Sir Ian McKellen: There’s Nothing to Know

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At Cambridge, he wasn’t as funny as John Cleese (born Cheese) or Graham Chapman, who were in the comedy footlights, and — while deciding on a career as either a journalist or a chef — he took up amateur drama. Since University, Sir Ian McKellen has become the consummate professional.

Title: Sir? — really anything you like!

Occupation: All my adult life, I’ve been acting: when I was at University, I was going to be a cook, a chef, or a journalist — I didn’t just decide to become an actor when I was leaving University at 22. I would have been a journalist, but I’d been warned that there weren’t many jobs around as a journalist. And as for being a chef, I really wasn’t very good at cooking. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an actor from the word “go”: acting was my hobby — theatre-going was active, and I wanted to know what was going on behind the scenes. There were lots of wonderful silly things going on at Cambridge, but they (the Peter Cooks and Dudley Moores) were on one side. I wasn’t thought to be funny enough to do comedy, so I was doing the drama. There wasn’t a drama course at University, but there were a lot of us who were very keen … In those days, it was rather easy to get work in the theatre, and each city had its own professional town theatre.

Venues and affiliations: Anywhere, really. Shakespeare is very interesting, and people as objects with power — presidents and prime ministers — are more interesting. They’re all troubled people who worry about the relationship between the public and private personae; it’s fascinating to them and us.

You’re pretty out there, and homosexuality was a prison offense before 1967 in England. I had friends who were in prison for making love. I find that astonishing, but in my country there was a man recently murdered in Trafalgar Square at 9pm in the evening, and it was called a gay hate crime. You can change the laws, but changing people’s attitudes is another thing … prejudice is very difficult to change … that’s why you have to go on talking about it. It’s smart to put it in the statute books, but you can’t shut up a lot of people who have misunderstandings about homosexuality.

They think it’s just about sex? People are hung up about sex and can’t even talk to their children about it. I got no sex education at all, not in school or church, not at home. Some people realize that the world has changed, and others don’t. When people think offensive remarks about homosexuals, it offends me. Many are offended … it may offend their religions … some stick to their religions. What’s behind it is homophobia — the worry, the fear, the life. It’s a perfectly normal, minority group of people in the world who should not be discriminated against whatsoever. People don’t get it who have never met a homosexual person, or read or watch anti-gay people in the media, but when they discover that maybe their child is gay, there can be the most amazing turnaround. It means that people have to discuss the situation, and the situation is that there’s no need to make life miserable for those who contribute to the community and the nation. They should be embraced.

You’re in New York to entertain kids? What about the rest of us? I got involved with Dina Hammerstein, Oscar’s youngest son, Jamie’s widow. She didn’t know what to do when he died, and she created this amazing, simple organization based on her own children. She used to be an actress and organized small groups of entertainers to go into long-stay hospitals where kids are in wheelchairs or who have debilitating diseases and turn them into actors in a show. Finally, she made it official and formed a charity, Only Make Believe. The kids are given swords and costumes, and they act out a story with minimal scenery. At the end of 45 minutes, they go back to their wards with a smile on their faces. The medics say that it helps them get better quickly. It’s extremely entertaining — a little bit of fun. For the past 10 years, I’ve been to hospitals a few times. But the best way I can help is by raising awareness for the charity, like the gala tonight. The people honored weren’t chosen by me, and the awards don’t represent winning, but rather recognition by a very small group that is financially prudent. There are few people running the organization and lots of volunteers. Chris Worthing is one of them; he helps to run the Big Apple Circus in his spare time, another charity that does good work for hospitals — I introduced him to Dina. They started to help each other, and he’s now on the board. As far as people helping, they can do so by getting to their website — you can explain it in a sentence. Everybody understands why children have to be entertained. For patients and their friends, being in the hospital can be very intimidating. Only Make Believe ignores that attitude and just encourages the kids to entertain..

Now, what about this new series on television you’re doing: it’s not just a Kafkaesque remake of The Prisoner This is different and based on the original with great affection and respect, but that was Big Brother in the 70s — everything socialist in the middle of the cold war. But now things are different, a little more tangible aspects of society that merit discussion, including surveillance. It’s about many aspects about how humans treat each other, family, love, politics, those sort of relationships — that’s what it’s playing with. There are questions being asked in each episode that aren’t answered until the final one. You can pick up the clues. I suspect it’s gong to be that sort of show

So, you’re not coming back to Broadway soon? I’ve just done six or seven months of Waiting for Godot in London, and we’re gong to revive it as there were too many people who couldn’t get into see it. We were asked to come to New York and Washington and Brooklyn, but it wasn’t practical.

Restaurants/bars/clubs you like anywhere in the world, and why? In New York: The Box on Tuesday night because it’s gay night; and in London I’m in the Grapes Pub, located in Limehouse in the East End, and beyond that I bob around to various places. But I don’t go out much in London because I have a home there and friends to visit it — unless they‘re visiting me.

People you admire in the acting business and why? I supposed the degree to which you let someone else get inside is what I process — people who give startling performances sometimes repeat it for the rest of their lives, but I try to do a variety of things. My first icon is Laurence Olivier, who wasn’t just a romantic Hollywood-y star in his youth, but started the National Theatre and was a great director as well as actor.

What’s something that people might not know about you? Uh, that there’s nothing to know …

What are you doing tonight? I’m introducing the recipients of the awards from the Only Make Believe Foundation at the Shubert Theater — and then, where?