Tolkien is a better writer than Shakespeare

Ian McKellen is one of the most important actors of his generation. In the interview he talks about the "Hobbit" movie, his homosexuality and flirting with Cate Blanchett while filming the film adaptations of the Tolkien saga.

By Ulrich Lössl

Ian McKellen, one of the most important actors of his generation, tells an anecdote before the interview begins at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York: He was recently on a talk show in Singapore. So he asked the moderator if he could recommend a gay bar in the city-state. He turned ashen and immediately let the credits roll. In Singapore, homosexuality is still banned. McKellen relates this with great amusement, but not to shock. It is just important to him to point out this situation.

How does it feel to play Gandalf again as a proven Shakespeare actor after a ten year hiatus?

Quite wonderful. I was very excited about filming? The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey? pleased. Although Gandalf should not be compared to Shakespeare characters, I have grown very fond of him. And since the film is set sixty years before "Lord of the Rings", I was very happy to be able to return to Gandalf the Gray. Because that is much more multifaceted than the serene, somewhat boring Gandalf the White at the end of the first trilogy.

Are you a Tolkien fan?

Oh yes, since I was offered the Gandalf role twelve years ago, I've read almost everything he wrote. (Laughs) J.R.R. Tolkien was a much better novelist than Shakespeare - since Shakespeare didn't write a novel. But seriously. With Gandalf he has certainly created an archetypal magician who has long since become a fantasy icon. And with his Hobbit books he gave us English a very special mythology.

Martin Freeman, who plays the hobbit Bilbo, praises your acting skills in the highest tones ...

... a compliment that I can only return. Martin not only has a unique timing, he can also play very funny and very sad - which very few actors can do convincingly. And there was also the admirable Cate Blanchett as Elbin Galadriel, with whom I finally had a few scenes together ...

... and who fell in love with you ...

... and said that she was very sorry that I was gay. And I have to say that the atmosphere when shooting with her was quite erotic. Director Peter Jackson even asked us if we were having an affair. I said why not No, Cate is happily married and has three sons.

You came out as gay in the late 1980s when you were almost 50. Why so late?

I ask myself that too today. Because back then it was a real liberation for me. A very heavy burden fell off me. Since then I've also gotten better and better as an actor. Before that, I was cut off from my lower body. Totally blocked emotionally. The reason I waited so long to publicly admit my homosexuality was because I'm very shy in private.

Is that one of the reasons why you became an actor to overcome your shyness?

Yes, I do think that was a reason. In addition, I grew up as a gay person at a time when homosexuality was illegal, even punishable, in England. I was legally forbidden, so to speak, from expressing myself in a way that conformed to my nature. And the only place where you could be exalted, flamboyant - or whatever you want to call it - was on the theater stage or watching a film.

Did you hide behind the acting?

It wasn't about hiding, it was about expressing my feelings uncensored. Only as an actor could I let my emotions run their course undisguised. As a private person, I would never have dared to do this in public. Of course, many colleagues knew I was gay, but I kept it a secret from friends and family for a long time. But for me the quintessence of the art of acting is not disguise, but rather making thoughts and feelings visible.

"Acting determines my life"

Did acting define you?

Absolutely. It has determined my life since I can think for myself. And it's not just the many theater roles, but also an increasing number of film roles over the past ten years. As an actor, I'm very happy to have a career that doesn't reduce me to single characters or to a single medium. And I really enjoy being recognized all over the world not only as King Lear, but also as Gandalf or Magneto from the "X-Men" films.

What else has shaped you in your life?

That's a bit too personal question for me ... (After a long pause) There were passionate relationships that have certainly left their mark. When I was twelve years old, my mother died. I couldn't really come to terms with her death for a long time. A lot comes together in the life of a 73-year-old.

When do you feel most comfortable?

When I'm on a theater stage. This is the place where I feel at home and where I am very relaxed. At the bottom of my heart, I am and will remain a theater actor. On stage I think that nothing bad can happen to me. And if something goes wrong, I just stand over it. In contrast to real life: I often react in a panic.

The interview was conducted by Ulrich Lössl.