NO REGRETS. WELL, PERHAPS ONE

Sir Ian McKellen is our greatest classical actor. But he wouldn't thank you for saying so. As he told David Benedict. Photograph by Herbie Knott

"It is shocking and it is filthy." It's 1969 and Edinburgh councillor John Kidd is very upset. He has just seen Ian McKellen playing the title roles in Prospect Theatre Company's Edward II and Richard II at the Edinburgh Festival. Mr Kidd wants the productions banned. "Can you blame me," he says, "when I see two men kissing one another?" This early episode gave the actor his first headlines, and provided a powerful hint of things to come.

His style has not always been to everyone's taste - the critic Benedict Nightingale once wrote that "He is an actor very prone to trills and cadenzas" - but Ian McKellen is now considered, without doubt, to be our finest classical actor. He had put a marker down on this title as early as 1974, in his debut season at the Royal Shakespeare Company, when his chilling interpretation of Macbeth prompted Michael Billington to remark, "If this is not great acting, I don't know what is."

The prizes and plaudits have come thick and fast ever since. He has won five Olivier Awards and even a Tony for his Salieri, in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, on Broadway in 1981.

Britain had found its Great Classical Actor. But it was only after joining the National Theatre in 1984 that he finally removed any lingering suspicion that he was just a serious actor over-reliant on a sonorous voice. As Platonov in Wild Honey, he delivered a towering comic performance - one minute a dejected slump of self-pity, the next, a leaping, hungry enthusiast.

He has excelled playing professional soldiers, and there are plenty of them in Shakespeare, for whom he exhibits an immense intellectual and emotional passion. His was a bold and bloodied Coriolanus, his Iago for Trevor Nunn had a riveting intensity, while his humpless, half-paralysed Richard III in 1990 produced some of the best notices of a glowing career. Clare Higgins, who played opposite him as Elizabeth and is no slouch in the acting department herself, describes that year as "the best learning experience of my life. Within its context his performance can turn on a sixpence. He inspires you and makes you feel rather bigger and better than you are. You come away feeling like that advertisement for Ready Brek."

His Richard III won him his fifth Olivier award. You might expect McKellen to be a little blase about the shelfloads of awards he's picked up, but in fact, for him, they're a tiresome irrelevance. While he has earned his place in the hall of fame as "Ian McKellen: The Great Classical Actor", it may not be how he will be best remembered. Nor does he want to be. For his lasting claim to fame may well be as "Ian McKellen: The Great Classical Actor Who Came Out".

McKellen now says that he despises the man who remained closeted for the first 49 years of his life. As his early brush with the sensibilities of poor old Councillor Kidd suggests, McKellen never shied away from parts that could cast doubt upon his own sexual preferences.

In a West End now awash with gay plays, it is hard to imagine how shocking it seemed, and how much opposition it provoked, when, in 1979, McKellen agreed to play the part of Max in Bent, Martin Sherman's play about the the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. It was largely McKellen's involvement that persuaded a reluctant Royal Court to mount the play.

In a profession which has always maintained a self-regulated code of silence about its gay brotherhood - and where, even today, the coming- out of Nigel Hawthorne elicits headlines of the "Oh Sir Humphrey" kind, McKellen's conduct of more than 15 years ago is, at the very least, understandable. But that he chose not to reveal his own sexuality at that time still disappoints him.

Martin Sherman feels that McKellen is being too hard on himself.

"He left the RSC in 1977 to do it. Back then it was an act of extreme courage. We never discussed coming out, but he didn't deny anything. He didn't have phoney girlfriends and he was always seen in public with his boyfriend. He was not so far in the closet as he now thinks. He was braver than most of his peers."

McKellen stayed in the closet for a further 11 years. While it was the notorious anti-gay Section 28 that finally persuaded him to take the final step, it was the combination of a rare flop and a chance meeting that paved the way for his alternative career as a gay activist. British audiences loved Wild Honey, but when it transferred to Broadway in 1986, the critics didn't. The show closed and McKellen embarked instead upon a tour of the US with his one-man show, Acting Shakespeare.

He spent a month in San Francisco with Armistead Maupin, the author of Tales of the City, and was treated to a subtle crash course in gay politics. Upon returning home, he performed the show for three months for no money for the Aids Centre, the London Lighthouse. He raised half a million pounds. And came out.

On this hot summer's afternoon Sir Ian McKellen sits sprawled across a wooden chair in his Limehouse home, looking out over the Thames, sipping a can of Diet Coke through a straw.

He has a couple of hours free between costume fittings, discussions with a publicist, meetings with his assistant and preparation for the next day's work, yet he seems almost ludicrously at ease. It is seven years since he revealed to Peregrine Worsthorne on Radio 3 that he was gay, but he still has the look of a man newly unburdened. At 56, he exudes a sense of freedom and youth; he is truly a changed man. And, it is said, a changed actor.

"Acting is to do with self-confidence. I gained mine through being an actor, finding a place to which I could escape and feel fulfilled. There are now few people in whose company I feel at a disadvantage, but I used to feel that a great deal because I wanted to tell the world that I was gay. Self-confidence means that you can take a few risks and I've always felt that my acting was about that, daring to make a fool of myself."

He pauses, deep in thought. "Playing Uncle Vanya, I allowed myself to try and display his heart in a way I couldn't have done before. Not that it was my heart, but it felt to me like a bit of an advance."

Coming-out has released a boundless energy in all areas of his life. He was one of the founder members of Stonewall, the lesbian and gay lobbying group, and is seen by many as a figurehead of the lesbian and gay movement. He is less than happy at this perception. He describes his role as being a fund-raiser and an "awareness raiser".

"I don't feel I'm crucial to Stonewall. I don't have the expertise that someone like Angela Mason, the executive director, has. As for its success in changing the law, you'd have to say it's going very slowly but that is scarcely Stonewall's fault. We have a government that isn't very interested."

He used to define himself solely in terms of his work. "Now I see myself much more in terms of other people. I've become very picky. Theatre takes an awful lot out of you. At least the way I do it. It's much easier to skip off and do a movie and then have time for everything else in my life. So am I going to run the National Theatre? Of course not." I didn't even ask the question.

Consult his itinerary for the last year, and you get the impression that McKellen feels empowered to do anything he chooses. He has been fund-raising for lesbian and gay causes across the country; playing sell-out performances on Broadway of his autobiographical one-man show A Knight Out; forging links between the National Theatre and the Market Theatre Johannesburg; and, most significantly, developing an entirely new career. Last week, filming began on Richard III. In addition to playing the title role, he is executive producer and has written the screenplay. It's all very Hollywood.

"It means I am allowed to interfere whenever I want," he laughs. The film is based on Richard Eyre's National Theatre production. "We were doing a very available version of the play. Its Thirties setting clarified the hierarchy and the society in which Richard flourishes. It allowed the audience to be led into the politics of the play, which isn't always true of productions in so-called authentic costume."

He kept badgering Richard Eyre to film it. Finally, Eyre pointed out that there was no screenplay. "It really hadn't occurred to me. I can't emphasise enough the depths of my ignorance."

At that point, his film appearances had been rare, although in 1969 he played opposite Sandy Dennis in the almost forgotten A Touch of Love, which was based on a novel by Margaret Drabble with whom McKellen had acted at Cambridge ("I can't believe how camp I was," he remarked after a recent TV screening). As for his performance as the notorious heterosexual, Jack Profumo, in Scandal, the first role he took after publicly coming out in 1988, he wouldn't watch it. "That hairstyle made me the laughing stock of five continents." Undeterred, he began writing.

The final screenplay, co-written with the director Richard Loncraine, is fairly removed from McKellen's first draft. "It was full of things like 'Call up Lord Buckingham' - cut to actor with telephone - 'Lord Buckingham?' The telephone is very tempting, but I now realise it's a bloody nuisance in movies because the actors aren't looking each other in the eye."

Three drafts later, he set off for Hollywood to raise the finance. He also took on as much screen acting as he was offered. He has played everything from a dry white South African in Six Degrees of Separation to a very funny deadpan cameo as the Bergmanesque Symbol Of Death in Schwarzenegger's The Last Action Hero.

Throughout our interview he has been eloquent and effusive. He is not one of those actors who falls apart without a script. Discussion about the casting of Richard III, however, brings out a rare degree of reticence. "Nobody is ever first choice," he observes, stroking his long jaw. "Peter O'Toole wasn't first choice for Lawrence of Arabia, but there's not much point saying it was Albert Finney. At the moment, to talk about it might upset someone's self-confidence. The people who financed the movie were not first choice, nor the producers, nobody was." He pauses, an impish grin spreading across his face - "apart from me".

First choice or no, the signing of Robert Downey Jnr (with whom he appears in the forthcoming film of Rose Tremain's Restoration) and Annette Bening has suited the backers and ensured worldwide distribution. But how will they play alongside the oh-so British Maggie Smith and Nigel Hawthorne?

"It was a very early idea that Queen Elizabeth and her brother should be played American. She is a very independent sort of woman. Her family are outside the main power structure and are looked down upon. Everyone really regrets that Edward IV married this dreadful widow. Set it in the 1930s and it doesn't really ring true that he should have married someone out of his class. Unless that person is foreign. And of course we very nearly had an American Queen, Wallis Simpson."

He is enjoying playing with his new box of tricks now that shooting is underway. Searching for a Thirties parallel for the small but pivotal role of Lord Stanley, McKellen decided to turn him into an Air Vice Marshal who joins Richmond's forces, taking the RAF with him.

"You hear a whirring sound building up and then we look up to see the bombers arrive. When Edward Hardwicke turned up on day one in his blue uniform, he looked so exactly like an Air Vice Marshal I almost cried with happiness. I'd had that idea, and here it was in front of my eyes, courtesy of Angel's, the costumiers, and his perfect RAF moustache, which he happened to have. That's when I understood the thrill of writing a screenplay." McKellen is playing Richard as a fascist leader, but his pleasure in the process is more benign.

The film will be released in November. What then? Given his nightly improvisations in Napoli Millionaria at the National, why not Ian McKellen doing stand- up comedy? Why not indeed? "If I could go out and do half an hour in front of an audience and make them laugh, I could retire very happy. I spent a day in Blackpool being the feed in Lily Savage's show. What a privilege. And then there's drag. And panto..."

He stops himself, midstream. "Is it all to do with coming out and thinking, 'Oh fuck it, why not?' I don't know. I've got the knighthood. I went to work on A Knight Out, on the Ian McKellen who wanted that sort of respectability. You know, 'Like me, admire me, honour me, give me my worth', because I didn't feel I had any. And I came out and the minute I did, someone said, 'That man deserves a knighthood.' Wasn't that a nice irony?"

He's contemplating the expected memoirs but thinks he'll end up, inevitably, writing about being gay. "Ten years ago, if I'd wanted to define myself, it would have been as Ian McKellen, actor. What else was there? Now it's more like Ian McKellen, a gay man who acts."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions