians. What will other people think? Will people still vote for me? Will people come and see me act? They’re warned by the people who surround them – agents and managers, who have a living to make and are worried that the actor will get pigeonholed.”
The question, he says, is, “Are they right that people would be upset? And I don’t think the audience gives a damn. I don’t give a damn. If I’m seeing a play, I’m not bothered if someone is gay. You don’t have to be straight to play Gandalf. Anyway, who says that Gandalf isn’t gay? I loved it when JK Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay.”
The actor didn’t see Jodie Foster’s coming-out speech at the Golden Globes this year, which I tell him was rather odd. McKellen says sharply, “Well this is someone who has been put into a position where she has to say something about her private life, which most people don’t have to do. It’s a terrible imposition. And she’s trying to be honest. Actors are expected to talk about themselves. I suppose she’d spent a lot of time lying about herself, or ignoring things about herself. I have a lot of sympathy.”
It is not, he says, as if we live in a post-homophobic world. “Imagine trying to be a gay actor, a gay anything in modern Russia? Where to be positively oneself, to be affectionate in public with someone you love of the same gender, or to talk of that love in the hearing of anyone under 18, will put you prison? That’s why I can’t go to Russia. I’ve been advised by the Foreign Office. They couldn’t protect me from those laws. Two and a half hours from London! In the land of Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev, Rudolf Nureyev – gay artists whose sexuality informed their work.
“So, whether Jodie manages to pull it off in an artificial occasion like that – at least the speech is broadcast. She would be in prison for saying what she said in Russia at the moment.”
His blue eyes flash; McKellen at his magisterial best.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in cinemas nationwide