Interview with Sir Ian McKellan

Twenty years ago, The Southbank Show produced an hour-long documentary on Ian McKellen. Their camera crew followed him around for a year documenting his life. At that stage, the actor was not ‘out’ and his career in film took a back seat to his commitment to theatre. Three years later, McKellen famously came out during a radio debate on Section 28. Rabid right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne kept referring to gay people as “them” until McKellen could finally take it no more and said “I am one of ‘them’”.

Today, McKellen is not only one of the biggest international stars through leading roles in Lord of the Rings and The X-Men, he is also an energetic campaigner for lesbian and gay rights. The Southbank Show has produced a follow-up documentary in which the actor is now able to be far more candid about his life as a gay man. Gay Times met the thespian knight for coffee and a chat at the GMTV studios where he was holding court to promote the new documentary.

Gay Times produced a pile of DVDs starring the great “Serena” and settled down to chat about film and queer politics.

Sir Ian points out on the X2 DVD that the story resonates strongly with all marginalized groups, including lesbians and gays, especially in the second film where a young mutant has to come out to his family and his mother asks “Have you ever tried… not being a mutant?”.

But what is more interesting is the way the film contrasts the two responses oppressed groups have to oppression. The difference between Professor X and Magneto – played by McKellen – is almost a metaphor for Stonewall and OutRage!.

“So I’ve played Peter Tatchell!” chuckles McKellen, “well there you are. It seems in all civil rights movements it’s likely there’ll be those two basic approaches. In terms of the black experience in America, it can be characterised in terms of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and certainly that division in the approach to social change was very much in the minds of the people who wrote the original comics.”

“It’s difficult looking at Superman or Spider-Man, or the Amazing Hulk – or whatever it’s called – to see quite what it’s all about, but the people at Marvel told me that X-Men was their favourite title because it isn’t just a story, it isn’t just fantasy, it has a social purpose to it,” he says, “When Bryan Singer introduced it to me to it he said that we were going to make a fantasy story which would be relevant to gay people. He’s gay and by the time we did the second one the writers where themselves gay. Of course that’s only part of the story but it’s what appeals to me and had it been a straight fantasy I would have been much less keen to do it.”

Stonewall and OutRage!, even though they’ve had some public disagreements, are complementary, he says, both believing that gays should be treated equally by the law. But of course OutRage! has thrown it’s weight behind the Coalition for Marriage Equality while Stonewall is supporting the government’s Civil Partnership proposals – even though they create, Apartheid-style, one law for straights and another for gays.

“My sympathies are with the Coalition” says McKellan, “and it’s a point I’ve made to Stonewall, but they’ve come back and said ‘look this is what’s on offer, this is achievable and it’s supported by all parties’ – and they don’t have to get embroiled in the ‘should gays be allowed to marry’ argument. I think it is basically unsatisfactory because it does separate gay people out, but we have to be pragmatic. There’s a generation now that would like to take advantage of these partnership laws and when that’s achieved the fight can go on. In a few years, when people are used to the idea of legally recognized same-sex couples, the idea that those couples should be allowed to get married will be much less frightening.”

These days, there are loads of straight actors queuing up to play “gay”. But this wasn’t always the case. In the film ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, which McKellen starred in 1993, Will Smith refused to kiss another man on-screen, such was the fear of being thought of as gay.

“Which is why at the premiere when we met in front of all the cameras I gave him a big kiss on the lips,” recalls Sir Ian with a sly smile, “He said his fans would be ‘grossed out’ by the sight of him kissing another man. He was very young and uncertain of himself as a national figure at that time and maybe these days he would have changed his mind.”

In Hollywood, the irony is that so many of the agents, writers, directors, stylists and other movie-industry players are gay, but even they are advising their clients to stay in the closet. The argument is always that “the public won’t accept you playing heterosexual romantic leads if you’re thought to be gay”.

“But,” says McKellan, “this argument is belied by the experience of theatre actors in New York who are constantly picking up Tony Awards and thanking their boyfriends. When these actors appear in films, it’s perfectly alright.”

Of course, this may explain why so many British actors are openly gay. In the UK there isn’t such a clear division between stage actors and film actors.

Nevertheless, Rupert Everett has been complaining lately that he’s been typecast as the “gay best friend” and will never be offered roles like James Bond.

“I’d say to Rupert,” says McKellen, “if people don’t want you to play the part, dear, you’re not going to play it. Play something else. Life’s not going to end because you’re not playing James Bond. Maybe Hugh Grant asks ‘Why do people think I’m a silly arse? I want to play James Bond.’ I’d say to young actors: ‘get out of the closet and see what life has to offer. If Hollywood is telling you to stay in the closet, you’re in the wrong job. Why would you want to work with these people? Work in theatre, or become a writer or director – what’s so special about being a romantic lead? Besides, how many are there at any one time? Four? Five?”

Kevin Spacy – he of the famous ‘I tripped over my dog in the park at 4am’ Tabloid revelations – has argued that the less people know about his private life, the more believable he is in a variety of roles. McKellen doesn’t think much of this argument. “I have never heard a heterosexual actor say that, have you?” he asks.

Gay Times has to admit that we haven’t.

Still, even openly gay actors are not immune to the slings and arrows of the Tabloid press. Last year the Daily Mail reported that McKellen “infuriated” Orlando Bloom when he said that he’d turned up at the British Independent Film Awards “hoping for a snog” from Bloom. The Mail alleged that the “furious’” Bloom retorted “I’m not gay, I’ve got a girlfriend”.

“Get a life!” exclaims McKellen, “I think sometimes that I should stop being a gay-activist and become an age-activist. I’m 65 now, am I not allowed to kiss a friend in public because he’s 40 years younger than me? What’s going on? ”

Even so, many conservative gay people criticise films like “Gods and Monsters’ for presenting an unsympathetic portrayal of older gay people, showing them to be “predators” much in line with the homophobic drivel spouted by the Mail.

“I wouldn’t want to present an idealised version of what a gay person could or should be – because I’m not a preacher,” he exclaims, laughing. “, I delve into people’s psyches and reveal them for discussion – approval or disapproval. It’s a grown up story for a grown-up audience. The world is a great deal more interesting than moralists would have us believe. But I think that argument that we should only present “perfect” gay people in our stories in order to persuade the rest of the world that gay people are ‘alright’… oh come on!”

McKellen taps emphatically on the DVD box of Bent, the film based on the stories of gay men who went to the concentration camps, and a film – which it must be said – contributed very positively to highlighting the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany and restoring their stories to history. McKellen, of course, was the first person to play the lead role in the original stage play.

“Max couldn’t be a worse example of what it is to be a gay man: he’s deeply in the closet, he betrays his lover to save his own skin. The climax of the story is when he comes out, puts on the pink star and stops lying about himself. There is a wonderful hero in the film – the “good” gay man – the activist, the one who was proud to be in prison and there are many other gays in it as well like the closeted uncle that I play, the bisexual cross-dressing queen, the pretty boy, the gays who like getting dressed up in leather… there’s the wonderful gay orgy, the party at the beginning – the whole spectrum of gay life is put on display… so another ‘grown up’ story”.

But even Gay Times has a complaint. One of the “easter eggs” (those craftily hidden extra clips on DVDs) on ‘Lord of the Rings’ shows a clip made specially for the MTV Awards in which Gollum launches into a tirade about his CGI rival – Dobby – from the Harry Potter movies, and calls him “a fucking fag”. Gay Times is horrified that this sort of casual homophobia is popularised on the music channel.

McKellan ponders this point for a few seconds and says “I think what Andy Sirkis – who is a thorough-going gay-friendly straight man – would say in his own defence is that that’s what dreadful Gollum would say. Gollum hates the world and hates himself. But, of course, he wouldn’t have said “you fucking nigger” would he!”

“We should probably have a British version of GLAAD (The American group who monitor media homophobia). We need to be reminded even liberal people that old attitudes die hard”.

So, does Sir Ian’s latest film, – ‘Emile’ – have a “gay angle”?

“No,” says McKellen,” but there’s a lot of brotherly love… and there are some attractive young men in it. It’s a very gentle story about someone of my age coming to terms with his own neglect of his family and going back to his roots and discovering in his retirement that his family perhaps is going to be a bit more important than he’s allowed it to be in the past, which sort of mirrors a bit of my own experience of late.”

Gay Times fully expects to catch up with Sir Ian’s more recent experiences when The Southbank Show airs.

From Gay Times, UK, June 2004

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