Interview: The people's preacher

John Walsh meets Ian McKellen, drawn to the stage after six years' absence

John Wlash
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:10

The first bits of Ian McKellen you see are his feet. They are frankly enormous, with great, long toes like those curious knobbly-stick fruits from Ghana or Zaire you never buy in Sainsbury's. Descending the stairs, his feet are followed by bony ankles, a pair of nondescript blue chinos, a skimpy black T-shirt and, lastly, the great man's inquiring face, turned a puzzled 45 degrees from the perpendicular, as he peers to see which hellish new stranger is walking in through his front door at 10.30am.

He looks terrible. His hair sticks out at a dozen angles. His eyes have the plaintive, melancholic droop you'd find on a beagle after a night on the gin. His skinny frame seems barely up to the job of manipulating the Italian espresso machine. He gulps down an allegedly reviving vitamin pill, presses one on me ("You can't get them here, but people buy them like Anadin in America; it replaces... well I can't remember exactly what it replaces, but it's whatever the body has completely run out of when it dies") and bustles about on his sun-porch overlooking the Thames at Limehouse Reach. Homerically hungover, he is all displacement activity. When I remarked on the emptiness of his fridge and his need of a spouse, he seized a lonesome pack of supermarket spaghetti and stared at it, as if wondering what it could be (something to wear, perhaps?). As he talked about the previous night's carouse - a benefit dinner for friends and sponsors of the National Theatre - he executed a complicated manoeuvre with a length of garden hose, hurling it from his riverside eyrie (as though preparing to abseil down it rather than face an interview) and winding it back up, talking all the while.

His home is part of an East End enclave of early 18th-century houses bought for a song and saved from dereliction by a group of Cambridge cronies that included David Owen and Andrew Sinclair. Francis Bacon used to live nearby, "but he found the southern light too strong". The pub next door, McKellen proudly asserts, gets a name-check in Our Mutual Friend. There's something very Dickensian about this house, which is sparsely furnished but as snug as a berth on a sailing ship, with a low, bleached-wood table covered with papers and booklets: "A Guide for Parents Who Have Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Children", with an introduction by Sir Ian McKellen, has pride of place. On the wall, as though emphasising his dual status as cultural icon and England's most high-profile gay actor, are two photographs: one shows a young Ian with Nelson Mandela, the other shows his older self being smooched by a pouty young Ganymede. The only signs of his 30 years of fame are the various theatrical awards and statuettes that jostle together on the porch, under the clouds and the rain, several fat seated ladies in plaster of Paris, looking with Chekhovian wistfulness across the river. "I never know what to do with them," confesses McKellen modestly. "But after six months, the label with your name on falls off and you're left with a piece of unidentifiable sculpture. The seated-muse ones are Evening Standard Awards. I've never been able to work out the connection between her and Milton Shulman..."

McKellen has been away from the theatre for six years, a hefty stretch of absence for such a premier-league classical thesp. He has mostly been away in Hollywood. "I just wanted to do some screen acting. After we toured the National production of Richard III across America, and ended up in Los Angeles, I said to myself, I'm not doing any more theatre. I was exhausted in every possible way. And I think I've learned a lot about screen acting. One of the nicest things that's happened in my career was to win European Film Actor of the Year Award for Richard III" - his eyes appeared to mist over; it would melt a heart of uranium - "I rather took it to heart that this... theatre actor should be thought to have given the best performance on screen out of all of European cinema. That six years must have paid off..."

But now he's back where the fates have always decreed he should be. He opened last week in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, directed by Trevor Nunn, the National's new ubermeister. It's only the third time this century that this baggy drama of personal conscience and collective guilt has been given an airing, and the National's production team goes for it in spades, populating the stage with a cast of 26, weaving them through a complicated structure of walls and windows, endlessly transformed on a spinning revolve. McKellen plays Doctor Tomas Stockmann, an idealistic scientist who discovers that the water in the town's tourist-attraction spa is contaminated, reports his findings to the townspeople, who would rather hush up the problem, and, in confronting their moral bankruptcy, becomes a public pariah. The role requires a vast and demanding impersonation of three distinct characters. McKellen plays Stockmann first as a domesticated dervish, constantly dancing about the Olivier stage like a man possessed, wringing the hands of friends, basking in the bourgeois bliss of his living room, his smoking cap and hot toddies; then as a bolted intellectual, a radicalised martyr, blind to the fate of family; then as a crackpot visionary, planning a teaching career amid the rubble and broken windows of his trashed home, stranded like King Kong (or Jesus Christ) on a high eminence above the baying mob, transcendently gleeful but doomed. These are bewildering mutations to watch. Did McKellen feel comfortable with them?

"Well, there you land right on my current dilemma, which is how to knit these characters together into one. Although I feel I'm Stockmann whatever I'm doing, what you saw at the preview stage was a rather displayed version of what the audience will eventually see. And the Olivier is such a big wide space, the actor - well, this actor - is concerned to reach up to the whole audience, and perhaps there's too much signalling going on..." So was I privileged to watch McKellen-the-acktorr before he settled into McKellen-the-integrated-character? He smiled. "My agent called me and said, `You're being Magnus Pyke, and I don't believe Magnus Pyke would be able to pull off the second half of this play'..."

Droll reductions of Big Acting and Big Themes are a speciality with McKellen, who knows well how his barnstorming histrionics can be misinterpreted by the ill-disposed. His friend Brian Singer, director of The Usual Suspects and one of McKellen's new movies, Apt Pupil, was in town last week and came to a preview. "Brian doesn't get out to the theatre much," said McKellen. "I warned him it was three hours long and he pulled a face. But he loved it and the first thing he said was, `It's Jaws. Jaws!'". McKellen bellowed with laughter. "It's true. The plot of Jaws is based on An Enemy. It's about people who are making a living out of the seashore and won't listen to stories about the dangers of swimming there. But there are lots of real-life examples of people trying to tell the truth and not being allowed - like Sellafield - it was undoubtedly true that there was poison going out of these works into the sea. My stepmother used to go down and buy her fish in that bay, and it was poisoned. But the locals said, No it isn't, because everybody worked at Sellafield - it's the only industry there."

For a restless theoriser about acting technique, McKellen is charmingly old-fashioned about characterisation. Ask him if he actually likes Dr Stockmann, with all the character's chauvinism, vanity and uncompromising elitism, and he offers a startling fictional riff on what the doctor's past life might have been. It goes on for ages, as if McKellen had lived it, rather than made it up. "But I'm not going to tell the audience what to think," he concludes. "The director might say, Ian, you're making him too winsome, or too aggressive or too charming, but I think it's your duty just to stick up for him".

McKellen is clearly feeling better. His initial bleary state has dissolved into rampant animation. Enormous feet now encased in tan moccasins, he lies like a battered odalisque on his stripy sofa, smoking Dunhills and punctuating his replies with declamatory flourishes, as if running a masterclass devoted to emphasis. He is not above a little flirtation. "I just saw the rough-cut of a new film, in which I play the gay British movie director James Whale, who made the original Frankenstein in 1931. There's a scene in which he's being interviewed in retirement by a university student. Whale gets very bored with this camp young man and says, `Look, can we change this line of questioning? From now on, for each question you ask, you have to remove an article of clothing. And the more personal the question, the larger the article.' Perhaps I should have tried that with you..."

McKellen grew up in Lancashire. His father was borough engineer of Bolton. The young Ian was head boy of Bolton School, and won a scholarship to Cambridge, where he first met Trevor Nunn, David Owen et al. The most interesting feature of his past, however, is his grandfather, William Henry McKellen, whose 80th birthday present, a wooden bench with an inscribed metal plaque, now resides on the Thames-side porch. "He was a Baptist preacher who was chairman of Christian Endeavour. They ran cheap holiday homes for Christians - prayers, Bibles readings, no alcohol, no cards on Sundays. We used to spend summer holidays at Beechwood Court, one of the holiday homes, in north Wales." McKellen let out a fond sigh. "Old WH was a very good preacher. I saw him addressing a meeting in his late eighties, in the middle of which he forgot what he was saying and sat down. There was a buzz of embarrassment, so he got up again and said, `You know, you're a lot more worried about this than I am' and everyone relaxed. So now, whenever I dry on stage, I think of old WH and feel better. There are a lot worse things in the world than forgetting your lines."

That preacher gene... Thinking of how often I've seen McKellen speechifying in plays - from soliloquies in Edward II to the hilarious fundamentalist rant at the Trembling Brethren in Cold Comfort Farm - I wondered if a pedagogic streak came naturally. "I grew up a congregationalist, surrounded by preachers. They were some of the earliest performers I saw. And I've never made much distinction between fairground barkers, pedlars selling stuff at Wigan market, preachers, actors, politicians on the stump - I once saw Aneurin Bevin in Bolton market square - because they're all performers." McKellen studied the speeches of Adolf Hitler for an ITV drama-doc called Countdown to War, "and I used one thing about Hitler for the Richard III movie. He tended to delegate a lot, and had a lot of spare time, in which he used to watch movies. He liked nothing better than to watch himself on screen while eating chocolates. He loved chocolates, he had bad teeth and bad breath and indigestion - which I always think is a clue to Hitler, that he was rotting away inside. The High Command would come to see him and find him sitting, munching chocolates, looking at himself and saying, `Look at that - I had a headache that day, but could you tell? NO! You couldn't tell that I'm ill...' So that's why in Richard III we have Richard watching his own coronation and enjoying it and working out who he's going to kill next."

He talks with a manic fondness about the murderous Crookback, and you think how, these days, McKellen transcends so many things. Remember the fuss over his gay coming-out in 1988, his knighthood in 1991 ("Why did you accept this award, Ian?" wailed Derek Jarman, "It has diminished you"), his entry into the political arena attacking the Government's Clause 28, his visit to Number Ten to brief Mr Major on the gay lifestyle, his ubiquity during the Age of Consent campaign? He's rather above it all, now. "I haven't lost the fervour of those days, but at the moment there isn't anything usefully for me to do in public. I support Stonewall, who do much more politically than I ever could myself. But Blair and his government know that the world they're encouraging and imagining will be one which includes lesbians and gay men and they must not be disadvantaged by the law of the land. We have in this country an equal age of consent now, bar the Government actually announcing it. So my contribution is probably history." He deserted the stage for Hollywood, but has risen above the glamour of celluloid and returned in glory. He's even got a website on the Internet, where he plans to put all his reviews and playbills, to evade the necessity of writing a showbiz autobiography. Transcending politics, movies, reviewers, books, gay prejudice, hangovers and the advancing years, he's quite something. No wonder Doctor Stockmann has that manic grin on his face at the end of the play

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