Ian McKellen says he's happy in the autumn of his career
British actor Ian McKellen may have been a latecomer to Hollywood, but the autumn of his career is proving incredibly fruitful
Text: James Mottram
DRESSED IN A SHINY grey suit and sipping a frothy coffee, Ian McKellen is recalling one of his more famous visits to Southeast Asia - Singapore, to be precise. The British-born actor, knight of the realm and gay rights campaigner was appearing on a daytime television show in 2007 when the presenter asked him how he planned to spend his time there. "I said to this clearly straight man, 'Perhaps you could recommend a decent gay bar?' I watched the playback [of the show] and I'd never seen credits go up quicker."
With homosexuality illegal in Singapore, McKellen's answer caused consternation. "I wasn't trying to stir things up," he claims now. "I was asked a question and I gave the honest answer. To some people that seems shocking. Well, then they have to think: is it really shocking for a visitor to say, 'Where will I feel at home here in your town?' "
Thankfully, he did find somewhere to kick back. "That night I went to a gay bar - because, of course, there are some - and I received a wonderfully warm welcome."
Sitting in a suite at London's Claridge's hotel, the white-haired McKellen has a mischievous side, whatever he says. No wonder he makes such a good Magneto, the mutant mischief-maker in the X-Men films - a character he reprises in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Along with Gandalf, the elderly wizard that the distinguished actor embodied for Peter Jackson's adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Marvel Comics' metal-bending Magneto has turned McKellen into a superstar.
He knows exactly what effect he has on people. Last year, he was on Broadway performing Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land. Every night, there'd be a couple of hundred fans waiting at the stage door. "You just put your arm around them, you discover that they're shaking. It is a huge moment for people when they see made flesh an image they're familiar with and they like," he says.
But he doesn't elevate himself. "I'm exactly the same. If I were to meet Brad Pitt or George Clooney ... I'd love to meet George Clooney. I'm sure I would be like a little groupie."
The veteran actor admits he got all gushy when director Bryan Singer took him to the star-studded White House Correspondents' Dinner. "We're sitting there having dinner and there, behind a little red rope, is the President of the United States - eating! You can't help gawp, can you?" says McKellen with a laugh. "Bryan said 'Hi!' and [Barack] Obama says to Bryan, 'Hi!', and then pointed at me and said, 'Great actor!' I practically curtsied!' It turns out he's a fan of the X-Men movies."
Presumably, Obama will be queuing up for Singer's return to the franchise - his first since 2003's X2: X-Men United. Based on the "Days of Future Past" storyline that appeared in issues no 141-142 of 1981 comic Uncanny X-Men, this latest outing is a time-travelling tale that integrates the original cast members (including McKellen) with their younger selves, as seen in 2011's X-Men: First Class. In a neat twist, Magneto is even forced to unite with his rival "mutant" Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), as all mutant-kind is threatened to be wiped from existence.
The fifth time he's played Magneto (the first three X-Men films, plus a cameo in spin-off The Wolverine), the big draw for McKellen was reuniting with Singer. "I'm a huge admirer of Bryan's and a bit of a friend. And Ihave, I think, done more films with him than any other actor. The first was Apt Pupil (1998). Then we did two X-Men [films]. Then I did a little contribution to Jack the Giant Killer. I've just done my fifth, and I don't think anybody else has done five movies with him."
Singer, like McKellen, is gay - and the idea of dealing with one's identity, sexual or otherwise, has never been far from the X-Men storylines. "The demographic for the comics is young blacks, young Jews and young gays. They're the ones that made those X-Men comics popular," says McKellen.
"Bryan was always clear about that when he asked me to do it. He said, 'It's a gay metaphor'. It's not just a fantasy story. It's not just putting on fancy costumes. It's about something. In the second movie, one of the mutants comes out to his parents. So you can't write off the X-Men movies. They're about something."
Knighted in 1991, McKellen's own coming out (to the general public) came three years earlier, shortly before he played "raging heterosexual" politician John Profumo, in Scandal. The actor helped found Stonewall, the lesbian, gay and bisexual lobby group, and that led him, recently, to tour around schools in Britain to talk about being homosexual.
"They help teachers understand their responsibilities to gay students and gay members of staff. So to schools that have turned themselves around and are tackling bullying against gay students, for example, I went along to support those efforts."
His passion for acting began when he was a child, encouraged by his parents and older sister Jean, who took him to see his first Shakespeare play, Twelfth Night.
His theatre credentials are unparalleled - from acting at Cambridge, he went on to become a member of Laurence Olivier's National Theatre Company at the Old Vic by 1965, followed by two decades as a leading player in the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre.
It was only later in life that Hollywood came his way - after his performance in the 1995 film version of Shakespeare's Richard III caused Singer to cast him as a Nazi in Apt Pupil.
With two Oscar nods - for playing Frankenstein film director James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998) and Gandalf in 2001's The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - the autumn of McKellen's acting career has been incredibly fruitful.
"I didn't expect it to be so enjoyable and fulfilling," he says. "I'm a very happy actor."
Would he change anything in his life? "I wish I'd known when I was young that I was quite attractive. I don't think I was as outgoing as I could've been. All my regrets in that area were tied up with being gay and living at a time when it was illegal to be gay."
While McKellen spent 10 years with theatre director Sean Mathias, before their relationship came to an end in 1988, he is no longer in the market for a partner. "I'm not available! I'm not looking," he says.
Now preparing to play an ageing Sherlock Holmes in A Slight Trick of the Mind, it seems acting has remained his one true love.
Still, turning 75 on May 25, he knows he's not quite as invincible as Magneto; he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006.
"There isn't a day when you don't think about death," he says. "You see your friends having difficulty walking. You think, 'Jesus, it's going to happen to me soon'. So, if anything, I think, 'I don't have long left so I better work while I can'."
Still, whatever he says, his future is not yet passed.
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens on May 22