Ian McKellen watched his first William Shakespeare play as a high school student. That play was Twelfth Night, and he was accompanied by his sister. But McKellen, to some degree, was already familiar with Shakespeare by then. A few years earlier, in the Christmas of 1948, when he was nine years old, his parents had gifted him a foldaway toy theatre, with cardboard scenery and wires that pushed out the cutouts of actor Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.
In the coming years, McKellen performed Shakespeare’s plays in school, in college and, later professionally, for decades, at the Royal Shakespearean Company and the Royal National Theatre. In fact, one of his first acclaimed films, Richard III, which earned him the best actor nominations at the BAFTA and Golden Globe awards, had Shakespeare written all over it, too. His Richard III is based in an imaginary Britain of the 1930s in which two families fight over ruling the country; the fascist undertones of the era are unmistakable in the film.
Shakespeare is also the reason Sir Ian McKellen is on a somewhat hectic visit to Mumbai. So when McKellen, sitting in the business lounge of a south Mumbai hotel, leans forward and says, “There’s a good chance that Shakespeare can change your life,” it doesn’t sound like hyperbole.
McKellen is in the city to promote the British Film Institute’s Shakespeare on Film—a global programme in honour of playwright’s 400th death anniversary (on 4 May 2016)—that will screen 18 Shakespearean films in 110 countries. But, showing an energy belying his age, his diary full of speaking engagements including one with school students-all to promote the Bard.
His Mumbai trip included an on-stage chat with Aamir Khan, which also launched the film club of the Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI), about Shakespeare and his own commitment to LGBT rights. Quick witted and deftly alternating between seriousness and frivolity, Sir Ian hit it off well with Khan, who proved he was as good an interviewer as an actor. It was a meeting of minds, despite them being from different cultures and generations—both keenly discussed their approach to the craft; for the audience, a soliloquy by McKellen from a play on Thomas More, said to be written by Shakespeare, was the treat that rounded off the evening.
But before talking about Shakespeare in an interview to The Wire, McKellen goes slightly off tangent: He talks about soccer. “I don’t understand soccer. I’m scared to understand the rules, but my friends are crazy about it. They think I’m missing out. Maybe I am,” he says. “I feel the same about Shakespeare. If you haven’t come in contact of Shakespeare, you’re missing out.” Shakespeare, adds McKellen, “understands us all. He understands whether you’re an outcaste in society or at the top of the heap. He is interested.” And McKellen-the actor has always been interested in Shakespeare. “He’s very demanding,” McKellen says. “I like that challenge.”
McKellen says he has, as an audience member,enjoyed many Shakespearean films, and some of his favourites include Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Throne of Blood, Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight, and Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet—movies that belong to different film grammar and countries. “You can do what you like with Shakespeare. You can screw him up. You can tie him up in a ball, throw him around, and he’ll come back at you,” he says. “You can bowl him; you can bat him.” However, despite the flexibility that Shakespeare’s plays offer, McKellen cares about—and looks forward to—one particular element in their adaptations. “I think if you don’t hear Shakespeare’s words or at least some of them, then you’re missing out,” he says and smoothly slips in this: “But I don’t think the director of the latest Macbeth, with [Micheal] Fassbender, would agree with me, because he is very interested in what Scotland looks like.”
If the first five decades of McKellen’s life and career have been dominated by his work in theatre and, indeed, Shakespeare, then his last three decades have revolved around these two: his work in films and activism. As part of this India tour, the much loved actor, who is now recognized by a younger generation as an actor from the Lord of the Rings and X-Men franchises, answered questions asked by his fans on Twitter. Questions poured in, and one of them read: “Sir Ian, what would you like to be remembered most for?” McKellen’s reply wasn’t new—for he’s given the same answer to different journalists over the last few years—but it didn’t lack poignancy or timing. He replied, “My gravestone should say, ‘Here lies Gandalf. He came out.’”
The character of Gandalf, the wizard in the trilogies The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, gave McKellen global fame as an actor. But, before playing that role, McKellen “scarcely knew” about Gandalf. “I’d never read The Lord of the Rings. I had only read The Hobbit,” he says. “Did I want to live in New Zealand” (where the film was shot) for a year? No.” He didn’t have dates for The Lord of the Rings, as he had said yes to X-Men (where he was cast as the villain Magneto, another role that gave him a huge fan base), which was being shot at the same time. He called Peter Jackson, The Lord of the Rings’ director, and said, “Sorry, I’m committed to it [X-Men]; I can’t play Gandalf.” But the dates were rearranged, and McKellen ultimately played the role that he wants to take to his grave. “Wonderful things have happened to me since then,” he says, and smiles, “in fact, had it not been for Gandalf, I wouldn’t have been invited to India.”
But before McKellen became Gandalf, “he came out”. In 1988, during a BBC Radio 3 programme, McKellen—while debating the United Kingdom Local Government Act’s Section 28 (which discouraged the promotion of homosexuality)—declared himself gay. “It’s the best thing I have ever done. It changed my life,” he says. “My acting became better. I became a better son, a better friend, a better brother, because I was being honest.” However, he wishes he could have come out earlier. “These days boys and girls are coming out in puberty. It’s wonderful,” he says. “They get it out of the way, and they get on with their lives, be themselves, be part of society. I feel I was robbed of that.”
McKellen turns 77 on Wednesday. The same day, he will also inaugurate the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, which screens films centered on LGBT themes. It sounds strange: An openly gay actor inaugurating a queer film festival in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. “People in India are repressed today by that law. I am here today to apologise on behalf of the British for giving you that appalling law,” McKellen said, laughing. But he didn’t laugh for long. He adds, “It’s a cruel law because it inhibits people. It’s a denial of the fact of our lives.”