“There’s an energy that comes with being away from home,” explains McKellen in a recent interview, sounding more like a supplementary extra who’s seen too many backstage movies than a seasoned 53-year-old veteran of regional repertory, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, the West End and Broadway. “The company gets to know each other so much better than we could ever do in London – sharing late nights, going out to eat together, falling in love with each other – which is the essence of what a theatre company should be. The trust you have in each other is unforced.”
A villain made to order
The trust you have in journalists is understandably less so, but McKellen is nothing if not game. No question – and he’s surely heard them all by now – puts a dent in his civility, his slightly shopworn graciousness. Padding around his suite at New York’s Waldorf Hotel in stocking feet and shirtsleeves, McKellen answers on the fly – not out of nervous energy, but a kind of absent-mindedness – while periodically checking the view through the slats of the Venetian blinds or balancing one crystal ashtray atop another, touching down from time to time to draw a conclusion with kindly, level-gazed, this-point-is-just-for-you attentiveness.
He’s careful to explain, for instance, that doing Richard III wasn’t his idea. “Richard Eyre and I decided to do two plays and I was left alone to determine what they should be. I’d just seen Deborah Warner’s production of Titus Andronicus and I was keen to work with her. But the only thing she really wanted to do was work again with Brian Cox – who played Titus – and do King Lear. So there I was, an actor doing a job he doesn’t normally do – producing – having invited a director who immediately says she wants another actor to play the leading part in the only thing she wants to do. I think a lot of people at the National were laughing up their sleeves at how badly I’d mismanaged the situation. It was all perfectly amicable to me, but Richard Eyre did call me into his office and say, |You’ve got to find yourself a leading part.’ You can tell what sort of producer I am; I just want people to be happy.”
Eventually, Richard III was selected because of its ability to be cross-cast with Lear (which has since been dropped from the tour) and – not incidentally – because it contained “a whacking good leading part for Ian McKellen.”
The role of Shakespeare’s delectable actor-villain would seem perfectly suited to this performer’s particular gifts: McKellen’s stage presence is forever poised, it seems to me, between shameless (but thrilling) exhibitionism and the possibility of greatness. Yet his Richard (which I saw when it first opened at the National) is a surprise: not the strutting vainglorious schemer I expected, but an icily poised and far more dangerous political careerist. “Richard had just directed Tumbledown, a film about the Falklands war,” McKellen recalls, “so when I said I thought Richard was a play about a soldier, something clicked. From that day on we never thought of it as anything other than a modern story. We began taking him very, very seriously, and to put him a little bit nearer our own time.”
These parts are up for grabs
Was he daunted by memories of Anthony Sher’s dazzling 1984 Richard III, hailed by many as the first significant challenge to Olivier’s claim on the role? “I thought his performance was wonderfully extraordinary and slightly at odds with the text,” comments McKellen with a characteristic mix of hyperbole and tact. “It wasn’t the Richard that I wanted to play, so it wasn’t a great block for me. I don’t think these parts belong to anybody. They’re up for grabs all the time.”
Though McKellen is now himself regarded as the pre-eminent classical actor of his generation in England, he winces at the appellation. “I hate to be thought of as that person who does old plays,” he sighs. “But to apologize for myself – it’s just easier to do a good play than a bad play. By and large, most modern plays are not very good. I mean, why should they be? Most Elizabethan plays were not very good. I do now regret that I’m not in touch with modern dramatists, but I don’t see the giant writer I ought to be working with. David Hare recently wrote me a part, but I couldn’t do it because of other commitments. I’d love to do David Mamet’s plays – I admire them enormously – but I’m not temperamentally suited and I’m not competent enough to enter the American psyche or sound American, so I’m cut off from that. The trouble is, having done Shakespeare, everything else is less rewarding.”
When the Richard tour is finished, McKellen plans a temporary hiatus from the stage in order to pursue film and television work. And after that, he muses, he may well venture into non-classical territory.
Whatever else the next couple of years may mean professionally for McKellen, they will undoubtedly be marked by his continued activism in support of gay causes, a subject the actor tackles with obvious zest. Since coming out in 1988, McKellen has consistently pushed for greater public awareness of gay issues, and his recent knighthood (though a cause of some controversy within the British gay community) has only heightened his already high-profile homosexuality. “I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever,” he declares. “Coming out was the most important thing I’ve ever done,” the mantra continues, “the most rewarding, the most fulfilling, and it absolutely changed my life for the better.
“Why is there no one in American show business who is doing something similar? I know from my experience it can have an enormous effect. I was 49 when I came out so I can’t lecture anybody else on what they should do, and I’m not a fan of outing. But in a country where you have gay doctor organizations, gay nurses, gay teachers, gay congressmen, gay policemen, gay lumberjacks for all I know – there aren’t any gay actors? Well, yes, a few, but nobody the public knows about. And that’s a shame. And yet in England, there’s Simon Callow, Michael Cashman, Alec McCowen, Tony Sher, the comedian Stephen Fry, directors like Tim Luscombe and Sean Mathias, producers like Cameron Mackintosh -” Only men? “Women have said to me, look, it’s bad enough being a woman, don’t ask me to be lesbian on top of it.”
Where the American theatre does distinguish itself on the question of gay awareness, McKellen believes (and now he’s ticking off more names: Martin Sherman, Harvey Fierstein, Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner), is in the emergence of noteworthy gay playwrights. “The public witness of those writers can’t be matched by any English writers. I mean, Noel Coward? Terence Rattigan? Peter Gill? They touch on gay issues, but they don’t acknowledge that they’re gay themselves. It’s an interesting cultural difference, and worthy of an essay by somebody, isn’t it?” That barnstorming glint again.