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IAN MCKELLEN & WILSON CRUZ.

IAN McKELLEN'S GROUNDBREAKING COMING-OUT HELPED INSPIRE UP-AND-COMING ACTOR WILSON CRUZ--AND NOW BOTH ARE WINNING ROLES UNRELATED TO THEIR SEXUALITY

Wilson Cruz was in the audience in 1998 when Outfest, the Los Angeles gay and lesbian film festival, presented British actor Sir Ian McKellen with its annual Achievement Award. Cruz, who'd burst onto the scene in 1994 playing the sympathetic bisexual teen Rickie Vasquez in the TV series My So-called Life, admits that his career seemed stalled at that moment. "It was a hard time for me," he says. "There wasn't a lot going on." But as the openly gay McKellen accepted his award, Cruz--who'd refused to hide his own homosexuality when Life first beckoned--took heart.

"To hear Ian speak so passionately about believing in yourself, sticking to your guns, and focusing on your ultimate goal--for me, it was incredibly powerful," Cruz recalls. "He kind of changed my life without his even knowing it." With his confidence recharged, Cruz soon made his Broadway debut in Rent before stepping into the final season of Party of Five.

Two generations and a seemingly vast cultural divide separate the 61-year-old McKellen--who was raised in the coal-mining town of Lancashire, England, and is a graduate of Cambridge University and a current board member of the Royal National Theatre Company--from the 26-year-old Cruz, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Latino now living in Los Angeles. But as actors who've chosen to be candid about their offscreen lives even as they insist on their right to take on widely divergent roles on-screen, they share a common cause.

In their quest to avoid typecasting, both actors also currently share a common movie genre: sci-fi action, of all things. In the current X-Men, McKellen rules as Magneto, a villainous mutant rebel--a far cry from his gentle Oscar-nominated turn as gay director James Whale in Gods and Monsters. Similarly, a recent role as a computer whiz in Supernova (coming in August on video and DVD) allowed Cruz to tackle a part in which his character's sexuality--and his own--wasn't an issue.

So what about that old Hollywood truism--which closeted actors cite as gospel--that an actor's ability to effectively disappear into disparate characters is compromised once audiences come to know his true sexuality? "Bullshit," the courtly McKellen says succinctly. "I think anyone who argues that is just battling the homophobia within themselves. If anything, my career has taken off since I came out [in 1988]. And of over 20 film parts that I've played since then, only three have been gay. I don't think of myself as a queer artist, but I do bring my own gay perception to anything I do."

Says Wilson, who has been out since the beginning of his career: "I just took a leap of faith that I could challenge the rules that had been set up and still work. Six years later I'm not going to say things wouldn't have played out differently, but I don't know that I would have been much happier."

Where McKellen and Cruz do differ is in the circumstances of their professional coming-out, a distinct generational difference. Long an A-list stage actor, McKellen didn't publicly declare his homosexuality until a BBC interview in 1988 when he was speaking out against Section 28, a British law banning "the promotion of homosexuality" in public schools. He'd come of age in an era when the press didn't inquire about actors' sexuality and actors felt no need to tell.

"I'd always been out at work and with friends," he remembers. "I brought my boyfriend to the Tonys in 1981 even though some people were astonished. But I'd never discussed it in the press until I found myself facing a homophobic interviewer, and almost without thinking about it, I just came out."

Cruz, in contrast, knew from the start that actors playing gay characters could expect to be grilled about their own orientation. So at 19 he simply decided that "it would have been so hypocritical to play a gay character whose journey was about self-acceptance and self-esteem if I hadn't been out. It would have sent such a mixed message."

Once out, both actors have used the spotlight of celebrity to speak out on behalf of gay causes. McKellen was one of the founding forces behind Stonewall Group, the U.K.'s main gay activist group, and regularly communicates with fans through his impressive Web site. Cruz works with organizations such as the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center in addition to speaking frequently on college campuses.

"Give my best wishes to Wilson," McKellen says, signing off by phone from his home in London, where he's on a break from filming yet another fantasy role, the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. "I know the sort of pressures young actors are under. But he'll make for himself the career that he makes. And no career is worth lying about yourself."

Link to Ian McKellen's home page and to sites related to Wilson Cruz's career at www.advocate.com

Kilday writes a weekly Salon.com business column on Hollywood and also contributes to Premiere.
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Article Details
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Author:KILDAY, GREGG
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 15, 2000
Words:849
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