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Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, who co-star as an elderly gay couple in London on the PBS sitcom Vicious, are two of the grand marshals for New York City’s Pride parade on Sunday.
“We’re told it may rain — don’t you rain on my parade!” McKellen told The Hollywood Reporter of the appointment. “It’s a thrilling occasion, just to be with so many of your own kind in a celebratory way. And of course, there will be one or two people, whatever age or gender, watching the march, thinking, ‘I like this,’ and changing their lives for the better.”
The following is THR’s edited conversation with the two actors, both gay and 76 years old, about the Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage, aging in Hollywood and flexing new professional muscles by starring on a sitcom: “You’re there as a joke machine.”
Your grand marshal appointment of the Pride parade is just around the corner from the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Derek Jacobi: I’m in a 38-year relationship with my civil partner, but I want to, someday soon, to get married. It’s such an advance, I think it’s extraordinary that we’ve come this far.
Ian McKellen: The thing about the Supreme Court is that it doesn’t lead the way; it actually confirms what’s already been happening. And we’ve lived through a time in our country where it was illegal to be gay or have sex with somebody you loved, it condemned you as a criminal. The advances are huge.
But you can’t have had that law in the statute books well within our lifetime and not leave behind a lot of people who think the old law was the right thing. They’ve got to grow up. They’ve got to learn, and that process of telling people the truth must continue, even here, let alone in Russia and other places. It’s exciting because when you say gay people should get married if they want to, you know you’re right. There’s no argument about it.
What have you loved most about audiences’ reactions to Vicious?
Jacobi: I think the older generation in entertainment, generally, gay or straight, is coming into its own. We’ve seem to have gotten over the young and pretty. We’re now finding interest and romance and excitement in older people getting it together. They bring an experience and a texture to the performance that I think the young, talented and pretty don’t always deliver.
McKellen: I’m currently in a film called Mr. Holmes in which I’m playing Sherlock Holmes at 93 years old. Why would anybody want to watch a 93-year-old unless they were old themselves? Well, I’ve always liked Shakespeare’s play King Lear, much more interesting than Romeo and Juliet, where everyone’s a teenager. Old people can be wonderfully interesting, and age is only part of what makes them interesting. We would say that, because we’re old!
Jacobi: The experiences we’ve had, as people and performers, if we are still acting, we do bring to what we do a depth that we didn’t possess when we were young actors.
McKellen: We’re better at it. Thank God we’re not belly dancers still pretending we can dance like we used to be able to. We’re not poor singers who’ve lost their voices and have to speak the words now. What we do is what we’ve been doing all our lives, but better.
Jacobi: It’s mainly in the movies, to try to stay looking young, very bodily conscious and facially conscious. You think of actresses of a certain age who contend to still look as they looked when they were younger, and they erase from their faces all the things that make them interesting so it doesn’t move or express. It’s beautiful to look at, but where does it go? What does it say?
McKellen: I think Botox should be banned by the actors’ union. If your face is full of Botox, you can’t act.
What are the best and worst parts of starring in a sitcom?
Jacobi: What I find difficult is the speed of it all. The three-day hustle, technical day, and then you do it, and then you start all over again. It’s quick, and you’ve got to keep several balls in the air. And we have a very hard taskmaster, Gary Janetti, who has an ear for a gag, and if we’re not doing it absolutely rhythmically as he hears it, he lets us know, and usually, he’s right. He’s not backward in coming forward in telling us.
McKellen: What I like about it is you can be in a wonderful classic or new play onstage, and the most you’ll see in a night is a thousand people. It’s exciting, especially in this town. You can be in a blockbuster movie or an independent, the audience is nowhere to be seen. What I rather like about this is we go into a working TV studio, and suddenly, we’re involved, we’re allowed to be in this world that reaches out to millions of people we’ll never meet, in countries we might never go to, and it’s all going to happen tonight!
And in theater, you can never see your performance. In film, the performance is put together by the editor long after you’ve left the movie. Television, if you play your cards right, you can nip around and watch the whole thing played back to you after you’ve just done it.
Jacobi: It’s less frightening than the theater, because you’ve got so many safety nets.
McKellen: I’ve learned a bit about acting. We’re acting as broad as ever, and chasing the laughs!
Jacobi: We’ve got five cameras and 300 people, and we’ve got to make it worth for both. And one of the problems — and Ian was very vocal in voicing this — is that as actors not used to the sitcom, of gags, gags, gags, is the depth, the backstory, the reality, all those things actors ask about, to an extent, in this particular genre, you don’t ask. And if you ask, it’s rather facile. You’re there as a joke machine.
McKellen: But I think one of the reasons we keep working is because we’re not yet convinced we’ve reached our peak. There’s more work to do.
Jacobi: I think it’s important that actors stay young at heart and keep our foot in the cradle at all times. We don’t actually ever leave childhood behind entirely.
McKellen: I’m not so sure about the cradle. Maybe the nursery.
Jacobi: Do you have a nurse?
McKellen: No, I don’t!
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