Sir Ian McKellen: You Ask The Questions

Who would you most like to get into an on-screen clinch with? And do you mind it when people address you as 'Serena'?
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The Independent Online

Sir Ian McKellen was born in Burnley in 1939. He read English at Cambridge University and made his London acting debut in 1964, which led to an invitation from Laurence Olivier to join his new National Theatre Company. He established himself as a leading classical actor with his performances as Shakespeare's Richard II and Marlowe's Edward II in the late Sixties. In 1996, after a 30-year career spent predominantly in the theatre, he earned a major film breakthrough in Richard III, based on a production at the National Theatre. Since then, his film credits have included Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was knighted in 1991. Two years previously he had come out as gay. He lives in London.

Who would you most like to get into an on-screen clinch with?
Iain Sands, Edinburgh

Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton - three of the actors whom I would most like to work with again at close quarters. But also Robert Downey Jr, Marton Csokas and Hugh Jackman, for much the same reason.

Was Quentin Tarantino right to criticise British actors for running away to Hollywood?
Karen Brown, St Albans

Not in my own case! If there is a collective blame for the decline in a homegrown film industry, it would more fairly rest on financiers and producers rather than on the actors like me who would love to live at home and film in the UK. Mr Tarantino is a little disingenuous, however, in praising the success of Hollywood and Bollywood. Each has a huge local market to satisfy. The UK is about five per cent of the world market for movies.

X-Men. Why?
Patricia Butler, by e-mail

If you know the comics on which they are based, you shouldn't need to ask. Marvel Comics say that they appeal most to young blacks, young Jews and young gays, who are too often disaffected with society. I particularly liked the scene in X-Men2 when the young pupil of Xavier's school comes out to his mother, who asks: "Have you always known you were a mutant, dear?"

If you had stayed in the closet, what effect do you think it would have had on your life?
Julia Kane, by e-mail

I shudder at the thought. Coming out, all of us feel, removes the weight of guilt which society, much less than it used to, hangs round the neck of gay people. I pity those who feel unable to tell the truth about such a central characteristic as their sexuality. It is wonderfully releasing not to feel sorry for oneself.

Celebrity Death Match: Gandalf vs Magneto vs Richard III. Who wins?
Rob Chapman, Penrith

At 65, I'm on the side of age and vote for the ancient wizard.

Did you hesitate before accepting a knighthood from the Thatcher government - a government that many gay people thought was homophobic?
Steve Grierson, London

When Downing Street called in 1989, I consulted Richard Eyre (for a fellow-professional's reaction), Michael Cashman (for a fellow-activist's) and Sean Mathias (for a close friend's). They all advised acceptance. My decision was double-sided. I was honoured to be associated, nominally, with all the distinguished theatre knights who preceded me, and it seemed a useful tool in prizing open the doors of those who could affect legal reform on behalf of other gay people. That said, I am half regretful not to be in the company of those who have declined a knighthood on the grounds that titles, as opposed to civil medals, are outmoded and should be abolished.

Is it true that you've already been signed up to play Gandalf in a Peter Jackson version of The Hobbit?
James Sharp, London

No, alas! However, should the current puzzle of filming rights be solved, Peter Jackson deserves to be invited to re-create Middle-earth.

Regarding the brilliant and historic production of Richard III at the National, was there a scene you enjoyed more than others - something you anticipated with particular relish?
Carolyn Sautter, USA

Onstage, Richard III is an exhausting part with, as so often for Shakespeare's heroes, a hefty duel to round off the evening. I relished most the duologue between Queen Elizabeth and Richard (Act Four, Scene 1) that is a mirror of the earlier one with Lady Anne. But the actors standing to attention behind the principals found it irksomely interminable to witness night after night!

What do you think of people calling you Serena? Do you mind being addressed in that way?
Gary Rich, London

"Serena" was wittily coined by Stephen Fry at a gay fundraiser. Others favour "Damian". In the US, impressed and unused to titles, I am invariably Sir McKellen. Computers address me as Siri McKellen. I answer to all.

I believe you have more than 40 awards. Where do you put them all?
Melanie Richards, Hove

Some are with my family, some are on my roof, some are lost.

Harold Hobson wrote that "the ineffable presence of God" entered your portrayal of Richard II. Do you agree?
Peter Croft, Barnsley

My early career was often championed by Hobson, who was treasured for his over-the-top praise, though not always by the recipient. I think he was in this case describing Richard II's charisma rather than my own.

Is it true that the only reason you went into the theatre was to meet gay men?
Catherine Jacobs, Northampton

It was certainly a consideration. In 1961, I knew very few gay men and suspected that in the professional theatre I might be able to meet some. I have.

When you played Gandalf, did you have a particular nationality in mind? I ask because, while he is so clearly English in some ways, he is also not human, and in a sense placeless.
Alison Reid, by e-mail

All the Fellowship reflect aspects of Tolkien's personality, but none more so than Gandalf. Both of them smoke for a start and have an academic bent. I adopted Tolkien's accent and voice somewhat and, despite filming in New Zealand, always felt that Hobbiton was geographically closer to Oxfordshire where the novels were written. I was lucky to be using my native accent and am all the more admiring of those in the multinational cast who weren't.

Do you believe in magic?
Patrick Jones, by e-mail

As a devotee of Penn & Teller, Derren Brown and Tommy Cooper, of course I do.

What advice would you give to somebody leaving school who is interested in a career in acting?
Guy Burke, Manchester

It would be irresponsible to encourage anyone to embark on a career as precarious as professional acting. So first, consider whether amateur acting mightn't be just as fulfilling. Second, act whenever possible in the company of those who know what they are doing. Third, watch actors on stage and on screen and try and work out why they are good - or not good, of course.

Is there any role you would still love to play?
Owen Goulding, Colchester

Widow Twankey: not long to wait now, boys and girls - she steps out at the Old Vic Theatre on 16 December.

'Emile', starring Ian McKellen, is released on Friday