Ian McKellen on Vicious Queens and Obliterating the Closet

The legendary actor speaks with The Advocate about playing gay in the groundbreaking new sitcom Vicious and how coming out of the closet helps change the world.

BY Jase Peeples

June 27 2014 6:00 AM ET

Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as Freddie and Stuart in Vicious.

To say Sir Ian McKellen’s résumé is impressive would be a gross understatement. Over a career spanning more than five decades, the actor has won accolades for roles in Shakespeare, been nominated twice for an Oscar — the first time for Gods and Monsters and then for wowing audiences as the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings — and he's even fought for mutant rights as Magneto in Marvel’s X-Men. But at 75 years old, McKellen is happy to admit he’s still trying new things.

With his role in the new British TV series Vicious, McKellen can now add a sitcom to his ever-expanding résumé. The Britcom, which begins airing in the U.S. on PBS Sunday, tells the story of partners Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (played by out actor Derek Jacobi) who have lived together for nearly 50 years in a small flat in central London. Though they spend most of their time firing off snide comments and picking each other apart, they also share a deep love that rests beneath the surface of their vicious exteriors.

“I was immediately attracted to doing a sitcom, as I’ve never done one before, and this sitcom was to be performed in front of a live audience in that old-fashioned way,” says McKellen. “Then I was told that my partner was going to be played by Derek Jacobi. I was excited about that because, while we’ve known each other for over 50 years, we’ve scarcely worked together and we both agreed we wanted to do it.”

He adds, pausing to chuckle before continuing, “I will say that I was a wee bit disappointed at first that the character I was going to play would be an actor of my own age and gay. I remember thinking, Oh, dear, this is going to be a little bit too close to home, but we had a reading of the first episode with friends and advisers and we all laughed so much, there didn’t seem to be reason to resist.”

While the series, which has already been renewed for a second season in the U.K., has received mostly positive reviews, a handful of people have voiced concern that the over-the-top flamboyance of the main characters reinforces old gay stereotypes. McKellen disagrees.

“I think there’s been some confusion with people who’ve been critical of these exaggerated eccentrics that we’re playing and worry we’re going back to the stereotypical gays you would get in sitcoms 20 or 30 years ago. Well, the fact is these characters are different,” he asserts. “These guys are out and have no problem with being gay. They’re not hiding it. They’re not making sly jokes about it. The comedy in this can be full-throated and you’re not laughing at these guys, you’re laughing with them, I hope. Of course, you’ll observe that not much of this show advances gay rights, nor will we say that these two men are typical gay men. I certainly hope they’re not. They behave outrageously at times, and yet it’s amusing to watch because we understand them.”

If anything, McKellen says, it’s a sign that the gay movement is growing up.

“Today — just as we’ve had sitcoms in the past about funny women, funny black people, funny young people, funny rich people, funny poor people, and funny people from the sticks — there can now be sitcoms about two old men who are also gay,” he says.

The simple fact that Freddie and Stuart are two older gay men was another reason McKellen joined Vicious. In addition to the series showcasing two gay leads, he says “it’s rare for old people to be at the center of a story.”

He said representations of aging LGBT people are sorely needed in entertainment to show young gay people they can lead fulfilling lives long after the age of 29.

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