InDepth InterView: Sir Ian McKellen

By: Nov. 01, 2010
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Today, we present a particularly thrilling InDepth InterView with this BWW WORLD EXCLUSIVE feauturing one of the finest actors of stage and screen - and, now, thanks to the Scissor Sisters NIGHT WORK album, recording studio - the foremost Shakespearean interpreter of our age and star of two of the biggest film franchises of all time - LORD OF THE RINGS and X MEN - Sir Ian McKellen! In this complete discussion, we discuss his second year hosting the ONLY MAKE BELIEVE gala to benefit hospitalized children, as well as discuss how he became involved with the Dena Hammerstein-founded charity. We also discuss his participation in Peter Jackson's forthcoming LORD OF THE RINGS prequel THE HOBBIT and his cameo in the epic music video for his Sister Sisters collaboration "Invisible Light" - plus thoughts on Shakespeare, stage, screen and monster movies and not just GODS & MONSTERS. All god, no monster, Ian McKellen is as renowned and respected as it gets. And rightfully so.

The Winner's Tale

The very best. Who can claim as much? On stage or on screen? Ian McKellen can. From Trevor Nunn's hypnotic, claustrophobic black void stage and video incarnation of MACBETH starring McKellen alongside the other best of the best of their - or any - breed, Judi Dench; to tackling another terrifying titular Shakespearean anti-hero twenty years later with Robert Downey Jr. and Annette Bening in RICHARD III for which he also composed the screenplay; to featured roles in pristine stage-to-screen transfers like John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION and Martin Sherman's BENT; to astonishing and groundbreaking television roles in Armistead Maupin's TALES OF THE CITY and Roger Spottiswoode's AND THE BAND PLAYED ON; to co-starring with unfortunately, the recently-deceased Brad Renfro in Bryan Singer's sensitive and terrifying take on the Stephen King story APT PUPIL; to continuing on with Singer to top-line the smash-hit series of X MEN films and become a household name to people of all ages all over the world in the process. There's also that other little trilogy he headlined - the most highly awarded film trilogy in Oscar history, and the most successful box office franchise of the last thirty years - Peter Jackson's revolutionary THE LORD OF THE RINGS. In the intervening years, McKellen also managed to create one of the most studied, stalwart and stunning performances in film history, making James Whale come alive before our very eyes in the positively exquisite, spell-binding fractured fairy tale of Bill Condon's GODS & MONSTERS which is based on the Christopher Bram novel. With this week's announcement of Peter Jackson talking the helm of THE HOBBIT and filming on the Middle Earth prequel to begin in February, McKellen may soon be proving that while he is part god, a part of him will always be identified with Gandalf. And with good - godly - reason, as well. It's iconic. So is he.

PC: What a thrill this is speaking to you, the greatest actor of our age.

IM: Good afternoon, Pat. Thank you very much, that's very kind.

PC: Your Shakespeare performances - particularly those on film - are unmatched. Tell me about RICHARD III from stage to screen.

IM: Well, we had done it on stage at the National Theatre in London. Then, we did a tour of the States. I said to the director, Richard Eyre, "This would make a good movie." And, he said, "Well, if it's going to be a movie, somebody's got to write the script." And, so, that's what I did.

PC: How pro-active of you!

IM: Yes, I actually finished the screenplay the day we finished, when we ended the tour in Los Angeles. I then spent the next two years setting it up.

PC: How lucky we are that you did!

IM: Yeah, it's one of the things I've done that I am most proud of.


PC: Robert Downey Jr. is excellent in it.

IM: Yes. Laughs. Yes! That, he is! Ha ha ha!

PC: APT PUPIL is another great film you did in the 90s. Was that a particularly difficult role to take on?

IM: No, it's a fantastic part! Laughs. But, yes, for an Englishman speaking in the accent of a German who lived in California for twenty-odd years, that was a bit of a challenge!

PC: I bet! But, you would never know it from your accent!

IM: That aside, though... no, I had a wonderful time. It was an amazing story. A wonderful part. Brad Renfro was great company and, actually, I'm quite glad that I worked with him. So, that set me off on a bit of a row with Bryan Singer because we then went on to do all the X MEN movies and... Pause. Yeah, that was an important film.

PC: GODS & MONSTERS, one of your great performances - and James Whale one of the greatest film figures ever.

IM: I don't suppose I should ever get something that I am more suited to play, you know...

PC: How so?

IM: We share the same nationality, the same sexuality, an interest in a career in the same field. And, I had always liked the novel, Christopher Bram's novel.

PC: A masterpiece.

IM: Yes. So, when that came up, to make that film with a group of mainly gay filmmakers - from Bill Condon, the director, through to the stage management, who were lesbians - it was a very friendly shoot. I think Brendan Frasier was the only straight man involved - but he hid it nicely! Laughs.

PC: The chemistry between you two is palpable in the film.

IM: Yes. He's wonderful.

PC: Tell me about your chemistry - and collaboration - with the Scissor Sisters. How did you become involved with them?

IM: Hmm... how did I first bump into the Scissor Sisters? Pause. Oh, yes, I think it was through Elton John. It was in London.

PC: Elton, of course!

IM: Yes, so I sort of kept in touch with Jake and on what he was doing. You know, he's writing the musical of TALES OF THE CITY with Armistead Maupin. Do you know about that?

PC: You were, of course, in the movie! I just interviewed Betty Buckley, who's playing Madrigal in the TALES in San Francisco, last week. It's gonna be great!

IM: Yes, it is. I saw them all when they were doing a TV show and I did that with them. So, I sort of know what's going on, I guess!

PC: You're totally with it! Scissor Sisters is quite cutting edge stuff!

IM: No, I don't know... I think they're rather old fashioned! And I love it! Laughs.


PC: A little music hall - and musical - never hurt anybody!

IM: They're terrific. They have a wonderful impact on the audience. It's terrific.

PC: You are doing a cameo in the "Invisible Light" video, too, right? Elvira premiered the first clip with you on Monday.

IM: Yes, but I'm afraid I can't even remember what I do in it! Laughs.

PC: Tell me about the Only Make Believe Benefit and how you became involved with them.

IM: Well, Dena Hammerstein thought up the whole idea - which is to take professional performers into long-stay childrens' hospitals for a series of concerts. It's live theatre. It's everything - it's audience participation, it's story-telling, it's music, it's fun, it's dance. As a result of these visits, the doctors say that the kids get better quicker.

PC: How wonderful!

IM: What better motive could one have for supporting them? I've seen the work they do. It's all in Manhattan at the moment, but I don't see why the idea shouldn't spread right across the United States - and, indeed, across the world. It's such a simple idea.

PC: All the best ones are.

IM: It combines Dena's love of the theatre and her love for children - which, of course, so many other people also share.

PC: Children and art, as Sondheim says.

IM: I did the benefit for them last year, as well. They depend very much on money from supporters to keep going. So, their aim is by 2012 to be in fifty hospitals at any one time.

PC: Wow! That's a lot!

IM: It's an absolutely stunning achievement.


PC: Absolutely.

IM: It's also an easy way for me to help.

PC: What's the plan for this year?

IM: Well, the minute we stop talking I am going to talk about that with the director! Laughs. I shall be there, that's all I'm safe to say!

PC: That's all we can ask for!

IM: There is going to be a stunning act of wonderful performers. There will also be a couple of awards given to people who have supported them over the years. It's going to be a very fabulous sort of entertainment for about ninety minutes.

PC: What are you thinking of doing?

IM: I don't know... I might do a bit of Shakespeare. It's about high time I sang on Broadway, don't you think? Laughs. I don't know what I'm going to do.

PC: What do you think of musicals? Do you enJoy Sondheim?

IM: Well, of course, Sondheim is the great dramatist of my generation, I suppose. I am a huge fan of his. I shall try and see Elaine Stritch and Bernadette [Peters] in that revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. I saw it in London, with a different cast.

PC: What else?

IM: I am going to see The Addams Family tonight because I know Rick Elice, who is Roger Rees's partner. I have just been working with Roger Rees in WAITING FOR GODOT in the UK and then Australia.

PC: A highly lauded production!

IM: Thank you. I am also going to see WOMEN ON THE VERGE at the Belasco coming up.

PC: Oh, with Patti LuPone!

IM: Yes, with Patti LuPone!

PC: I recently interviewed Baz Luhrmann for this column and we spoke about a fantasy future film version of THE WINTER'S TALE. Would you consider playing Leontes?

IM: (Laughs.) I'm a bit old for that now. I played Leontes a long time ago for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It's a fantastic play.


PC: The best ever.

IM: Baz paid me one of the greatest compliments ever. I don't know him, really, but when I first met him I was congratulating him on ROMEO + JULIET - which I think is a wonderful adaptation - and he said, "Oh, well we couldn't have done it without your RICHARD III, which was an inspiration!" I've never quite checked up on the dates to see whether or if, in fact, we did our film before he did his.

PC: RICHARD III was about two years earlier.

IM: They're similar territory. I mean, very different. But, both try to have a cinematic approach to Shakespeare and I appreciate that.

PC: Is Leontes one of your favorite roles?

IM: It's terribly interesting.

PC: What's your favorite Shakespeare role so far?

IM: Macbeth would have to be high up there.

PC: Trevor Nunn's production with you and Judi Dench is the best television adaptation of Shakespeare I've ever seen.

IM: I do think it is one of the best screen adaptations because it was done by people who know the play extremely well. We had performed it maybe three hundred times in the theatre. Trevor didn't want to start obscuring things by putting in lots of scenery or effects, which is something you might think is necessary in a story about witches and so on. He didn't do that.

PC: Definitely not! It's a black void.

IM: There's no scenery in it. The costumes are at a minimum. It's all close-ups. It's talking heads. Then, there's Macbeth talking directly to the audience - which, some people say, doesn't work necessarily very well on the large screen - but, on TV, it is perfect because an audience is used to be talked to through the television. So, it's not surprising when Macbeth suddenly turns out of the story and addresses the audience. So, that did work very well and I know it's shown a lot in schools and kids get properly frightened by it - which is Shakespeare's intention!


PC: Are you a horror fan?

IM: No, I'm not. No, I don't like being frightened, thank you very much! I don't mind frightening other people! Laughs.

PC: Are you involved in THE HOBBIT?

IM: I am not under contract, no.

PC: Have you had any meetings?

IM: I'm not going to say any more than that because it might complicate things! So, I would say - at the moment - no, I am not under contract.

PC: Is it OK for me to then take that as a "Yes" with a "but..."?

IM: Laughs. I'm not saying any more than what I've said! Laughs.

PC: Define collaboration.

IM: Define it? Pause. Well, it's respect and love, really. But, it's not always possible to have either of those. Or, to have both of them together. But, you can always be helped, I have always found. I never think I know best. I am always interested in other people's views. If they come from a director whose work I like, then that's all the more.

PC: Mutual respect.

IM: I think love is an important part of what we do because there are always lots of mutual problems when you are putting on a show. To know you are in the company with people who love and care for each other, as well as for whatever they are working on, is almost essential, really.

PC: What's next?

IM: Ummm... Long Pause. Well, I am currently going around British secondary schools, as a gay man talking about my life, and encouraging schools to get rid of homophobic bullying and to care for their gay members of staff and their gay students.


IM: Kids are coming out earlier and earlier - some, as young as twelve now - and schools need to take that into account.

PC: Undoubtedly.

IM: That's what I'm basically doing.

PC: What about on stage and on screen - or in the recording studio?

IM: As far as work is concerned... I am hoping to be in the live show with the Scissor Sisters.

PC: And hopefully Lady Gaga, since they are opening for her!

IM: Yes, and I am also going to record with another band, Elbow, who are fantastic. They are a band from the north of England, which is where I come from.


PC: So, the recording career continues! And, on film in the near future?

IM: I'm keeping myself open for offers for 2011. I gather THE HOBBIT starts shooting in February.

PC: "I gather" it does, as well!

IM: Laughs.

PC:: I loved you in THE PRISONER recently, as well. It was fantastic.

IM: Oh, I'm glad you liked it. Great, great.

PC: Since it was a remake, did you look at the original?

IM: Once I knew I was going to do it, I didn't. I thought it better to just stick with the script that I had. I didn't know the original very well, because at the time it was originally being shown there were no repeats and we didn't have video recorders. So, if you missed it - as I often did, because I was working in the evenings in the theatre - it was very easy to miss the popular shows. Like THE PRISONER.

PC: Indeed.

IM: So, I looked up a couple of episodes and I am a big fan of it. I think it's a remarkable achievement. I enjoyed what we did and I had a gas with that cast. Fabulous cast.

PC: AND THE BAND PLAYED ON is another of the greatest television films I've ever seen. Were you privileged to be a part of that cast?

IM: I was. It's amazing. You know, they couldn't find an American actor who was prepared to play that part. Because, of course, he was an openly gay man.

PC: Of course.

IM: It's amazing - isn't it - how things have changed. But, that was The Situation: it was thought too risky a job to accept. That's what I'm told, anyway.

PC: I'd believe it. Especially back then, twenty years ago.

IM: So, the director, who was English - Roger Spottiswoode - decided to see if I would do it because I had recently come out. So, obviously, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But, I always felt a little bit at a disadvantage because I wasn't the right nationality, but I was very glad to be involved. And, of course - as you said - a fantastic cast. You know, that was another case where it would never have had happened if Richard Gere didn't stick his neck and agree to be in it.

PC: Playing Michael Bennett.

IM: Once he said he would be in it, lots of other people did. But, it was thought to be a rather risky business and a dangerous business, but very, very important to tell that story and tell the world about it.

PC: SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is the best stage-to-screen adaptation of the 90s on film, as far as I'm concerned. What do you think of the film?

IM: I didn't think I was very good in that, but New York has never looked better in the movies than it did in that! Laughs.


PC: What's your favorite film performance to date? RICHARD III?

IM: Long Pause. GODS & MONSTERS, yes, probably. You know, RICHARD III is very precious because if I hadn't made it happen it wouldn't have happened, so I can take extra credit for that. But, James Whale was... I think... I don't know, I don't know. Laughs.

PC: Is the ONLY MAKE BELIEVE benefit sold out?

IM: We still have a couple hundred dollar seats left!

PC: This has been marvelous. I feel so honored. Thank you so much.

IM: Thank you and thank you for your interest. I really appreciate it. It's been jolly!

Tickets for the Only Make Believe benefit hosted by Sir Ian McKellen are available by calling 646-336-1500.


Tickets for the Only Make Believe benefit hosted by Sir Ian McKellen are available by calling 646-336-1500. For more information on the organization and the gala, click here.