Interview: Sir Ian McKellen Part II
Illustration by Fernando Monroy
Here is the second part of my conversation with the incredible Sir Ian Mckellen...
Jack: So 'coming out' was just a positive experience?
Ian: Again I say to the kids, I’ve only met one person who says they regret coming out and they don’t really mean it. Everything gets better. You think in some areas of your life it’s worse because a relationship will break down, but it was a relationship based on something that wasn’t real, wasn’t true. And you’ll discover for every friend you lose there’ll be a thousand new ones.
Jack: I remember when I was going through the process of coming out to my family, a phrase just came into my mind, it sounds really grandiose but it was ‘I want to stand in truth’. I want it to be real. This may hurt everyone, it may be painful but it will be real and by definition that’s where we need to be. ‘I want to stand in truth’.
Ian: But then what you could add to that is that the truth is about what you are, it’s not the truth about what you’ve done. You’re not confessing to something that you decided to do. You’re explaining something that you are. Actually my hair isn’t this colour, let me tell you what the real colour is. Let me tell you what I really am. How could that not be good or positive?
Jack: Where were you? We need to wheel you around so when people are coming out you can help them do it properly. You basically are doing that.
Ian: That’s why I go around schools. I have some wonderful Billy Graham occasions. Do you know Billy Graham? He used to take over Earls Court… thousands and thousands of people… and at the end he would say, ‘Come forward, if you walk forward you’ll be saved.' Then people would walk forward and he would give them the address of the local church. I thought Elton and I and Julian Clary should go around and pitch our tents as the ‘coming out tent’. Then at the end Elton would be singing and I would be saying ‘come out’ and they’d all come forward. It’s not like declaring yourself to be a Christian and then over the weekend saying, I’m not… because once you’ve walked forward, you’re out. No going back in. Wouldn’t that be good? A coming out tent.
Jack: You pitch a tent, you charge admission, then you get the address of your local gay bar. 'See you there on Saturday!'
Ian: Well, a website and then a mentor maybe who would help you. I just said to the kids, come out when you can and if somebody comes out to you, thank the other person for being so generous for having said something about themselves that is so central. No judgement, just give them a hug and say, how can I help? They were all nodding. They know that, they don’t need to be told it. But they like to hear it. At one school there were 1300 people sitting there. Teachers, a few governors, a few parents turned up. I said, are you aware that there’s not a single teacher in this school who dares say they’re gay? Why? Because they’re frightened of what your reaction might be, they might lose authority in the classroom. It’s your fault they’re not coming out, do you know that? At which point a young man at the back put his hand up, I think he was in 6th form. He said ‘I’m a member of staff here and I’m gay’. He came out. All the kids turned around, looked at him and started clapping [claps]. That’s how he came out.
Jack: That’s so moving.
Ian: So not only has his life changed for the better but everyone in the room.
Jack: So are you hopeful for the future when you tell stories like that? When you go round these schools, do you feel positive about the future, the next generation?
Ian: Oh yes. Well they are today’s generation. I’m yesterday’s generation.
Jack: Me too.
Ian: They are… I’ve been to about a hundred schools now and there’s always a chance to ask a question. I know it’s not easy to challenge Ian McKellen when he’s on a role but there was one boy and he said, 'It’s against my religion,' he explained to me, 'why you are anti the bible?' I said, 'Well I used to be Christian. I think your argument is not with me but with other Christians like you who don’t agree with you. It’s an internal argument in your religion.' He stuck up for himself, good for him. Two weeks later I got a letter from a teacher saying, ‘Incidentally you’ll be pleased to know James, the boy who said being gay was against his religion, has changed his mind and wants to let you know.' So religion is a dead hand for gay people... The beauty of the faith schools is, did you know faith schools are paid for by the taxpayer? It’s the beauty of the way the world changes- Section 28 was ‘you may not speak positively about being gay.' Now that’s been repealed. Now the law is- you may not discriminate on grounds of sexuality- it’s against the law. It’s against the law for a school to discriminate on grounds of sexuality. So if a teacher or a pupil says something, they are breaking the law of the land, not of the school, the land. So the school has to work out, how are we going to implement this, when people are horrible to gay people? So I’m just part of the process, of saying, well be nice to each other. You have to be because that’s the law. You can’t discriminate. Now that applies to Muslim schools and Jewish schools and Christian schools and they’re all having to come to terms with it. Otherwise they will lose their funding... Church of England schools have just brought out their pro-gay agenda, the Catholics are going to do the same, Muslim school have agreed. Yeah! Jewish schools are lagging a little bit.
Jack: Come on guys!
Ian: Come on guys, exactly. Of course it’s not illegal to be gay in Israel. You could always serve in the armed forces in Israel if you were gay, long before you could here because they needed the servicemen.
Jack: So to conclude…
Ian: It’s been thrilling to join in because, in dealing with your own life, when you come out you become politicised because you start making connections with other people. So we don’t know each other but we’re intimate because we’ve both been on the same journey, different sorts, but it’s been the same journey. It’s the same if you met somebody in South Africa or Moscow. You become an internationalist and you begin to see that the local laws here don’t fit in with your view of human nature and what it can be. Then life becomes really exciting, thrilling and in changing your own life you’re changing the lives of other people. Well, what could be better for a boy who was brought up by his parents to try and leave the world a better place? They did it from a Christian standpoint. Well I do it from the gay standpoint. And kids, with so much access to information, how could they not want the world to change and be different for them? So I’m very optimistic even though there are dreadful stories even in this country, where we have the best laws in the world actually. You wouldn’t want to be gay in Moscow right now, it’s dreadful. They’re having this spat with Putin and they’ve just closed down the British Council in Russia. The British Council tries to improve…
Jack: LGBT rights.
Ian: That’s included in it. The consulate in St Petersburg was brilliant with local gay groups. That’s just been closed down, partly because Putin knows what they’re doing. When they haven’t been able to discuss things on a governmental level the embassies have all started to deal with LGBT stuff and say, we’re proud of that, it’s what makes us British.
Jack: Isn’t that amazing that it’s become part of our identity?
Ian: Of course the people who run the Foreign Office have all been to Cambridge. They’re like us. They see it. They’re clear-sighted. They’re perfectly nice people. They’re a bit stuffy you think but…
Jack: They share the values and the outlook.
Ian: Yes and we’re a nice little country and we all know each other. That’s why we can do what we did so quickly. We live in the same city as the government, the head of state, the media. It’s all head. You bump into people. I bumped into John Major at the National Theatre and asked him if I could come and talk to him about social issues, as I called it. Of course John Major [Conservative Prime Minister 1990-97] - his parents were in show business, he didn’t have any problem with [people] being gay. He was having an affair with Edwina Currie! He’s a perfectly ordinary person, never mind his politics. His belief system was that everyone should have his opportunity. It’s not [like that] being in America. Imagine living in Montana and trying to relate to what’s happening in Washington DC, it’s very difficult there. It’s too big. Which [is why] I think they have clumps of gay places like New York and San Fransisco. Then people like Armistead, who was a Southerner, went and lived in San Fransisco. Well it happened here… people migrated from Northern Ireland. The incidence of HIV AIDS in Northern Ireland was rock bottom and people said, why’s that? It’s because all the gays have moved to London.
Jack: They weren’t there.
Ian: They weren’t there.
Jack: If you came up with an essential reading list of the gay plays or gay novels or gay artists who meant the most to you in your lifetime, who would they be? I think Armistead Maupin is definitely one of them. Shakespeare - a bit gay?
Ian: Well the first book that had an impact on me before I was out was called ‘Against The Law’, by Peter Wildeblood. Peter Wildeblood and two other guys had had a racy weekend down on the estate of Lord Montague... They all met up and had drinks and probably had a bit of sex, I don’t know. Anyway they were all found guilty and Peter Wildeblood was sent to prison and while he was in prison he wrote this book. It was the first publication I’d ever read which was written by an openly gay person. It was mainly critical of the prison system. So when would that be? 1950s… so that was a huge shock. It was a respectable book. Published by Penguin. You could have it on your shelves. It wasn’t a mucky book.
Jack: It wasn’t in a brown paper bag.
Ian: Otherwise you’d have to go around the corner to look for it. Well there was Oscar Wilde. But more telling to me would be A.E. Housman. Bless them, they’ve got windows next to each other in Westminster Abbey. Housman wrote some of the most wonderful gay poetry.
Jack: I don’t know Housman. Can you remember any?
Ian: I’ll show you some before you go.
Jack: For me it was… I remember reading 'Giovanni’s Room' by James Baldwin.
Ian: Oh yes, well James Baldwin, of course, yes.
Jack: He made a huge impact on me. I think because of the religious aspect as well. You know he had such a religious upbringing and he was a gay young man. I think that really chimed with me.
Ian: It was no use looking to Noel Coward. Actually Noel Coward wrote about gay relationships and certainly had a gay attitude to the world. He was terribly proper but he was critical. Gore Vidal’s early writing… although he was not a 'homosexualist'. He wouldn’t say he was 'gay'. He was a man who has sex with men. That’s how he wanted to define himself. Ivor Novello, one of my great heroes, before Andrew Lloyd Webber and Oscar Hammerstein there was Ivor Novello who wrote musicals, who was the most famous performer in the country. His musicals ran for years and years and years. Well he was gay. There was a campness, you could sort of tell. Specifically 'out', there was nothing that I could relate to. It’s only relatively recently that I would want to make an argument, not that Shakespeare was gay…
Jack: I think 'gay' is a modern term and a modern concept. I wouldn’t project that onto him.
Ian: Yes. Shakespeare knew everything about human nature. To me he’s God in a sense. If I want to define what the world is I’d have to read Shakespeare. And Shakespeare’s acceptances of everybody’s life is fascinating. He knew. He could imagine himself into any situation. He could imagine what it’s like to be a woman, a king, a beggar, a soldier, a murderer. He could imagine himself and write it. He could imagine gay people too, whether he was gay... Well he wasn’t a soldier so why should he be gay? There are gay stories in Shakespeare. Antonio is one of them in the Merchant of Venice. He starts the play ’in sooth, I know not why I am so sad’. Well you know why he’s sad. His boyfriend has just said he’s going to get married.
Jack: Have you ever played Antonio?
Ian: No, I will do I think. I’ve written the screenplay for it. I’ve tried to get it done and it’s not worked out. There are other characters too but he is the main one. He is the Merchant of Venice, not Shylock. It’s as much about being gay that play as it is about being Jewish. That’s not reading into it, it’s there.
Jack: I find with Shakespeare that there’s so much in his work about identity, about hiding who you are, about love under different disguises and so much about the gay experience that we can read into it if we want to.
Ian: I wouldn’t say it to a young person who wanted confirmation that they were not alone, to start trawling through Shakespeare. Because you’re trawling through a lot of other stuff that’s not really relevant. Do you know the whole business of Section 28 started with a book published in Scandinavia about two men bringing up a little girl? 'Eric and Something Lived with Jenny', I think it was called. [Editor: 'Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin']
Jack: And that started it?
Ian: And the right wing got hold of the idea that this book was circulating in schools. It wasn’t really. It was circulating among some teachers. So the written word is terribly potent. But if you can find the written word which chimes in with what’s written in your own heart, then it can be very empowering. So it behoves me to come up with some books they should read… I have no idea really!
Jack: No but that’s lovely. If you see art or writing that chimes deep inside you and makes you feel not alone, and turns on a kind of light in the darkness, that’s a very powerful thing.
Ian: My lodger was saying he’d just seen the first mainstream rom com with a gay…
Jack: Love Simon?
Ian: Yeah. He said… ’I didn’t like it. He didn’t have this personality this boy... Of course I cried!’ So I mean, how far have we come? He said, ‘Is this going to be the future?’ I said, it all depends on if it makes any money. If there’s money in it there’ll be more. If there isn’t that’ll be the end of it. So if you want more of these things go and see them, buy the book! But in the end… I don’t know, what do you do if you’re unhappy about being gay because other people around you don’t like it? If you’re being bullied at school because of the colour of your skin you go home to your parents who are like you, and they can help you and sympathise. But the gay boy or girl who’s being bullied at school has probably got straight parents so they can’t go back to them. So they need some guidance. Hopefully it will come through somebody else who’s gay or isn’t judgemental about being gay. A good substitute is a book or a play or a film or even a news item.
Jack: I think just your visibility and presence does that. I remember seeing you at the Oscars and you were with a very beautiful young man…
Ian: Nick! He’s got the thing next to my studio… we held hands.
Jack: I found that shocking and brilliant at the same time. I loved it.
Ian: We were holding hands because I was nervous. We were just being ordinary. I was aware the camera kept coming… there was some gay editor of the programme who saw this. No comment was ever made but people remember.
Jack: It was like a rebellious act. It was very impactful.
Ian: But look I don’t take any pride in that. Years before when I won the Tony on Broadway, Sean was there with me and when my name was called I took a letter out of my pocket written to Sean and I gave to Sean. I don’t know what it said, probably ‘Thank you’. Then I got up on stage and never mentioned it. Why would I? But I was there. People say ‘How brave of you to appear with your boyfriend at the Tonys- never been done before!' Yes it had. I knew Peter Schafer, the man who had written the play I was in, Amadeus. He was there with his boyfriend. But sometimes you have to draw attention to it.
Jack: You keep saying you didn’t mean to make it a thing, I don’t think you realise how revolutionary some of the things you’ve done are. You’re in your body so you’re just going through your own journey but as an objective observer it has been very powerful.
Ian: I remember in Manchester standing outside the town hall and saying ‘I’m gay’ and the roar of approval from 6 or 7000 people, you want more of that.
Jack: I love it! The actor in you loves it!
Ian: Yes well because I know how to perform in public, on stage. That’s been my contribution, that’s what I can do. There are other people, like say Angela Mason who through her career as a real revolutionary, she helped to change all these laws when she was running Stonewall. It was all done behind closed doors, through the law. That was her contribution. She understood the law and what was wrong with it and argued the case. You each do what you can. So it happens that mine has been in public and seems to have had an impact, but on its own.
Jack: Well it has, and on behalf of other young gay people, thank you very much. I really mean that. I really do.
Ian: Yes well that is lovely. Of course it’s wonderful.
Jack: And you were great as Gandalf as well!
Ian: But you do it for yourself as well. You 'come out' to yourself and then the journey starts. But you know, still in schools teachers are scared to come out. So a lonely gay kid in school looks in vain for an adult who is happy to be gay. No footballers out!
Jack: That’s mad.
Ian: It’ll happen quite soon. There’s gonna be some kid who’s out at home from early teens and just can’t help himself.
Jack: What’s mad is in the fashion industry you get loads of gay designers, there’s no male model around my age that’s openly gay - and that’s in the fashion industry.
Ian: So you’re the odd boy out.
Jack: But I was told for years, you can’t come out, no brand will want you to represent them. Now I’m working more than ever because there’s been a sea change. But actors have the same thing.
Ian: I wasn’t in films in a big way until I came out.
Jack: That’s mad. So the very thing that people said would ruin your career…
Ian: Chris Smith who was the first MP in this country come out, he was an already an MP but at one public meeting he said he was gay. At the next election his majority went up because people like honestly, they know where they are with you. You’re not leading a double life, you’re open. If you’re open you’re not a threat. If you’ve got some secret people are right to be suspicious. What’s the matter with you? Oh he doesn’t like people to know what he really is. So honesty is the best policy. No I think the first player who comes out being told by his gay manager and his gay trainer that he’s going to lose his sponsorship deal, everybody will be queueing up because he’ll be the most famous player in the world.
Jack: He’ll be a national treasure as well.
Ian: But that’s not the message they’re getting from their support system. Any more than young actors in Hollywood are getting that message.
Jack: When I was meeting agents when I wanted to be an actor when I was younger, that would come up in every meeting. Do you want a leading man romantic career or do you want to be the best friend? If you want to be the leading man never talk about being gay and you need to stop being so camp. But I couldn’t stop being camp so I had to stop. I mean that’s still going on now.
Ian: It’s like they think no one knows that they’re lying. The public don’t give a fuck. They like to know where they are. It’s not held Elton John’s career back or George Michael’s or Boy George or any of them who came out. To say to you that, do you want to be the leading man? How many of these film stars are there who are having a career being a leading man? At any one time there are about five. The likelihood that you will be one of those is ridiculous. Unfortunately you’re english, go to American and become American like Gary Oldman had to do. No! I am what I am. They’re lying to you. Better to say to them, do you want to stay closeted so you are in the running to become one of those five or do you want to be happy? You can say to people in Hollywood, perhaps at the moment if you are openly gay you’ll be drawing attention to yourself in an unhelpful way as an actor, what about becoming a director or a designer or an agent or a trainer or a producer? All of whom are openly gay. Why is it the poor old actor can’t be gay? Well the answer is the producers will tell you the audience won’t accept you, and what they mean is the audience who live in the Bible Belt of America won’t accept you and they will start boycotting your television programme and therefore advertisers won’t want to underwrite the programme you’re making, therefore we won’t be able to make the programme. That’s what they mean. It’s nothing to do with the audience’s reaction. Yes you’ll lose some fans because you’re gay and you’ll lose some fans if you said you were a scientologist. But no one’s born a scientologist and you were born gay. There’s nothing to be done. But the big thing now for me is… I pick up from the kids, some of them resist coming out because they don’t want to define themselves. They don’t want to define themselves because they’re frightening of what they are. I don’t think I can call myself gay, I don’t know that I am. But I’m not straight really. I don’t really. Fluid… that’s a wonderful word. We should all admit we’re fluid. Could you imagine a world where everyone is fluid... I only called myself gay because for years people gave me a label I didn’t like, queer. So I said I’m not that, I’m this. Well actually, I think in the spectrum I’m well, gay.
Jack: But it is a spectrum.
Ian: But everyone’s frightened society’s gonna collapse, can you imagine? People having children and then having affairs with the opposite gender, how does that work? Well let them work it out. Did you want to become mainstream, did you want to get married, did you want to behave like a straight person even though you were gay or did you want to change society and make it different and encourage all the straight people to be like us? Have sex with whoever we wanted, whenever we wanted, however we wanted. A whole new world. That was the argument and it’s the argument in X-Men between Professor X and Magneto.
Jack: I was wondering about that, I was really drawn to X-Men comics when I was a teenager and looking back now it was for that reason.
Ian: You weren’t to know that Marvel, Stan Lee who invented it, he said, it was all political propaganda. It’s about the civil rights movement, whether it’s black, women or gays. It’s always an argument- do you conform or do you challenge? That’s the discussion. The demographic for the comics is young blacks, young jews and young gays. They’re the people who like X-Men, because they think, I’m a mutant. So of all the Marvel publications it’s the most relevant and a wonderful starter for someone trying to relate to the world. I think everyone should read X-Men comics.
Jack: Thank you so much Ian.
A special treat for you. Here is Sir Ian reading A. E. Housman's 'Oh Who Is That Young Sinner' to me...
The documentary 'McKellen: Playing The Part' is in cinema now...
Fernando Monroy is a Mexican illustrator currently studying in México city. His work references pop culture, reflecting the work of photographers, designers and fashion. Out Magazine named him one of twenty young queer artists to watch.