Times Magazine – March 31 2007
– Ginny Dougary

The role of snowy-bearded Gandalf in Lord of the Rings reinvigorated Sir Ian McKellen’s career and afforded him national treasure status. Now he’s taking on the father of all grumpy old men – King Lear. Ginny Dougary meets him on a break from rehearsals

Sir Ian McKellen is in his underpants, which is surprising in all sorts of ways. Since the room is not very large, one can’t help clocking his various attributes – shapely blemish-free legs, a manly chest, sinewy arms. If there is a message implicit in his invitation to witness this costume-fitting for King Lear, the father of old-men roles, it is this: I may be playing the part of a man “crawling unburdened towards death” but wouldn’t you say I was in good nick? To which the answer – particularly since McKellen is pushing 70 himself – has to be a resounding “yes”.

He is relaxed, good-humoured, almost playful – helping himself to bites of the wardrobe-ladies’ custard tarts, like a favoured child secure in the knowledge that his naughtiness will be indulged. “I want lots of medals,” he pronounces. (In this forthcoming year-long Royal Shakespeare Company world tour, McKellen will also be playing another eccentric old man, fighting against fading, Sorin in The Seagull.) He’s thinking of bringing in one of his own, which worries the costume chief, a former master tailor – “You don’t want to do that, do you?” “Why not? It would amuse me,” McKellen says. “It’s only a knighthood – or perhaps I’ll bring the CBE, which is a much more beautiful shape.”

This McKellen could not be more different from the one I met 18 years ago. That interview took place not long after he had come out on Radio 3, two years before the knighthood, and not much seemed to amuse him then. He was prickily defensive, refusing even to look me in the eye, and negative about almost everything. The overwhelming sense he projected was that he had been left on the shelf, personally as well as professionally. What made him really sore – forget the scores of awards and his undisputed mantle as the leading classical actor of his generation – was that he was not recognised in the street, unlike his theatrical confreres the late Alan Bates and Anthony Hopkins, who had made the breakthrough into Hollywood. “It’s a slight mystery as to why bigger film roles haven’t come my way,” he said plaintively, “but now I’ve been left behind.”

Everything has changed in the intervening decades, and it doesn’t seem too preposterous to suggest that McKellen owes his newfound sunniness to another quirky old man, the snowy-bearded wizard Gandalf.

We bump into one another unexpectedly before the interview in a café close to the RSC rehearsal space. It’s an interesting look that he’s put together: Seventies dude, pimp from Shaft, meets Berkeley ageing hipster: tousled hair, spectacles, a long leather jacket (charity shop or possibly some very expensive designer), blue polo-neck (he’s sufficiently self-conscious about what he refers to as “the nastiness” under his chin to have considered and rejected undergoing the knife – “I’d be too scared”), a medallion of some sort of green stone, artfully faded jeans with a brown velvet stripe on the outer legs.

Later, I ask if he’s vain and he repeats back, “Vain? I dare say. What do you mean, vain?” When I comment on how stylishly he’s dressed, for example, he says: “Oh, I see. Heh heh heh. Thank you. Well, I’m all done up for a photograph.” The trousers, he says, are by John Varvatos, “A very nice designer for middle-aged men… or old men. I mean, do you think of me as an old person? I don’t mind you saying ‘yes’.”

He is all smiles and benevolent chuckles, endlessly amused and upbeat. I wonder, perhaps, whether he is in love, so rose-tinted is his view of the world, but he says the only man he has time for at the moment is King Lear. What I think is that he may be in love with life itself now that he is at last an international household name, and all questions seem to lead back to Lord of the Rings. Is it strangely neutering becoming a national treasure, the people’s favourite gay and all that?

“Hmmm. Heh heh heh. I’m going to take that as a compliment. However, when strangers come up to me they don’t, on the whole, talk about gay issues – although some do. But usually it’s “Oh, you played Gandalf” or “You played Magneto.” (In another Hollywood blockbuster, the celluloid adaptation of the X-Men comics.) To which he can also add, presumably, his Sir Leigh Teabing in the Da Vinci Code.

“But national treasure? I’m not sure. I think most people treasure me for being Gandalf… You know, what I like most about being famous is that after a lifetime of going into a room and almost sweating and wondering how long I can stand it and not enjoying parties – now if I go into a room with strangers, actually I’m not a stranger any more. It’s a point of reference which means you don’t have to talk about the weather and you can very quickly get off talking about yourself. It breaks the ice and that what I like most about it.

“And it’s nice being said hello to in the street as well, because if you lived in a village you’d be saying hello to all day long, wouldn’t you? But that doesn’t happen in London, so it’s very, very nice to feel I’m in a community.”

Has he become grand, post-knighthood and mega-fame, I was wondering, but after traipsing through the grotty rubbish-strewn alleyways of Clapham High Street, dismal stairwells and up and up and up into a most unstarry room for our interview, the question seemed redundant. Working with the RSC is clearly a levelling antidote to the pampering excesses of Hollywood. Not that McKellen is in all that much danger of being seduced by the latter.

His partner for ten years, from 1978 to 1988, was the actor-director Sean Mathias, who got rid of McKellen’s scooter and made it a mission to get him into decent clothes and generally smarten him up. “Sean couldn’t understand why I didn’t spend money on real Champagne,” he says. Cava? Prosecco? “One of those. It was just that I don’t have a great taste for Champagne, so one fizzy white wine is much like any other to me.”

He doesn’t really know how to spend money, he says, and people who do are always saying: “Ian, you have to be more generous with yourself as well as to other people.” Do you think you’re a bit mean, then? “Well, judging by how other people live their lives, yes, I think I must be.” How interesting, I say (thinking, “That’s not very appealing.”) “Heh heh heh,” decoding “interesting” instantly. “I would say that I’m more mean to myself than to other people. I would happily pay for someone else to take a taxi in the rain but I would walk down to the Tube.” Really, he says he despairs of people who like to spend money because: “I love a bargain and I adore my free travel and free prescriptions, now that I am an old age pensioner and old, definitely old. Adore it. And I’m not the only one. It’s such a…” words almost cannot express the joy. “Oh, you cannot believe your luck that it’s all free!”

For a long time, he used to say that hardly any of his real friends were well-off. Has that changed? “Well, I’m not in George Michael’s league or Sting’s or Elton’s and I call all of them my friends or acquaintances, and I’ve seen the way they live and I’m as gobsmacked as anyone else. I’ve lived in the same house [on the Thames, in historic and now very fashionable Limehouse; Gordon Ramsay has recently opened a restaurant there] that I bought for £95,000 26 years ago and I’ve no intention of moving because I can’t imagine anywhere more appropriate for me to be. It’s perfectly possible for me to buy another house if I wanted one, but what would I want another house for?”

It bothers him in a way that he has absolutely no interest in money, “but then anyone can say that who doesn’t have a crippling mortgage or any responsibilities, and I’ve never had a family so of course you retain an awful lot of money for yourself”. The one extravagance he allows himself is to travel first class “but on this tour I don’t think we’ll be able to. We’ll all be in coach – and coach to Melbourne is no fun, is it? And then doing Lear when you get there… so I’m rather dreading that.”

McKellen’s upbringing has clearly left a residing imprint on him. He grew up in Wigan where his father was a civil engineer and both parents were committed Nonconformist Congregationalists. His grandfathers were preachers and other family members were missionaries. When I spoke to him all those years ago, he told me that the family credo was that life is not just for enjoyment’s sake and that it was important to help people and challenge received opinions. His mother died when McKellen was 12, but he was very close to his Quaker stepmother Gladys, who loved the theatre and saw every one of her stepson’s plays until she was no longer able to travel.

“My success, at least in our relationship, was scarcely referred to really,” he says, when I asked whether she was thrilled by his achievements. “She didn’t much like it if people she didn’t know frightfully well would come calling because they heard that I was around and wanted an autograph,” he says. “She didn’t approve of all that. Quakers aren’t puritanical but they are very level-headed about what’s important, and what was important was that I was acting well – not that I was famous. Do you see what I mean?”

I do, and that’s why it is slightly puzzling that someone who seems as, well, level-headed as McKellen himself hankers after Hollywood acclaim and that elusive Oscar; particularly since he despises so much of what the industry stands for. It is also strange, and a little bit sad, that all those years of bravura acting – his electric peformances on stage, from any number of Shakespearean roles to his mesmerising Bent – is clearly eclipsed for him by the high of his recent blockbuster breakthroughs. And isn’t it ironic that while all the bigtime movie stars – from Kathleen Turner to Nicole Kidman to Jessica Lange to Christian Bale… well, it’s a long list – are desperate to strut their stuff on our London boards, McKellen only really believes he’s made it when he’s a big-screen success over there.

But perhaps this is all part of the actor’s special brand of non-conformism. “Nonconformists, as opposed to puritans – and it’s an important distinction – have certain attitudes about how you live your life,” he says. “You relate to other people in a neighbourly and Christian way and you work hard, too. That’s an important ethic. But you also don’t fit in necessarily; you are critical, you don’t conform. So that is probably one the words you would have to use to describe me. So even if I’ve had a very obvious career in the British theatre and have not been rebellious, I don’t think I have conformed. I have surprised people by doing panto, for instance, or Coronation Street – which doesn’t seem at all surprising to me but it does to other people.”

Of course, he’s right when he says that you can be in two minds about things, and what could be more human than hankering after those rewards that come less easily. “It’s very rare to meet someone who says, ‘I’m in the perfect job and couldn’t be happier’,” he says. “There are always things you don’t like aboutyour work and I’ve had some wonderful times in Hollywood and made Gods and Monsters there [for which he got the first of his two Oscar nominations; the second was for Gandalf] and Apt Pupil and The Shadow. But as for the local industry and its attitudes… well, I wouldn’t like it to be my only source of intellectual nourishment.

“They do behave very oddly indeed there, and when you get caught up in that you can do it with a vigour and even an enjoyment… you know, playing the game, doing what you’re told in order to win the Oscar. But when you don’t, you do feel pretty stupid thinking, ‘I’ve wasted all my time and effort wanting something that, frankly, doesn’t matter whether I have or I don’t.’ You go through with it because that’s what people out there do.”

He’s quite funny, in an acidic way, about Jim Broadbent’s response when he won his Oscar. “The point was that he had done nothing for it – just came out and picked it up! Afterwards he said, ‘I am so sorry you didn’t win” and I said, ‘Oh yes, I’m sure,’ and he said, ‘As I was going up the steps, I said to myself, “This should have gone to Ian because he really wanted it”’, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the sort of speech that someone who has just won an Oscar can make.’”

The angry McKellen of old was known to rail against the closeted Hollywood stars, complaining that it was “disgusting” and “distasteful” but now he reserves his judgmentalism for the industry itself. He finds it baffling and beyond hypocritical that West Hollywood is so gay-friendly – one of the first places in the world where openly “out” policemen patrolled the streets – “and, yet, cheek by jowl with all that liberal attitude, you have a local industry which is saying to local people who live in the area – ‘When you come to work, you are not gay.’ And I think to myself, ‘Can people whose minds work like that make good films? And if at the heart of Hollywood there is that lie, how many other lies are there?’

“And it’s the producers who have this problem – God knows what sort of people they are – who think that it’s impossible for you and me to fancy the same person. Well, what dull lives they must have. And then to think that one’s initial reaction to the romantic lead is to want to get into bed with them – when that may not be the case at all. Why do you have to fancy the romantic lead? But these people think that’s what films are about: titillating the genitalia of the audience.”

There’s an element of fantasy in fancying anyone anyway, isn’t there? “Well, of course. Who’s going to get the chance to sleep with Brad Pitt? You’re not going to meet him. Stop it. So it doesn’t matter whether he’s gay or whatever he is.”

Gayness, as a subject, seems to bore him rather these days. He is jaded, perhaps, after the long haul of activism (he was a founder member of Stonewall UK in 1989, and two years later made a high-profile visit to No 10 to discuss gay rights with John Major), fundraising and defending himself against the likes of the late Derek Jarman who knocked him for being a “gay man in straight clothing… well, I see what he meant but should have been generous to people who have gone through problems, he had some of his own.” It’s the only time in the interview when he grumbles about going over old ground but, as I point out to him, that ground is always shifting, which calls for new responses.

It’s a subject, after all, that is currently dividing the church and the climate in America under the Bush administration does not exactly favour gay equality.

The new glass-half-full McKellen prefers to focus on the liberal states of the USA. “If you’re living in Massachusetts you’re fine; if you’re living in California, you’re fine.” But you’re probably not all that fine if you’re living in the South or in Middle America? “No,” he agrees, “you’re not fine then and you might find yourself crucified on a fence one day. [In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Wyoming, was severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. His funeral was disrupted by “God hates fags” protestors, and under the US federal law and the Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes.] But, equally, you might find yourself being murdered on Clapham Common [where Jody Dobrowski, a 24-year-old barman, was kicked and punched to death in 2005]. So these are appalling cases but they are the exceptions.”

It is surprisingly hard work to get McKellen to talk about King Lear, which is disappointing since it is my all-time- favourite Shakespeare. He says he’s struck by how many people he comes across who studied it at school (as I did), and it is odd that the play can speak to so many young readers since not many 16-year-olds are acquainted with the indignities of old age, betrayal and loss. Never has “never” sounded so inconsolably final as when Lear, cradling the body of his youngest and best-loved daughter Cordelia, repeats them those five times.

For the past seven months, the actor has been leading a monastic life, immersing himself in the play and for the past six weeks, retiring early every night, after fixing a solitary bite, to examine the text line by painstaking line. On the last occasion we met, McKellen was playing Iago (to Willard White’s Othello and Imogen Stubbs’s Desdemona), directed by his old friend and Cambridge contemporary, Trevor Nunn. This production reunites the two, and the actor says that there will be no gimmicks or peculiar settings for this Lear, other than it will have a modernish Russian look to it: “I think the merits of Trevor’s method of working is that it’s always to do with the words and it’s rather like having the play rewritten for you – no, written for the first time – as he explains it.”

He can’t talk objectively at the moment about Lear, the play, because he’s too involved in identifying with Lear, the man – and he hasn’t quite got a handle on his character yet, other than to say that he’s always talking to the Gods (aren’t they all?) “Yes, but he is a God king – an Inca – a man with total power… so you start defining him in terms of leaders and monarchs whom you know, with visual references to alert the audience to the fact that they are still around – people who have absolute power and who run countries. And Lear thinks he has a special line to…” he looks up to the skies. Ah, like George W? (McKellen famously based his Macbeth on another American president, Kennedy, although he thinks that line was slightly overstated.) “Well, there you go – or think of Mugabe.”

When I say that Lear may be a man more sinned against than sinning but he’s still a difficult bugger who would try the patience of the most forebearing child: “Well, that’s your view but I can’t think of him as a difficult bugger. I have to think of him as he says of himself – “so kind a father” – he’s thinking ‘What are they [his daughters Regan and Goneril] going on about? I’ve been so nice to them.’ I have to think about it like that.” I wonder whether he minds being on his own or prefers being in a couple. “Well, I like being with another person, yes, I do. But I don’t often go into my house and wish there was somebody waiting there. Sometimes I do.” Does he find the gay scene difficult as an older man? “If I go to a bar I feel all right. Actually, I’m welcomed there – old gays are treasured by a lot of young and middle-aged gays. No, we’re rather nice to one another I think.
Besides, there’s a tour coming up and who knows what can happen.” It was on his last protracted stint of working overseas – a year in New Zealand filming Lord of the Rings – that he met a 22-year-old young man, Nick Cuthell, who came back to live with McKellen for a year before the relationship ended.

After the costume fitting and the photographs have been taken – the only time he looks vulnerable and awkward – McKellen says that we can have lunch together so I can extend the interview, if I like – and, naturally, I do like. He suggests a fish restaurant, explaining that he’s no longer a strict vegetarian and has always eaten meat, in any case, whenever someone has gone to the trouble of cooking it for him.

There’s a funny moment when Frances Barber (Goneril) comes in with a fellow member of the cast, and after polishing off a bottle of wine thinks about ordering another glass. McKellen, overhearing this, breaks off the interview to say, “Oh, I don’t think you should, sweetheart.” “A glass of water, Ian,” Barber answers smartly. “Oh, hah hah hah hah, I do worry about Frances,” says McKellen, headboy to Barber’s naughty schoolgirl, “I’m so sorry, now were where we?” (The waitress told me later that McKellen’s a right one to talk since he and Barber often come in to have their own boozy lunches.)

We had been talking about his knighthood which he admits he accepted – quite apart from its usefulness to open doors for his gay activism – because he was flattered and “if you’re the sort of actor that I am – an Establishment actor, and the Establishment doesn’t honour you then you do feel slightly put out”. He says the Americans, in particular, are impressed by the title and love to put it on posters and the credits, only for McKellen to insist they take them down: “Sir McKellen [and, indeed, Sir Ian, which he is also called over there] is not my name. It’s the title I’ve got. You wouldn’t expect to see Mr McKellen on the poster, would you?”

Neverthless he uses it for what he calls his “Sir paper”, when he’s trying to impress someone who would be impressed by something like that: “like suggesting someone for a knighthood or if I were writing to the Prime Minister. I am very pleased to have it, I should say, and I am not careless of the honour but it is an oddity in our society and it would be better if we didn’t have titles and so on those grounds I probably should have turned it down.”

If he had, of course, we would have been robbed of the nickname Stephen Fry dubbed him – Serena. McKellen says that he doesn’t mind it (which is just as well since it has proved so enduring) but he would rather prefer it to be Serenissima.

Has he changed much as he’s got older? “I would feel a little miffed if I hadn’t, but on the whole I think I’ve got better. Grander? Well, I’d be careful not to be that, I hope. No, on the contrary, I think I’m less grand than I was when I played Richard II and Edward II [back in 1970] when I got rather – no, very grand.” Really? “Well, suddenly playing leading parts you can become a bit selfish and get your own way. Now I very very rarely make a suggestion to another actor in rehearsal, whereas in days gone by I wouldn’t have hesitated to interfere. You mustn’t take advantage of your position if possible.

“It’s difficult to be self-analytical but – er – well, you might well find people who would say that I’m terribly pompous and on the few occasions when I do see myself as myself – although under rather strange conditions, such as on a chat show – I don’t really recognise the pompous – no, not really pompous but the old stick.”

There is, in truth, something of the old stick about him – when he talks about how rarely he goes into “town” to see “the pictures”; hiring a DVD just the one time (King Kong) and finding that the image was all shaky “so that’s the end of that”, and the dangers of becoming addicted to needlepoint. “I can’t trust myself with a needle – it’s too obsessive, I’d be doing it now. It takes over your whole life.” He was taught by his late sister, “a serious needlepointer… No, I wouldn’t say we were close,” and the one he did complete (a Lowry) has ended up on the walls (“probably the outer walls”) of Paul O’Grady’s house – “it was sent to him by mistake when I was clearing things out AND I WANT IT BACK!”

But he can still be persuaded to go clubbing (as long as there is an armchair or two and you can hear yourself speak), and he was very early to catch on to the power of the internet, electing to write his autobiography, of sorts, most democratically for free on his website rather than landing a big publishing deal.

He doesn’t appear to be over-enamoured of children – describing himself as a “dreadful godfather – I have three godchildren [including one of Trevor Nunn’s] and I never see any of them.” He’s always been frightened of them, he says: “unless you know them very well, they’re very independent of you and that’s difficult to cope with. I’m alert to the wonders of having children and watching them grow up and so on but there are a lot of really, really bad parents around. Which is why I get so annoyed when they say that gay people aren’t fit to bring up children. A gay couple will have thought harder about whether they should or shouldn’t bring up a child – and from the child’s point of view – than most couples who are married, precisely because they don’t take it for granted.”

I wonder whether he has been accused of taking himself too seriously. “Oh yes, by myself and by friends.” But, as he says, it’s hard to tell himself to “lighten up, it’s only a job”, particularly when you’re going on a really big expedition. Lear can’t really be compared to Everest but it’s a bit like that, with your whole life being organised around it.”

There was a time when acting was his whole life, per se, but that’s no longer the case: “I think that what will probably happen is that I will take six months off [as he does most years] and then I will discover that I’ve had a year off, and then two years and I will think, ‘Oh, I seem to have retired.’ And the idea of never working again isn’t a horrific one; in some ways I would be rather relieved.” What would you do with yourself? “Get up later, shop properly, get some proper food. Have people round, go out, stay up too late…”

Goneril and Kent have long since gone back to rehearse. McKellen has tried and failed to fix my wonky spectacles and kindly illustrated an autograph for my younger son (so much for him being hopeless with children) by drawing a rather good quick sketch of himself in his most familiar role, a pipe unfurling the letters of my boy’s name. It’s now clearly time for him to go but I have one last question. Back in the Eighties, he had told me that his epitaph should read: “He didn’t do half as much as he would have liked to do.”

McKellen’s grimace softens into a look of genuine surprise: “Oh really? Well, I wouldn’t say that now. ‘Here lies Gandalf’, that’s what it should be – but then Gandalf doesn’t die, fortunately.”