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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Ian McKellen on Shakespeare and sexuality

Ian McKellen on Shakespeare and sexuality

On the bard's longevity, playing Prospero in an app, coming out on radio, and staying private

Ian McKellen in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/MintPremium
Ian McKellen in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint

He’s played a mutant, a wizard, the world’s most famous detective, and a former Nazi, and most of the star Shakespeare parts. Sir Ian McKellen might be best known as Gandalf or Magneto, but his reputation has been built on decades of stellar stage work and beautifully judged turns in films like And The Band Played On and Gods And Monsters. At 77, McKellen is as busy as ever, with a film (Mr Holmes), a TV movie (The Dresser) and the second season of his sitcom, Vicious, all releasing last year. He was in Mumbai earlier this week to promote the British Film Institute’s (BFI’s) and the British Council’s Shakespeare On Film series and to inaugurate the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image, or MAMI, Film Club and the seventh edition of the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival. He spoke to us about Shakespeare, his coming out on radio, and why he refuses to write a memoir. Edited excerpts:

Were there any Shakespeare films you didn’t know about, and saw as a result of BFI’s programme and were impressed with?

I haven’t seen all of Shakespeare—I haven’t even seen the list of BFI Shakespeare films —but the answer is yes. I hadn’t seen the (Vishal) Bhardwaj films. I like those sorts of adaptations. They are a reaction to Shakespeare. That seems appropriate because Shakespeare wrote his stories to be acted, in the presence of the audience. And I like those films of Shakespeare that take advantage of the difference between theatre and cinema. Although, I must say, I have a preference for theatre rather than cinema when it comes to Shakespeare.

(Robin Baker, head curator for the BFI’s National Archive, mentions the institute’s Silent Shakespeare collection, and McKellen expands on that.) In the 19th century, when there were big companies doing regular Shakespeare in London, their tours would go to America regularly, there was a taste for very elaborate scenery, which isn’t necessary—Shakespeare is all in the words. But, nevertheless, on the stage, there were these attempts at naturalistic scenery. Well, when cinema was invented, that concept could take off—at last we are free from those constraints of theatre and we can have open air, space. So there’s a link between the early films where the actors are seen in en plein air, as the French would say, out in the open, and the most recent film of Shakespeare, Macbeth, with Michael Fassbender.

Video edited by B Good Picture Company Ltd

The Tempest app (part of Heuristic Shakespeare, the first in a collection of apps on Shakespeare’s plays, in which multiple actors read out the different parts—McKellen reads out Prospero’s) looks fascinating. Was it always the intention to have the actors read the text directly to the viewer?

Once we said to ourselves, we’re going to have the text and we’re going to have the actors, then you have to decide, are the actors acting or are they just speaking? And we thought: They will speak. So we wear ordinary clothes, don’t look at each other, talk directly to the audience. It’s not an attempt to interpret the play or even present it as a production. It’s not TV, it’s not a video, it’s not a film—it’s just the words.

The aim is to help someone with the words and to expect a child in a classroom to understand the relation between the words on the page and the production—it can scarcely be done. In an ideal world, no one would study Shakespeare, they would all go see it, whether on stage or film or radio. So the app is an aid.

If this app is a success—these things cost money, although we’re not trying to make a lot of money out of it—then we will do more plays. We will probably start up again in the new year and come up with as many as 20.

Ian Mckellen as Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings
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Ian Mckellen as Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings

How did it change things for you after you came out on a BBC radio show in 1988?

Well, coming out is a journey. So what you do is say, “Right, I’m going on this journey." That begins with you coming out to yourself, and when you have done that—crucially—you go to your best friend or your brother or sister, mother or father. And having done that, it becomes easy to be open to everybody. Now, I was a long way down that journey (in 1988). All my friends knew I was gay; I lived openly with other men. But I had not told my blood family—my stepmother and my sister. And I had not completed that bit of journey that people in the public eye have to do, which is to be open to strangers in the media—big things to do.

So that’s what I did, that was my coming out. Except, it’s not over. Every time I go into a cab in London, the driver says, “Have you got any grandchildren?" and I think, “Oh God, am I going to come out again?" This happened to me the other day. So I said no, I don’t have any grandchildren, because I have never been able to get married, because I’m gay. “Oh," he said, “so am I." That’s how the world has changed, don’t make any assumptions.

Did my life change? Totally, and for the better. Not having talked to my 80-year-old stepmother about being gay was a lie that was dividing our relationship and (after that) we became much closer. There is no more helpful advance for gay rights in India as elsewhere other than people feeling free to come out, because it reassures the world outside that there is nothing frightening.

Yes, except Section 28 was a new law. We watched our government pass a very repressive law which said that you may not talk to children about homosexuality. But you have to explain the world to children. And today, in English schools, children are unfazed. They accept diversity, they enjoy it. It makes their life better whether they are gay, or straight, or transgender.

One of your most moving performances is as James Whale, director of ‘Frankenstein’, in ‘Gods And Monsters’ (1998). Did your coming out a decade earlier give you some perspective on Whale, who was openly gay in the 1930s?

I could connect with James Whale because we were both born in roughly the same part of the country; we both went to London to be involved in the theatre, him as a designer initially and then a director, me as an actor. We both found our way to Hollywood; he stayed, I didn’t. We were both gay—and out—but he was openly gay in the 1930s, not with a big noise, just living his own life. And he looks a bit like my father. So I was encouraged by all that that I could impersonate him a little.

I could meet people who knew him. I met an old man, 100 years old, who had played the young man in the film Journey’s End, which was a play that Jimmy Whale directed on stage in England—with Laurence Olivier, actually—and then New York, which is what took him to Hollywood. His name was (David) Manners. He was lying on the bed when I met him and told him I was doing this film. I said, “How did you get on with Mr Whale?" He said, “I think Jimmy took a bit of a shine to me." (Laughs) So across the decades came the witness that James Whale had a roving eye.

You were given a large sum to write a memoir, but you returned the amount. How do you square out the need to keep your life private with your commitment to coming out even to strangers?

If I were to write an autobiography, I would like it to be the best book I could possibly write. That could take me the rest of my life. I’m not a writer—it’s painful and difficult. I could not get any publisher to tell me who this book was for. A good friend, who is a novelist, said: “You’re writing it for your dead mother. Tell her what’s been going on in your life." Yeah, but my dead mother knows things about me that the world outside doesn’t know. When I mention the Royal Shakespeare Company, will I have to explain who Shakespeare is, what royal means, where Stratford-upon-Avon is? So all these difficulties pressed in on me, and I decided I was not going to write it.

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Published: 26 May 2016, 06:51 PM IST
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