The Vicious Side of Ian McKellen

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.



Above: Stuart (Derek Jacobi) and Freddie (Ian McKellen) share an affectionate moment in the first episode of Vicious.

McKellen says he hoped to have the opportunity to provide a beacon of hope for LGBT youth and entertainers who felt trapped in the closet in another way after he had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in 1998 for his role as James Whale in the critically acclaimed film Gods and Monsters.

“I had in the pocket of my tuxedo that night, a speech which began, ‘I’m proud to be the first openly gay actor to ever get an Oscar,’” he recalls. “But alas, it wasn’t my turn. Nor has anyone else since been able to say that. So we’re still waiting for the first openly gay actor to pick up their Oscar.”

In addition to being an out and visible gay man, McKellen continues to be a driven advocate for LGBT rights, lending his voice and celebrity to a number of equality campaigns and causes throughout the world.  It’s a passion he says won’t be dying down any time soon.

“I suppose I’m making up for those early years, the first half of my life, when I didn’t talk about it,” he says as his voice takes on a happy, lilting quality. “And if you don’t talk about being gay, you don’t get to meet other gay people. You’re not a citizen of the world. The connections you immediately make once you come out, sharing coming-out stories, for example, is one of the good things about being gay. We all have that in common. We have to come out whether we live in Russia or Africa, the States or the United Kingdom. So I’m very happy to keep telling people I’m gay, because being out, that’s what changes the world.”

Though he’s pleased with the general reception of Vicious, McKellen says he has specific goals in mind for “getting it better” when he returns for the show’s second season. “There’s lots about my own performance that needs attention,” he admits. “It was particularly difficult for me to work out how to play to an audience of 500 people who are in the studio with us and play more subtly to the camera, which is where the vast majority of the audience is. I think there’s a level of playing that I’m interested in getting right [this time].”

He also says he’s looking forward to the further development of the show’s two main characters and hopes viewers will keep in mind that Freddie and Stuart are from a different generation.

“They’re gays of their age and they had to battle through it,” he says. “When they were young men they could have been in prison for having sex. So they’re survivors and they battled through by sticking with each other. Maybe part of the viciousness they use is some resentment, but that was the only life that was open to them.”

“Still,” he adds, “I do hope there will be more signs of modern gay life in this series, and I’ve heard hints that the characters are going to be getting out of the house a bit more, and I like that. After all, living an open life, that’s what was inspired by drag queens and so many others at the Stonewall riots 45 years ago. And that spirit, we should all live.”