At the age of 79, Sir Ian McKellen currently stars in King Lear at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, and the actor joined journalist Christiane Amanpour to talk about tackling yet another Shakespeare play, his career on stage and screen, as well as his visibility as a gay rights activist.
Known best on screen as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings series and Magneto in the X-Men franchise, McKellen made his West End debut in 1964 (at the Duke of York’s) and later his Broadway debut in 1967 in The Promise.
When asked about returning to the stage time and again after success on screen, McKellen stated simply: “I wouldn’t be the first actor to caricature our business as you do films for money, you do television for fame, but the real thing is acting in the theatre and what’s real about it is the presence of the audience, of course, so it’s a shared experience. If there’s no audience there’s no play. If there’s no audience there's still the film. It’s dead in a sense. They cannot affect the outcome.
“I’m not saying cinema is a waste of time. And what thrilling things you can do in the cinema,” he added.
Thanks to his work and prominence in the arts, he was offered a knighthood. In fact, McKellen told the story of how granting his knighthood was the last thing Margaret Thatcher did as Prime Minister. (It’s a must-watch piece of the interview.)
McKellen also recounted tales from his visits to schools as a gay rights activist, and the coming out moments that have seared themselves in his brain.
As for slowing down, McKellen relishes the constant improvement that comes with each performance. “I'm much much better at the job than I used to be,” he said. And so despite being the subject of the recent documentary Playing the Part, about his full life, it seems that is still not the full story.
A look back: