I must admit, I don’t recall exactly what my rationale was for chasing down this interview, other than just respecting Sir Ian as an incredible actor who was just beginning to really get noticed by Hollywood. The first X-Men was just about to open, and the first installment of The Lord Of The Rings, The Fellowship Of The Ring, was still in the future.
Regardless of what the circumstances were, this is one of the interviews I’m most proud of. Sir Ian was wonderful, speaking n full candor, and I thought our conversation hit a wonderful groove. I also managed to do the interview before such in-depth pieces like this became a bit of a rarity for him.
I hope you enjoy it…
KEN PLUME: Tell me about your formative years… What drew you to acting?
SIR IAN McKELLEN: Before I ever acted as an amateur - which I did a great deal at school and at university - I used to go to the theater with my parents in the north of England, where I was born and brought up… Theater of all sorts. A weekly repertory theater played every week at the Bolton Hippodrome, visiting opera and ballet companies at the Theatre Royal, vaudeville theater at the Grand. For Shakespeare and the classics, sometimes my parents took us to the big city of Manchester close by to see famous actors in all sorts of plays. I was also taken by the school each year for a week’s camping in Stratford-on-Avon to see the Shakespeare season there. That’s how I first enjoyed acting - mainly through the theater, as we didn’t go to the cinema much. It was because I enjoyed watching other people act that I thought, “I’d like to have a go at that myself.” There was no early intention of being a professional. I went to study English at Cambridge, and there did a great deal of acting with friends who were determined to become professionals: Trevor Nunn - who now runs the National Theater, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir David Frost, Peter Cook, and others. I caught the bug there… It was then that I realized, “Well, if they’re going to be able to do it in the professional theatre, then perhaps I can myself.” When I left Cambridge, I applied to regional repertory theaters in the UK and got accepted by one of them… And here I am, still at it.
PLUME: This would b e around the late 50’s, early 60’s, right?
McKELLEN: I started in 1961.
PLUME: What was it about acting that enamored you of the process?
McKELLEN: When I started to do it, I discovered I could do it. I think it’s as simple as that. I didn’t have any other specialties that I was good at. Growing up and finding tan enjoyable activity which the grown-ups admired - or don’t object to - for a nice well-behaved boy was fulfilling. It gave me an identity that otherwise I didn’t particularly feel I had.
PLUME: Did your heart stray in any other directions?
McKELLEN: Before acting, I wanted to become a journalist. I also toyed with the idea of being a chef - but that’s only when people asked me what I wanted to be. In fact, I always used to say I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t ever believe that I was good enough to be come one. It was only at Cambridge, when I was surrounded by others who wanted to become professionals - and when I got a few good reviews in the national press of my acting - that I thought, “Oh well, maybe it’s okay.” But what did I really enjoy about it? It probably has something to do with my sense of being gay… It’s very difficult to talk about this or analyze it. If you were growing up gay in the 1950’s in the north of England, you had a secret which was difficult to share…
PLUME: If not impossible…
McKELLEN: Well, it used to feel like it was impossible. Yet, when you were on stage, you could be absolutely open about your emotions and indulge them and express yourself in a way that - in real life - I wasn’t doing. I think that was part of the appeal. Certainly I felt, when I decided to become a professional, that, “Oh good… I’m going to be able to meet some real-life queers.” Because I’d heard that the theater was full of them… and so it has proved.
PLUME: How would you describe the atmosphere at Cambridge? Was it conducive to the fostering of an artistic bent?
McKELLEN: There’s still no drama faculty at Cambridge - nor at Oxford - but a great deal of acting went on at the time. Undergraduate groups of actors run by the undergraduates and advised by theater-mad dons - one of them, John Barton, left Cambridge while I was there to become a senior director at the Royal Shakespeare Company. So we had connections with the professional theater, and during each vacation we were recording the whole of the Shakespeare’s works, playing supporting parts to professional actors who were brought down for a weekend in Cambridge to record a play at a time. Some of our productions used to play in London on professional stages. The line between being an amateur actor and a professional was nicely blurred. I was told by my tutor that if I went on acting, my academic studies were going to suffer - and they did - but we were all young gentleman and we were thought to be responsible enough to do whatever we wanted to do, and what I wanted to do was indulge myself in the theater, and I was allowed to get on with it pretty well.
PLUME: How difficult was the transition out of Cambridge and into the “professional world”?
McKELLEN: Well, it seemed easy, because I was very keen and very enthusiastic and in love with the theater and the idea of theater -and professional theater people seemed to be the most fascinating in the world, and there’s no where else I wanted to be. It didn’t feel, by that time, like strange territory. It was just constantly fascinating. I just looked around for the people who were the best at it and tried to contact them and work with them. None of this was fueled by a desire to be a star, or famous, or rich, or be in movies or even in television… It was theater that I was interested in. Appearing in front of a live audience, and the problems, technicalities, and joys of that. It was also rooted in - and this is why Cambridge was crucial to me - a respect for the word and the text of a play… Which, of course, overlaps into your studies. You study Shakespeare, you study plays, and so - for me - there’s never been much of a division between people who write about the plays as academic texts and study them for examinations, and actors like me who analyze them for performance. We seem to be in the same business, really.
PLUME: So you’re saying that the study and need for understanding is the same, but the decides to take it a step further and get up on the stage and perform it…
McKELLEN: Yes, that’s right.
PLUME: What were the opportunities afforded or the challenges inherent for a young actor starting out in the professional world at that time?
McKELLEN: That sounds suspiciously like “What advice would you give a young actor…” I think the point to be understood is that we’re all different. I’ve never been a fan of theories of acting. I didn’t go to drama school, so I was never put through a training that was limited by someone saying, “This is the way you should act.” We all act differently. Acting is a very personal process. It has to do with expressing your own personality, and discovering the character you’re playing through your own experience -so we’re all different. We all do it in different ways. My experience is my experience, and it isn’t necessarily relevant to anybody else. I certainly don’t disparage someone whose attitude towards their work is utterly different from mine - that’s up to them. I think the only judgement I would make is “Are they doing it well?” and “Are they doing it seriously?”
PLUME: How subjective is the critique “Are they doing it well?”
McKELLEN: Well, then you have to say, “This is the script as written. This is the style in which it’s written. Is this actor adopting the right style and playing his/her part appropriately within the story that’s being told. That’s how I would make a judgement. It wouldn’t be of any interest to me, necessarily, to know how he/she had achieved it, or what their experience was before the moment I actually saw them on stage.
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