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Ian McKellen, 78, is considered one of the greatest living Shakespearean performers. And while that description may box in other actors, he has also starred in not one but two franchise mega-hits: as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series and as Magneto in the X-Men films.
It’s a dichotomy that would make for any best-selling celebrity memoir. Yet after McKellen declared he would not be writing his own life story, he settled for the next best thing, by allowing a young British filmmaker to tell it on screen.
In the new documentary, McKellen: Playing the Part, director Joe Stephenson, 28, dives deep into the Academy Award-nominated actor’s life, from his beginnings as a stage actor to carrying the weight of playing characters in billion-dollar franchises. Stephenson sets up his camera and lets McKellen do the talking, pulling out interesting tales from a long career.
In addition to McKellen’s acting success, Stephenson explores his work as a gay rights activist. McKellen, who came out in 1988 at age 49, did so as a political act to fight Britain’s Section 28, which forbade authorities from “promoting homosexuality.” He was a co-founder of the U.K.’s gay rights lobby group Stonewall and continues to fight for gay rights around the world.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with McKellen about why he decided to tell his story on film, the issues that are most important to him, how he views his influence over the years, his gay rights activism and Kevin Spacey’s coming out.
How did this documentary come about?
I saw Joe Stephenson’s first feature film, Chicken, which is still going around the festivals and doing very well. He’s a young filmmaker with not much experience; I just thought he was absolutely stunning at telling stories. And he suggested would I like to sit in a chair while he recorded me for two days? I can’t think of anything I’d less like to do than just talk about myself. He convinced me that he would turn it into an interesting film. And so he’s done. His second film is quite different than the first, and I’m very pleased to have been part of it.
Would you say we see the real Ian McKellen in this film?
You do, yes, you do…under artificial circumstances, which is with a camera pointing at him, and 20 people behind the camera, and Joe pumping me with questions. It’s not a natural, authentic situation, but given that situation, I’m at least in my own chair wearing my own clothes speaking in my own voice in my own home. So it’s likely I’m a bit closer to how I am off-duty than might otherwise have been the case.
Do you ever miss playing your big franchise roles, Gandalf and Magneto?
No, I don’t really. I made six films in Middle Earth. It was a big part of my life while it was happening, and it remains a big part still because so many people have seen the films and go on seeing them and introduce their children to them. So it’s an ongoing process. With the first X-Men movies, I’d like nothing better for them to write me back into X-Men, but I think Michael Fassbender needs the work. (Laughs)
You spent a long time fighting Section 28 in England. What issue would you say needs the most attention today?
Well, so many aren’t there really. I visit schools a lot in the United Kingdom and try and encourage kids to be nice to each other and not bully anyone on any grounds whatsoever. But it is illegal now in the United Kingdom to discriminate in any school on grounds of sexuality, so all the schools are having to make sure that they don’t discriminate against gay students or gay parents of students, gay members of staff, gay employees — it just won’t do any longer, it’s old-fashioned, it’s the past. But old attitudes and prejudices die hard, so we have to go on talking about it, particularly to young people, who learn bad habits sometimes from their elders.
And then when I go outside the U.K., particularly to Africa but other places too, those laws, which ironically the British Empire left behind, disadvantage gay people and others, in India, for example. So I do quite a bit of journeying and saying sorry, sorry we left those laws behind, and please get rid of them, because there are a lot of gay men and women in India and China, where I’ve been recently, and Russia, where the laws are particularly bad. In fact, the Section 28 that we fought off in this country is now the law of the land in Russia, and gay people are really disadvantaged by the law and by old attitudes. There is a lot of work still to be done across the world. And that doesn’t include transgender problems, so, it goes on.
Do you feel like you paved the way for other gay actors to come out?
I don’t know, that’s too big to judge. I was one of the first actors, that’s true, to come out. But I took comfort and courage in the fact that there were other actors, including Simon Callow, the English actor who is writing the biography of Orson Welles, he was out younger than me and before I was, and I took great comfort from that.
So an interdependence is what you discover, and I wouldn’t put myself above anybody else in the hierarchy of activism; you do what you can. If you are in the public eye, of course it gets noticed. But it’s the brave person who goes into the factory or the school one day where they work and says, “I’m gay” — because they are dealing with it on their own. I never felt like I was doing that. I felt I was supported by a lot of friends and fans.
You said when you came out it really made you a better actor, a more honest actor. What are your thoughts on Kevin Spacey coming out now, and how he handled that?
I think any gay person who does come out will tell you that is the best thing that they have ever done in their life, because they stop lying. They tell the truth about themselves. They become altogether a more attractive person, a more confident person. Everything in your life improves, including, in my case, my acting.
Of course it had improved, because I was now a confident person and I was not hiding anything. I was able to use my work to tell the truth about human nature rather than using it to disguise it. It is not easy to come out for some people. Everyone’s worried that they’ll lose their jobs. Actors think, oh, I won’t get jobs anymore. None of it’s true. My career as a film actor took off very shortly after I was honest and came out. So that’s my message to other actors who are having a problem: don’t.
Do you want to be most remembered by your political activism or your artistic work?
I do a lot of theater, and theater is just for now, it’s just for today. Tonight, you know, it’s over, it’s finished, it’s not recorded. Now, cinema is quite different; film is eternal as you are. But I do notice, don’t you, that when you look at old films, the actors may look young but their acting is rather old-fashioned. In other words, there are fashions in acting, and with very few exceptions one’s work actually looks worse and worse as the years go by.
But I’m very proud of my small contributions to changing the law in this country and changing attitudes, all for the better, and I suppose in the scheme of things that is more important and the more merit and longer-lasting than any acting that I have done. But that is more for other people to judge, isn’t it?
Was there one story over the years that particularly affected you, where you influenced someone’s life?
I would say that half of the letters I get or half of the meetings with strangers I get will mention gay activism and say thank you for it. But also people are very sweet to say thank you for the performance. We are very lucky to get these responses. And that’s why I don’t want to sound too cheerless when I am invited to talk about myself, because I know when I do, some people get some comfort from it and some feel a bit better about themselves. That’s been the wonderful thing about coming out. I feel I’ve joined the human race, and people are happy to talk to me about it.
What do you hope fans will get out of this documentary, something they didn’t know about you before watching it?
I don’t really know. I think they’ll get a sense of a true story, one that means a lot to me and that Joe has managed to tease out of me. I don’t think there is actually a new set of revelations, you know, but it’s all concise and it’s beautifully done. And there are a few shots of actors playing parts in my life, and very touchingly for me is that they are all played by my friends. I didn’t know they were going to do it. It won’t have much impact on anyone else watching the film, but for me to see ex-lovers coming up and helping tell my story, or actors I’ve worked with, or good friends, that is a very lovely part of its appeal for me.