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 5:00 AM ET

Above: Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as Freddie and Stuart in Vicious

McKellen, who was born May 25, 1939 in Burnley, Lancashire, says he remembers sleeping “under a steel plate” until he was 4 years old. It was only later, a few years after World War II came to an end, that he not only realized war wasn’t normal but that something was different about him as well.

“It was difficult growing up gay in England at that time,” he says. “There was no sense of a community. There were no gay publications I could read, no gay books in the school library. There was no conversation about it anywhere. So it was just a confusing and a dreadful secret. “

When asked if he remembers the moment he was able to identify that he was gay and understood the ramifications of how he fit into society at that time, he pauses for a long moment, mulling the question over before saying, “When I grew up, attracted to people of my gender, I didn’t say I was gay. We didn’t use that word. The word was queer. And do I remember the moment where I said to myself, ‘I’m queer?’ I don’t think I ever did say it, because I didn’t feel I was queer. I thought I was perfectly normal. That didn’t lead me to start sticking up for myself at a time when having sex with another man was illegal and you could be put in prison for it. So there were all sorts of reasons for not identifying, even to yourself, what you were.”

Despite the barren landscape of gay role models at the time, McKellen says he had things “well figured out” by his mid-teens and soon acted on his feelings with other men. Though he didn’t speak publicly about his sexuality, he says he never truly felt as though he was ever in the closet.

“My boyfriends and I were always out in public and there wasn’t anybody who I met who didn’t know that I was gay, but I hadn’t come out to my family, nor had I ever talked to the press about it,” he says. “One of the reasons why was I thought I wouldn’t be allowed to play a certain person. Now that I’m gay they’ll expect me to play a gay part.

However, McKellen adds he was pleasantly surprised to find after coming out his career took a different path than the one he feared.

“By the time I came out, I was 49. I was well established and it was no surprise to anyone I had ever worked with. Things carried on as normal,” he says. “But what’s gratifying is that audiences, like I do, don’t give a damn about the sexuality of an actor. What they’re interested in is the performance. If they have some fantasy about an actor, then that’s what it is — fantasy. You can have fantasies about somebody whether they’re gay or straight, bisexual, transgender, whatever. So it’s perfectly possible for a straight actor to successfully play a gay man and it’s equally possible for me to play all sorts of straight men like Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus, and King Lear. After all, I wouldn’t want to cut myself off from that fascinating phenomenon of heterosexuality.”

The actor, who was knighted in 1991 for his service to the performing arts, says he feels an obligation to be as visible as he can to prove that the hazards of coming out as an LGBT person working in entertainment are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

“I’m sure the advice still goes to young actors, saying it would be better if you don’t come out. But I say it will be a great deal worse if you don’t come out because you’ll have a miserable, complicated life,” he asserts. “Frankly, if you feel like you’re in a business where you have to remain in the closet, my advice would be to get out of that business.”

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