Tim here from Liverpool. Today’s Observer features an interview with Ian McKellen. Since I don’t have a scanner, I have transcripted the article or rather most of it, since the final paragraph focuses on domestic affairs (Princess Margaret’s death and Sir Ian’s recount of an encounter with her)and is of less interest for fellow Ringers.
“A WORLD UNDER HIS SPELL” – An Oscar-nominee for his portrayal of Gandalf, happily in love and looking forward to a stint on US TV, Ian McKellen has achieved a perfect balance of personal and professional contentment (by Euan Ferguson)
There are terribly kind eyes, especially for a face so absurdly prepossessing. They can do hard, they can do jealous, they can do pathetic or murderous, but in repose they do kind, with hints of something else – a rare intelligence, certainly, an, perhaps, a certain pain. In the face of Gandalf the Grey, however, Tolkien’s most complex creation, brought to life by McKellen in a performance now oscar-nominated, the hints behind the kindness are of dangers and magic and mischief, and uncertainty, and watching the result managed, slightly, to shock McKellen himself. “When I saw the film I didn’t always think it was me, which is an extraordinary thing for an actor to say. You’re normally so busy concentrating on your own performance, analysing this and that, that you never see the wider picture, but suddenly I forgot it was me and began to find the whole thing moving, which is highly unusual.” Sir Ian McKellen, 62, grand knight of British theatre, and.
now, beloved icon of a generation of LOTR devotees, is a happy man. Able at last to pick and choose his Hollywood roles, financially cushioned, in a relationship for the past 14 months with a New Zealand man which has brought him “great joy”, and now unashamedly delighted at his Academy nomination –
“Well, yes it does matter to me, because I would like to win an Oscar” – he must, I suggest, be in a fine mood these days. He grins, the fleshly planes softly transforming into a different face. “Yes, yes. I suppose I am. For once, everything’s just…dandy.” And yet, he never really knew, he says. Until the first showing of “Fellowship of the Ring”, nominated for 13 oscars and a riotous box-office success, he didn’t really know what he had done, what he had helped make. “No, I didn’t. I really didn’t. A film is finished before there’s any audience, obviously, and the actors never get to meet them, to gauge reaction. That’s why, by the way, you can always pick out stage actors at the Oscars, for instance: they know how to walk. Movie actors are the ones who have trouble negotiating the steps because they’re used to the close-up. So I was aware, at least, that we were doing something which was eagerly anticipated, which was good in its way, at least some people were going to want to see it, even though they might en masse take against the translation and interpretation. And I suppose I was aware it might make a big impact because the movie was big, in every possible way. A year, and more, out of our lives, which is little for me but a lifetime when you’re 18. And yet, well, we were filming sometimes in an old paint factory.
No heating, no air-conditioning, no sound-proofing, right next to Wellington Airport. Every take was preceded by a conversation between the assistant director and air traffic control, letting us know we had 3 minutes to get the shot. Every word of the film has been dubbed, though you’d never know. And when I saw the first versions of the effects, I thought, oh my God, not good. And the sound was quite ropey. And I thought, do you know, maybe we’re just making the most expensive home movie in history. do these Kiwis really know what they’re doing?
Well, it’s easy to underestimate someone who doesn’t wear shoes and who’s only got two shirts and they’re both the same colour and never cuts his hair. Peter Jackson doesn’t look like a major director who can organise vast troops. He looks like… a hobbit. But a major director is exactly what he is, and he did it with massive equanimity and humour and devotion. So I should have known it would be all right, but I didn’t, not until I saw it complete. So it came out, and it took off, and there was all that worldwide popularity and acclaim, and that doesn’t necessarily translate into oscars, and does it matter if it does or doesn’t? I think it does. You see these Brits being interviewed, being so understated, saying it’s nice to be given a pat on the back I suppose, or oh the old Oscars, gosh is it that time again, I had no idea? Well, if you worked in America, that’s what they do. It’s a big, big thing, and if they’ve decided at this stage to say the film we enjoyed most, the film we thought best, as professionals, was LOTR, then isn’t that good, shouldn’t we celebrate? And it’s sort of value rewarded for those Kiwis and their enterprise, and all of us who joined in on what could have been an absolute midcap disaster. And good luck to New Zealand for believing, for the film was new zealand or a year, we were the biggest employer in the land. They put us on the stamps, do you know? On the 40-cent stamps. me and christopher Lee. and then, for the opening of the film, the government changed Wellington’s name overnight, all the signposts were changed, and the place became Middle-Earth: well, isn’t that adorable?” He fell for the country rather heavily, he says, and worried, towards the end, whether he would find it difficult to come home. “It’s not just the environment, though that does something to your head, and sense of history. There have only been human beings there for 800 years. It really was the garden of eden. there were no predators. the bloody birds forgot how to fly – they walked. and you discover a culture which is extremely relaxed and liberal. in terms of sexuality, well, although gays are not quite on the streets and in the papers in the same way, you find the most forward-looking and easy partnerships – two men, even three men, bringing up children together, which is quite at odds with the idea that New Zealand is repressive, some version of Fifties Britain. And i suppose, now I’m back, if it’s changed me it’s made me think that labels are dangerous things because they limit. even to call someone “gay” isn’t enough. What I’ve learnt, partly because of the way liberation is done in NZ, is that saying “I’m gay” or “I’m straight” or “gay rights” is an awful simplification. There are degrees in all the possiblities for all sorts of relationships that are inhibited by old long-standing concepts of how society is organised.”
McKellen famously came out in 1988 during a radio conversation with Peregrine Wortshorne, and went on to co-found the gay rights group Stonewall. Why, in retrospect, had it taken him so long, given that he was in the world of acting, at a time when closet doors were swinging open everywhere? “I’m the guy who gets cowed by authority. Which means you resent authority but you don’t necessarily fight it. i do feel i should have spoken sooner, yes. suddenly a huge weight dropped. all that stuff with parents’ friends, you know – “why is so-and-so 45 and still not married?””Oh, it’s just because he hasn’t met the right girl”- and I didn’t quite lie but didn’t quite tell the truth. deep down i was ashamed of the fact that i wasn’t normal, i didn’t think i was normal. in 1969, i was breaking the law in edinburgh; it was still an offence for two men to make love; i was a criminal. and if your instinct is to be accepted, and yet you think yourself odd, then you find yourself lying. But this has made sense to me only over the past 15 years. and now i can go on to David Letterman, as I did recently and answer about Christmas, saying I had a very pleasant time with my boyfriend, and it’s unchallenged!
but currently, there’s maybe less with politics. it’s the problem with being happy. i’m currently a bit inward looking, concentrating on being happy myself rather than telling everyone how as a nation we should organise, and if i was on a march at the moment I would be saying to everyone.. be honest to each other. admit there are limitless possibilities in relationships, and love as many people as you canm in whatever way you want, and get rid of your inhibitions, and we’ll all be happy – but how do you put that into legislation?” Coming from a new age proselytist, it would sound faintly ludicrous. Coming from the knight, the thrilling Coriolanus and perhaps the best Macbeth of the last century, his mobile face suddenly rigid with sincerity, it makes a certain sense. as in fact, in did coming from Tolkien. But how, I wondered, would McKellen have squared today’s world, and today’s freedoms, with the Thirties of Tolkien – a fine peaceful conservative world, rich with myth and beauty and dire inequity and rank bigotry? “A lovely world, in ways, and what a brilliant man. but you couldn’t expect a gay man to say things were better then. there was total repressive misery, and for other minorities, too. and the other thing that’s right at the heart of this story, the great story, is class. the relationship between frodo and sam is completely that of master and gardener, with Tolkien playing on what he must have encountered in the trenches of the First World War. it was interesting that Peter cast two Americans in the roles who, between them, weren’t very interested in the class thing; they seem to be in the movie just to be mates. i think if i’d been directing i’d have been examining that – but in a way the rest of the world mightn’t have been particularly interested in. but then, when you set out to write a myth, myths have resonances beyond the intentions of the author. so we even had the situation where gays were saying to Peter: “You are going to understand that sam and frodo are in love, you know, they’re always hugging and kissing and sleeping together” – and you’ve got to say, yeah, but you can go too far. sex really isn’t on the agenda in middle-earth.” And gay sex? “God no. life as a gay man in middle-earth would have been miserable, sort of unthinkable. although i was suggesting to peter yesterday he should insert some love interest for Gandalf in a later one. he suggested galadriel… i said, no, i was thinking more of someone like legolas. oh god, Euan, put that in an ironic typeface or something, for the Americans.” although , he does love them, the Americans, and is about to become more beloved by them, when he guest-hosts Saturday Night Live. that’s not such a departure for those who have followed his stage career. “I love doing comedy, i’m always doing comedy. and you can’t play hamlet unless you’re a good comedian. macbeth opens with a joke.” (…..)
He waves, warmly, and is off. Off through his archway, via middle-earth, to the strangest land of all: to Hollywood.