Ian McKellen's Well-Lived Life Gets the Celluloid Treatment

ap images/Andrew Medichini

At long last, a documentary on the life of Ian McKellen is being released. The 78-year-old actor is best known for his roles as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films and Magneto in the X-Men franchise. The doc, McKellen: Playing the Part, covers this chapter, but it also reviews a life full of accomplishments in the worlds of theater and LGBT activism.

Condensing his story into 90 minutes was hardly an easy task. Director Joe Stephenson (Chicken) interviewed the knighted gay actor for 14 hours over the course of five days. “You have to make really tough decisions,” admits Stephenson, who also included archival footage, never-before-seen photographs, and even reenactments of the star’s life.

“It was quite comfortable for me, because I was sitting in my own home, in my favorite chair,” says McKellen, who entrusted his friend to recount his life story as he saw fit.

But the process wasn’t stress-free. “I’m a rather shy person who spends his life pretending to be other people,” adds McKellen, who fretted about how he would appear in a production that may become his legacy. But he was relieved to see the final product. “Ian McKellen is quite articulate. Isn’t it? Very good. He can put a sentence together,” he observes.

Overall, the film is a fascinating portrait of the actor’s journey from a child in northern England, to his studies at Cambridge, to his rise as an internationally known star of Shakespearean stage and Hollywood screen.

Looking back at his youthful self, McKellen was first taken aback by his own appearance. “I was rather dishy!” he exclaims. “Nobody ever told me that. So that was a surprise. And I thought, My God, why didn’t I take more advantage of that?” But with age comes experience — upon reviewing his life, he observes he is a better actor and “much more relaxed” today.

There are also chapters that may surprise those who know McKellen as an out activist. In an interview promoting the 1979 original production of Bent, a play about two gay men in a Nazi concentration camp, McKellen plays down the role of sexuality in the drama — and does not mention his own.

To The Advocate, McKellen cites then-existing sodomy laws as a reason for his silence. But he also admits he was “a bit frightened” for his career. “If people knew when I was playing Romeo that actually I fancied Mercutio and not Juliet, that I wouldn’t be very convincing in the part,” he says. “The perpetual worry that gay people have is, ‘What will other people think?’”

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McKellen would not come out publicly until 1988 at age 48, when he did so in order to speak out against antigay legislation in British Parliament, Section 28. He did so at the advice of Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin, who convinced McKellen “that someone in public life coming out was very potent” in the lives of others who don’t have a voice. Maupin was right.

An archival BBC interview of McKellen revealing his sexuality to shoot down an antigay reporter is one of the film’s most triumphant scenes. The moment changed his life, sparking perhaps his greatest role — that of a vocal activist for LGBT rights.

“My life became better in every possible way,” McKellen says of coming out. “You won’t meet a gay person who doesn’t think it’s the best thing they ever did.” Today, McKellen sees his legacy in public figures like queer diver Tom Daley, who is also using visibility for good. “It’s always a thrill, isn’t it, when somebody comes out in public life,” he marvels.

McKellen also takes courage in the acceptance of young people. The documentary follows McKellen during one of his frequent visits to schools, where he observes with awe that “young people don’t have a problem” with LGBT people — and that many have abandoned labels altogether. “If a few dinosaurs come out in their aging years, well, good luck and about time. But let’s not worry too much about them. The future is much brighter,” he says.

“Let’s have laws which don’t discriminate. Let’s have attitudes that say everybody is themselves. And thank goodness! And how interesting, and what a variety there are of people in the world. And that’s the message I get from young people,” he says.

However, McKellen also warns of the challenges still faced by the international LGBT community, like homophobia in sports and the rise of antigay legislation in Russia and beyond.

He hopes his documentary and life story will inspire a new generation of activists to take that first step into change, by “being out. Being honest. Feeling relaxed about yourself. Be what you are. I am what I am. But all over the world gay activists are absolutely amazing in their determination, and we can’t be complacent.” 

McKellen: Playing the Part comes out June 19 in U.S. theaters. Learn more at mckellenfilm.com.

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