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An Interview With Ian McKellen

Here's an interview that one of our contributors recently had with Ian McKellen. It isn't so much about upcoming projects as it is about the man himself. Ian's my personal 'hope' for the statue this March, and I'm happy as can be to be carrying this interview with him. His work in both GODS AND MONSTERS and APT PUPIL was superb. I don't believe any other actor had quite as strong a year as Ian had... Here ya go...


Obviously Ian McKellen has had one hell of a year. His portrayal of Stephen King's aging Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander, in Bryan Singer's adaptation of Apt Pupil horrified audiences and he received rave reviews. The movie quickly went south at the box office, but McKellen's Dussander remains forever imprinted on the brains of the film's viewers, as does his more recent character from Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters. In this critical darling, McKellen's portrayal of Frankenstein director James Whale was as moving as any turn in recent cinematic history. Perhaps it was because McKellen could somewhat relate to Whale, who like himself, faced the pressures of being openly homosexual in Hollywood. McKellen's turn in the film was so strong that he has been nominated for Best Actor by The Academy Awards this year.

In films such as Richard III, which McKellen also co-wrote, he has played some villainous characters. In performing them, he has been such a great screen villain that, according to Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, people are fooled by his onscreen persona. "People are afraid of him," Condon recently told Entertainment Weekly. "And he's the softest person."

In interviewing the man dubbed as "Britain's acting God," I realized rather quickly that Condon was right. McKellen seems like a very genuine, very sweet and sincere man. Despite having performed in two plays that day and sounding rather exhausted, McKellen asked to be interviewed at midnight. I found him to be a very personable and extremely insightful man, a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood-types I so often interview these days. McKellen was very frank about his nomination and its forthcoming effects on the perceptions of homosexuality within the industry.

ANDREW RAUSCH: For your work in Gods and Monsters, you've been nominated for Best Actor. What is your reaction to this?

IAN MCKELLEN: I'm immensely pleased on two counts: one, until recently, I don't think anybody hearing my name would have thought "Oh, here's an accomplished film actor." I've made myself into that. I'm at an age where people might think I'm ready for retirement and actually I'm ready to discover more and what I've discovered is that I like doing movies and other people like me in movies. Awards are a confirmation of that and that's very good for the ego. The other side of it is that these awards draw attention to the film and of course the film itself has had accolades. We couldn't have expected that when we started out with a budget of three-and-a-half million dollars. And without an established movie star in the lead, but it seems to have broken through, which is very good for independent movies but also very good for this particular film. I hope these awards will mean that more and more people will have access to the film and that they'll be able to enjoy it.

AR: Do you think the reception of this film and yourself is an indication that Hollywood is becoming more open-minded in regards to homosexuality?

IM: Possibly. Possibly, although you would be surprised if I were to be indiscreet and tell you which very distinguished distributing companies turned the movie down because they didn't think the public would take a story with a gay man at its center. They were absolutely wrong. I think what's interesting about some people in Hollywood, not all of course, is that they're not in touch with the times. The world is changing rapidly. In an age where the United States president can get such high ratings when he's beleaguered by all sides by people saying his private sexual behavior is of public concern, the public is saying, "No. It's not of our concern and we don't mind about it." These are equally old ideas about presenting gay characters on screen. Real gay characters, you know. Not stereotype gay characters. Not the limp-wristed gay characters that have always been on the fringes of Hollywood movies who usually end up dying in the third reel. Those people are wrong in their assumptions. The public is perfectly well prepared to take that. They did in The Opposite of Sex and they have with our movie. Anne Heche being open about her sexuality and its having very little effect on her career as far as we can see is another optimistic sign, so we're in a time of transition. I think eventually, yes, we'll be able to say that Gods and Monsters was part of a movement which eased things up and allowed cinema-goers to discover all sorts of interesting stories about all sorts of interesting people who Hollywood in the past has not been able to think about.

AR: You're a very strong activist for gay rights. Can you tell me a little bit about your stage show, A Knight Out in L.A.?

IM: It was an autobiographical journey along two tracks, as its title indicates. A knight out. It was about my progress towards a knighthood, which I received basically because of my contributions to the performing arts, and my journey towards coming out as an actor, which was going on at the same time. Or rather, coming out as a person. So, it was an exploration into both of those journeys and the way the story was told was partly reminiscence and the use of various dramatic materials, sometimes from plays, sometimes from poetry, sometimes from other sources, Oscar Wilde's trial for example. The aim was to entertain, which it seems to have done.

AR: How do you feel about being a role model for other people who are coming to grips with their sexuality?

IM: I just read a letter from a young actor in Portland, Oregon, who sent me some e-mail saying that he was gay and having difficulties with his family. He's never met me, but he was thanking me for being open about my sexuality because it made him feel better about himself. And that's how it works for gay people. Society has for so long tried to marginalize us and pretend that we don't exist. And when you have that pressure on yourself, you begin to think that society is right and that there is something wrong with you. And when there are a few people out in public life, whether it's in politics, or in sports, or in show business, that is a help to people. They see that they're not on their own and that it's not so unusual. They say, "It is possible for me to have a career and for the world not to mind." And I think that's the truth of the situation and if I give some encouragement to young people by my being open about my sexuality, then that's a bonus because I came out for selfish reasons. I came out because I wanted to be happy about myself. It's really just an offshoot that other people find it encouraging.

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