Thirty years have passed since Sir Ian McKellen came out publicly during a BBC 3 Radio interview. A response to Margaret Thatcher’s controversial and homophobic Section 28 legislation, which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality in Britain’s schools—a political act of intimidation that sought to erase Britain’s LGBTQ community—McKellen’s decision turned the 48-year-old actor into an LGBTQ activist overnight.
In director Joe Stephenson’s new documentary McKellen: Playing The Part—which premieres June 19 in the U.S.—the six-time Olivier Award-winning actor offers a revealing look into his personal life and how the decision to live an authentic life set the course of his career, leading him from Hamlet to Macbeth, Richard III to King Lear, from the groundbreaking play Bent to Gods and Monsters and the the hit box office franchises of Lord of the Rings and X-Men.
The 96-minute film is constructed from a 14-hour interview with the actor, who offers an unguarded and deeply personal reflection on his life and career. In addition to personal stories behind his triumphs on stage and screen, McKellen also opens up about his childhood, and the discovery of his own gay identity at a very early age.
(McKellen: Playing the Part is out in select theaters across USA on 19 June. Find your local screening at mckellenfilm.com.)
In Playing the Part you say you are very aware of which version of yourself you present during press interviews. Was it challenging to let go of that for the documentary?
Ian McKellen: This kind of interview is a new thing for me. Any actor will tell you, because you’re trying to encourage people to see your new work, you have to give interviews and talk about it. What I liked about this was that I was talking on my terms, with a friend. It wasn't with a stranger, which isn’t always easy to do.
But this wasn’t in any sense for me, “This is the movie about me and I'm going to tell my life story.” I had been intending to write my autobiography and had agreed to do it with a publisher. I found I wasn’t enjoying it very much. It was at that point that Joe came along and said, “If you don’t want to write it, why not just talk it?”
You’ve reached new audience with roles like Gandalf in Lord of the Rings and Magneto in the X-Men franchise. With X-Men in particular, what set Magneto apart for you?
What I liked about X-Men is that it was about something. X-Men is about what it’s like to be an outsider. It’s about what it’s like to be different from everyone else, and what its like to have the majority pointing fingers at you and saying, “You’re different,” or even that you’re inferior. Obviously, that relates to the experience of a lot of gay people, and anyone who is separated out from the majority. And so there was some moral purpose in doing that, which appealed to me.
Besides being a wonderfully crafted sitcom, Vicious seems to be a continuation of your work as an actor and activist—albeit in a more subtle way.
I liked the fact that it was an old-fashioned sitcom, and it was deliberately meant to look like one, but the two main characters are two old men who are clearly still having sex. It just knocks the old sitcom version of gay people who were always figures of fun, or probably not to be trusted. But what I love about Freddie and Stuart is that they are dinosaurs, but they have lived through it all. They've survived, and they’re open about their relationship. I thought they were rather heroic, in a way.
You’re also a survivor. Was there a part of you that wanted to film the documentary for future generations to take inspiration from?
I just tell the story as it was for me and I think that’s useful. Young people can relate to it, and say, “My God, was it really like that in those days? But he survived and he’s carrying on, and maybe we can do the same.” In that sense I hope it does have a positive impact.
Your coming out in the late 1980s was a galvanizing moment for a lot of LGBT people, especially at a time when there weren’t many out public figures for young people to look up to.
Coming out is something you do for yourself, isn’t it? If you’re in public life it has a much larger impact. I wish I had come out so much earlier, but it was very difficult. It was against the law. You were identifying yourself as a criminal. The fact that my coming out affected so many other people was a wonderful byproduct for me, but it wasn't my reason for coming out. I think the reason to come out is always personal, is always for yourself.
You’ve said that you wished you had come out sooner.
The extraordinary thing is that when you work up the courage, or common sense to come out and be yourself, and be honest—you join the human race, don’t you? You're like everybody else. And there's no reason why you should be discriminated against.
Once you live authentically, you become better in every way. You become a better son, a daughter, you become a better brother or sister, your relationships with other people improve on an honest basis.
It affects everything else. Your energy levels… In my case, I became a better actor. That's the lesson that I learned, coming out is an absolute beneficial thing for the person. Have you met anybody who regretted coming out?