Ian McKellan: Truth and Consequences

If you think an actor who's openly gay and almost 60 can't possibly be one of Hollywood's new darlings, Ian McKellen is about to prove you wrong.


One doesn't ordinarily think of a 59-year-old actor as a rising movie star, but Ian McKellen seems about to become a genuinely hot Hollywood property. He first turned Hollywood heads back in 1995 with the movie version of his globally acclaimed Richard III, but with juicy starring roles in two new movies, Apt Pupil and Gods and Monsters, the ante has been upped substantially. And yet, up until Richard III, McKellen had shown no particular interest in or promise when performing on-screen. In 1981 he played D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love, alongside Janet Suzman and Ava Gardner; that film and most others in which he appeared died at the box office. What sparked the new initiative from a Tony-winning middle-aged actor who's been best known till now for his performances in great Shakespearean roles?

Ian McKellen admits that when he deliberately set out to fashion a film career for himself in the early '90s, he was partly motivated by a certain professional envy of other actors of his generation--Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Alan Bates, Anthony Hopkins--all of whom had starred in major movies. But more importantly, McKellen's pursuit of plum screen parts coincided with his decision to discuss publicly the fact that he is gay "My coming out as a gay man freed up my emotional life," he says. "In my early 50s, after I came out, I was finally ready to act for the camera. Movie acting is easier than stage acting--you don't have to have trained your voice or your body. But I'd read enough reviews of my stage acting to know that what people liked about it was its flamboyance, and that won't work on film. What I had to do in acting for the camera was to root the performance in my own feelings, so that it was as true and as real as I could make it. The camera may lie on occasion, but it doesn't lie when it comes to your feelings."

Richard III, in which he played the title character as a goose-stepping fascist, struck McKellen as the vehicle he could use to launch the big-screen career he now felt inspired to pursue. But he resolved that before filming Richard III, he would educate himself about movies. He did so by taking small roles in a strange mishmash of films-- James L. Brooks's I'll Do Anything, the Arnold Schwarzenegger boondoggle The Last Action Hero and the low-budget feminist indie Western The Ballad of Little Jo. "I think people felt I was taking a number of rather menial parts," says McKellen. "But I was visiting other people's movies to talk to them and see how they did it, and I began to gain some confidence." When he finally tackled the movie version of Richard III, he felt more relaxed on-screen. "I looked at that movie," he says, "and I thought, 'The man who played that part knows how to act in front of a camera.'"

It was after seeing Richard III that director Bryan Singer approached McKellen about starring in Apt Pupil. In this adaptation of a Stephen King story, McKellen plays an aged Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander, hiding in Los Angeles under an assumed name until a darkly curious high school student (Brad Renfro) uncovers his true identity and threatens to expose him unless he shares some of his heinous secrets; eventually the teenager falls under the influence of the evil that has fascinated him.

"The film does not analyze or discuss or wonder why Dussander behaves in the way he does," McKellen admits. "He just has to stand for the embodiment of all evil. Where does it get you to say Hitler is doing the Devil's work? As an actor you're constantly delving into why. When I've played evil characters onstage, I've absolutely understood them, sympathized with them, got inside them. Getting inside Dussander wasn't an option, because there was no evidence provided by the author. We don't know anything about him other than he exists."

All of which makes McKellen's achievement more impressive-- the insinuating power of his performance is what holds the film together. He brings out qualities that are not really in the script, glimmers of wry humor and devastating charm that help to suggest the hypnotic allure of evil.

The second of McKellen's current movies, writer/director Bill Condon's beautifully crafted Gods and Monsters, spotlights a fascinating character in our cinematic heritage--James Whale, the director who made the first two Frankenstein movies as well as The Invisible Man, The Old Dark House and the 1936 version of Show Boat. In playing Whale during the last months of his life, McKellen perfectly catches the man's imperiousness and his sense of irony. The role permitted McKellen to make good use of his wit. "People often ask me why I don't do more comedy," he notes. "But I can't think of a part I've played that wasn't funny. You can't play Hamlet unless you're a good comedian. One night when I played Romeo, Francesca Annis and I got 24 laughs in the balcony scene. You must never smooth out the corners of a character. Let the audience make of it what they will. As far as you can, just be true to all the complications. Part of that is likely to encompass comedy if the playwright or the screenplay writer is any good, because so much of our lives has to do with smiling. That's how we get through."

McKellen felt a special kinship with his character in Gods and Monsters, like McKellen, Whale grew up in working-class circumstances in England, and he was an actor for years before he turned to directing. Whale was also openly gay at a time when homosexuality in Hollywood was still hidden. In contemplating the ways in which Hollywood has changed since James Whale's time, McKellen remarks, "Today if you're gay in Hollywood, you can say you're gay and get on with your job, if you're a producer or director or writer or manager or agent. But if you're an actor, then suddenly all those people--straight or gay--think there's a problem. This is being worked out in front of our eyes--Anne Heche stands as a fascinating historical figure. So far she's giving the lie to all those people who have told young actors who play romantic leads, 'Don't come out; the public won't accept it.'"

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