Sir Ian McKellen:
“Everything gets better when you come out because you get self-confidence. So, you get better in terms of relationships, friends of all sorts, family, if you’re lucky. And in my case, I think in every case, your acting is bound to change and improve.”
McKellen is celebrating his 83rd birthday today, and he has never been busier. Frank And Percy, a two-hander described as a poignant and witty take on the unexpected relationship that blossoms between two older men, stars McKellen and Roger Allam, directed by the reliable Sean Mathias, and it opens June 9th at the Royal Windsor in London. A film thriller, The Critic, with McKellen, Mark Strong, and Lesley Manville, is in post-production and is scheduled for release this winter.
Over the years McKellen has worked with Mathias many times, most recently in Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting For Godot and Harold Pinter‘s No Man’s Land with his pal, Patrick Stewart. Mathias, a famed theatre and film director is McKellen’s close buddy and long-ago boyfriend. He also directed McKellen as Uncle Vanya at The National Theatre.
McKellen’s performances in Shakespeare plays are legendary, from Macbeth with Judi Dench to his film version of Richard III with Maggie Smith.
McKellen never hid his gayness from his fellow actors early on in his stage career, yet it was not until 1988 that he officially came out in a program on BBC Radio. McKellen’s timing, with little concern for a possible negative effect on his career, was that the controversial Section 28, then under consideration in the British Parliament. Section 28 proposed prohibiting local authorities from promoting homosexuality”… as a kind of pretended family relationship”. McKellen became active in fighting the proposed law, and during that radio show where he debated Section 28 with the conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne, he finally came out as gay. McKellen wrote that he was influenced by the advice and support of his friends, especially American gay writer Armistead Maupin.
In a 1998 interview at the time of the 29th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, McKellen stated:
“I have many regrets about not having come out earlier, but one of them might be that I didn’t engage myself in the politicking. My own participating in that campaign was a focus for people to take comfort that if Ian McKellen was on board for this, perhaps it would be all right for other people to be as well, gay and straight.”
Section 28 was, indeed (thank you, Margaret Thatcher) enacted and remained on the books until 2000 in Scotland and 2003 in England and Wales.
In 2003, McKellen claimed when he visited Michael Howard, then Environment Secretary (responsible for local governments), in 1988 to lobby against Section 28, Howard refused to change his position but did ask him to leave an autograph for his children. McKellen agreed, but wrote, “Fuck off, I’m gay.”
Since that time, McKellen has been very active in LGBTQ Rights. On his website, he commented that:
“I have been reluctant to lobby on other issues I most care about—nuclear weapons (against), religion (atheist), capital punishment (anti), AIDS (fund-raiser) because I never want to be forever spouting, diluting the impact of addressing my most urgent concern; legal and social equality for gay people worldwide.”
McKellen is a co-founder of Stonewall, an LGBTQ rights lobby group in the UK. McKellen is also a fund-raiser for LGBTQ History Month, Pride London, Oxford Pride, and FFLAG where he appears in their video Parents Talking.
In 1994, at the closing ceremony of the Gay Games, he took the stage to address the crowd, saying:
“I’m Sir Ian McKellen, but you can call me Serena…“
The nickname was given to him by gay polymath Stephen Fry, and it had been going around in the gay community since McKellen’s knighthood was conferred.
In 2002, he was Grand Marshal of the San Francisco Pride Parade and he attended the Academy Awards with his then-boyfriend, Nick Cuthell. In 2006, McKellen spoke at the pre-launch of the 2007 LGBTQ History Month in the UK. In 2007, he became a patron of The Albert Kennedy Trust, an organization that provides support to unhoused and troubled LGBTQ youth.
In 2006, as a patron of Oxford Pride, he stated:
“I send my love to all members of Oxford Pride, their sponsors and supporters, of which I am proud to be one. Onlookers can be impressed by our confidence and determination to be ourselves and gay people, of whatever age, can be comforted by the occasion to take the first steps towards coming out and leaving the closet forever behind. “
McKellen caused a great big ado in Singapore, where he was invited to do an interview on a morning show and shocked the interviewer by asking if they could recommend him a gay bar; the program was cutoff immediately and ended.
In 2010, McKellen gave his support for Liverpool’s Homotopia Festival in which a group of queer teenagers helped to produce an anti-homophobia campaign pack for schools and youth clubs across the city. In 2011, he called Sergey Sobyanin, Moscow’s mayor, a “coward” for refusing to allow pride parades in the city.
In December 2020, actor Elliot Page announced his transgender identity via a heartfelt yet powerful social media post, and McKellen, who worked with Page in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), said how “happy” he is that the actor made the announcement, but at the same time, he is “disappointed” with himself for not realizing what his co-star was going through when the film was being shot.
For years, McKellen has strongly campaigned against the suppression faced by transgender people, saying:
“They came out as gay years later and suddenly you couldn’t stop them talking. You heard everything. And now…they’re Elliot. And I’m so happy for Elliot. And so disappointed in myself that I didn’t detect what their difficulty was with communicating.”
McKellen has received two Academy Award nominations for his work in Gods And Monsters (1999), where he smartly plays film director James Whale; and The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring (2001). He has received five Emmy Award nominations and two Tony Award nominations, winning for Best Actor for his performance in Amadeus in 1981. He has received 12 Olivier Award nominations winning six for Pillars Of The Community (1977), The Alchemist (1978), the gay-themed Bent (1979), Wild Honey (1984), Richard III (1991), and Ian McKellen On Stage: With Tolkien, Shakespeare, Others and You (2020).
“Coming out changes your life utterly. I discovered myself. And everything was better. My relationships with my family, with friends, with strangers, and my work got better as I wasn’t hiding anymore. My acting had really been about disguise but after, it became about telling the truth, which was much more interesting.“