SIR Ian McKellen is 79 today but he still exudes a youthful exuberance when I meet him in a Covent Garden members’ club. He asks several questions about me before I can turn the tables on him and his answers are humble and genial — something it seems we have Ricky Gervais to thank for. ‘When I did Extras with Ricky, he asked me to send myself up, the pompous actor talking about himself,’ says McKellen in that unmistakable voice. ‘When I saw that, I was terrified. I thought, “That’s what I am, I am a persona!” Since then I’ve tried, in interviews, not to be that person. I think before I’d done Extras, I couldn’t have done this as well. I would have been acting myself.’
By ‘this’, he means his new film, McKellen: Playing The Part, an engrossing documentary in which he talks about his career, his sexuality and the loss of his mother. What made him do it? ‘I met the director, Joe Stephenson, through a friend and he said, “Why don’t we record a long conversation?” and I thought, very good. But it wasn’t something I particularly wanted to do. And for a lot of it I was extremely grumpy. I kept saying, “What am I doing? I have to be myself!”’
Staying humble must be tricky, though. McKellen has been collecting awards for decades and is about to start a West End run of King Lear. He enjoys appreciation from fans, though — ‘It’s what you spend your life doing, trying to affect people’ — but he’s glad he can still travel on the Tube. ‘I remember being with Tom Hanks in Paris filming The Da Vinci Code. We’d been rehearsing in a hotel and he said goodbye. I said, “Do you want a cab?” He said, “I can’t take a cab”. Tom Hanks can’t go on to the street and do that because a thousand people are going to shout, “It’s Tom Hanks!” Oh, that would be awful.’
McKellen is best known as Magneto in the X-Men films and Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings — but I’m curious about a clip in Playing The Part that shows him getting upset about filming with a green screen. ‘Oh, that was an occasion where I had a strong reaction and was never asked to do it again that way,’ he says. ‘There are a variety of ways they can shrink the hobbits and grow Gandalf and the extreme way was us not being in the same space. I never acted with Elijah Wood [Frodo]. I had to look down and he had to look up. But that is acting, having to use your imagination.’
When it comes to the lighter side of the Hobbit movies, McKellen starts to chuckle at secrets even their director isn’t in on. ‘I’ve got the keys to Bag End hanging outside my door,’ he says. ‘Peter Jackson doesn’t know that. He said, “We’ve lost the keys to Bag End” — because he’s got Bag End in his garden. I thought, Ah, well, I know where they are…’
And there we have it: birthday boy McKellen may have entered his 80th year but he’s still as mischievous as a schoolboy.
McKellen: Playing The Part will be broadcast live from BFI Southbank on Sunday. King Lear is on at London’s Duke Of York’s theatre from July 11 to November 3
Ian McKellen on…
If someone comes up and you’re about to apologise and they say, ‘I’m from Cuba’, of course I stop. Or they say, ‘Thank you’ or ‘I love your work’ — how can you resent it? The best thing is when a couple comes up and says, ‘We went to see you on our first date.’ Oh! I’m part of your life. Isn’t that lovely?
…skills he’s picked up through acting
I’ve learnt about what it must be like to be in a position of power. What it’s like to be the king, what it’s like to be in charge. So it does alert you to the difficulties of being prime minister or president. And some practical things, like I know how to fence. I know how to fight, which is something I don’t need to do…
…the role he feels closest to
In Gods And Monsters, my character was an openly gay English film director in the 1930s. I felt I knew that character backwards before even learning the lines. There always has to be something in a character that feels like you.
…loving his job
I’m the kid who used to go to the pictures and want to be in it. Can you imagine when I did Coronation Street? I was in the Rover’s Return! Yes. I’m the luckiest person in the world. When people are at Universal Studios, they want to go on the ET ride. Well, I was in Middle Earth. I was there!