The knight's crusade: playing the wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings may make Sir Ian McKellen the world's best-known gay man. And he's armed and ready to carry the fight for equality along with him. (Cover Story).
Say you can't tell an Elf from a Hobbit, Middle-earth from middle ground? So think of McKellen's casting coup this way: An openly gay man has been invited to play the lead role in the fantasy lives of the world's children, for decades to come. What's more heroic than that?
"He's got a job to do, and he's been sent down to do it," McKellen says, downplaying Gandalf's valor in favor of his sense of duty. "And he does get into a bit of a tizz when he thinks perhaps he hasn't been doing his job properly."
There more than a hint of McKellen's own long quest in that remark. Gandalfs mission is to battle an evil immortal darkness named Sauron and to destroy the One Ring that is the basis of Sauron's power. The crusade of Sir Ian is to battle the evil of Homophobia and to destroy the Great Ignorance that is its basis.
McKellen demurs at the comparison: "I don't have any of Gandalfs wisdom or insights or powers. I'm a foot soldier."
But his friends see the potential impact of McKellen's Gandalf in more Middle-earth-shaking terms. Says Armistead Maupin, the author of the Tales of the City novels and McKellen's confidant for 20 years: "I think the fact that an openly gay actor is going to have his face all over Burger King cups in a matter of months is really quite significant."
For McKellen, doing the film was in part a great adventure. "He was very excited about it from the start," says Sean Mathias, who directed McKellen in the current Broadway production of Dance of Death and was his partner for nine years in the 1980s. "I think he thought it was kind of a crazy, wild project and that with the right kind of artistry it could be very thrilling."
And for years to come, when Rings fans surf the Internet to learn more about the actors behind their heroes, "they'll learn that Ian is not just a gay man but a gay activist," Mathias adds.
Fourteen years after coming out publicly, 11 years after being named a knight of the British Empire, and three years after his Oscar-nominated triumph playing James Whale in Gods and Monsters, McKellen's career and his prominence as a gay rights spokesman have reached new heights. No gay person is likely to grace more magazine covers, movie marquees, and Web sites this month than McKellen, in the guise of Gandalf.
Not that the actor encourages any blurring between himself and Iris role--quite the opposite. He politely declines requests to be photographed with props from the movie. No magical staffs, no wizard hats, no rings. Fans, he believes, flown on actors who betray their fantasy for the sake of serf-promotion. Yet one also gets the impression that McKellen doesn't need Gandalfs hand-me-downs to cast his own spell over a room, a photo, or an interview.
For this conversation, McKellen is settled in a tattered armchair in his basement dressing room at New York's Broadhurst Theatre. He's recuperating after a Saturday matinee of August Strindberg's fiendish play Dance of Death, eating vegetarian food from Zen Palate out of take-out dishes. He is veddy British and dignified yet simultaneously charming and playful: a very proper Gandaft in street clothes.
He is also, at first, quite exhausted. Dance of Death is a taxing show--"savage and brutal and dark," as director Mathias notes. For 2 1/2 hours, McKellen and Helen Mirren play a married couple attempting to destroy one another verbally and emotionally. McKellen, 62, dances, slides down a banister, flies into rages, contrives cruel punishments, and nearly dies. Eight times a week.
It may remind gay viewers of out playwright Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (written some 60 years later), but there's absolutely nothing gay about the play, McKellen insists. Well, except maybe the cat he carries across the stage at one point, a cat with two offstage daddies. "I love working with this cat," he says, looking for an angle.
Then he shifts into activist mode. "I think the gay story is probably that an openly gay man is playing a heterosexual on Broadway," he says. He gestures with his fork in the general direction of the St. James Theatre, across 44th Street from the Broadhurst. "And I'm doing it opposite another gay man playing a heterosexual, Nathan Lane in The Producers. So, as ever, gay men are at the heart of live theater." He cracks the slightest smile. "But in New York, it's not news."
McKellen has a talent for turning a conversation back to politics, as Mathias notes with an affectionate laugh. "It can be extremely annoying. [You want to say,] `Just shut the fuck up! I don't want to know anything about gay pride right now!' But that's Ian."
Talking politics is one of the ways McKellen has to keep from talking About ... McKellen. For the public, his passion, his anger, his wit, and even his dramatic bent are at the service of his ac ting and his activism, not the recounting of his private life. His account of his day on September 11, for example--he was in New York, rehearsing Dance of Death--is remarkably objective. "We decided to go on rehearsing," he recalls. "I think I saw the second tower fall, because I kept looking out onto the streets." He takes a bite of salad. If he's stifling deeper emotions, it doesn't show.
Even Maupin--who was stranded in New York after the attacks--remarked on McKellen's apparent calm: "When I showed my state of mind to Ian and was sort of surprised that he seemed relatively unperturbed, he said, `Well, darling, you forget--I slept under a steel plate [during the Baffle of Britain] until I was 4 years old.'"
McKellen was born in 1939 and didn't know an England without war until he was 5. "My upbringing was of low nonconformist Christians who felt that you led the Christian life in part by behaving in a Christian manner to everybody you met," he says. He credits his family's religious convictions with planting the seed of integrity that flowered when he came out: "Both my grandparents were preachers. My father was a lay preacher. He stood up in a pulpit and said, `This is what I believe, and do you agree with me? Think about it.' So maybe it was that example which I was at last able to wholeheartedly follow."
His mother died when Ian was 12, his father when he was 24, so coming out to his family as an adult meant coming out to his Quaker stepmother. "Not only was she not fazed," he says, "but as a member of a society which declared its indifference to people's sexuality years back, I think she was just glad for my sake that I wasn't lying anymore."
Ian started acting as a boy--he did his first drag role onstage as a preteen--and at 18 earned a scholarship to Cambridge. There he met many young men who would later become luminaries of British theater, including fellow actor Derek Jacobi. (He had a mad crush on Jacobi, "a passion that was undeclared and unrequited," he has said.) He moved to London in 1964, set up housekeeping with his lover, schoolteacher Brian Taylor, and steadfastly worked his way up through the theater hierarchy. He and Taylor separated in '72, but by the time McKellen reached Broadway as Salieri in Amadeus in 1980 (for which he won a Tony award), he had a new partner, fellow actor Sean Mathias.
"We met at the Edinburgh festival in 1978," Mathias recalls, speaking from the home he shares with a partner in Cape Town, South Africa. "At the time, I was 22. I fell in love with him the second I met him. He was very flirtatious. I just was very taken with his kind of charisma and his look and his whole charm."
The relationship had its rocky moments. "There were a hell of a lot of fights," Mathias says. "I was a young actor, had a big ego and didn't know what to do with my talents, and it was at times very, very tough." But what's more important, he adds, is that McKellen "did nothing but help me [in my career]. In those days, the world was far more homophobic, and me being the young, pretty boy--people wouldn't take me seriously as an actor, being Ian's boyfriend."
McKellen too notes the duo's mutual support. "I first read Bent in bed when I'd just started dating Sean," he says of Martin Sherman's groundbreaking play about gays in a Nazi death camp, in which McKellen first starred in 1979. "And as impressed as I was by it, I thought, My God! Do I dare be in this? And Sean read it and said, `Well, you have to do it.' Well, ever ready to impress the new boyfriend, I said, `Yes, you're absolutely right!'" He laughs. "So it was a nice irony that years later he directed the revival of Bent--which we did at [London's Royal] National Theatre [in 1990]--and ended up directing the movie [in 1997]."
Beyond professional anecdotes, however, McKellen declines to offer his perspective on their relationship--or any other. "You can't talk about relationships," he says. "It's just not fair to the other person." Both Taylor and Mathias are mentioned in the bio on his impressively comprehensive personal Web site, but McKellen will say no more. "I've got a boyfriend now," he adds, doing his best to be forthcoming. "But I'm not going to be photographed with him or talk to you about him, because I've decided that might damage the relationship."
"It was one thing for Ian to say, `Yes, I'm a homosexual,' but it's quite another for him to tell you who he's sleeping with. And I respect that," says a longtime friend, San Franciscan Terry Anderson. "It's a great model for other celebrities [who could come out]: They can at least say, `Yes, I am gay, and that's all I'm going to say about this topic. Who I'm sleeping with is actually none of your fucking business.'"
Adds Maupin: "For years closet cases [in Hollywood] have used the excuse that their private life is their own business as a way of avoiding any discussion of their sexuality. Ian has shown that it's possible to be honest about your sexuality and still have a private life."
But McKellen's shield of privacy is far from impenetrable: He's poked holes in it himself with the many confessional anecdotes in his autobiographical one-man show, A Knight Out, which he first performed in 1994 and still considers a work in progress. In less formal settings, he can even get downright silly. "Ian's been caught on the record saying a number of extraordinary things over the years," Maupin notes. "He stood up before the crowd at the Gay Games [closing ceremony in 1994] at Yankee Stadium and said, `I'm Sir Ian McKellen, but you can call me Sereena.'"
Never closeted backstage, McKellen came out publicly in 1988 during a BBC radio debate about Section 28, a U.K. law banning discussion of homosexuality in schools. "My own participating in that campaign," he says, "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."
But it wasn't just Section 28 that determined the timing of McKellen's coming-out: He had recently split with Mathias and was ready to shake up his life. "Us breaking up was not a happy experience," Mathias says, "and I think it was a point when he was looking for something else. I think one of the reasons he felt he didn't come out [when we were together] was because he was frightened it would damage me and damage our relationship. When I was gone, he wasn't bound by that anymore."
"I never had these conversations [about coming out]," says McKellen of his years before making the leap. "I probably shied away from them. It's easy to do. I'm awfully grateful to Armistead and Terry, of course--my godfathers."
Maupin and Anderson, who were then partners, both fondly recall the night in late 1987 in San Francisco when McKellen casually lobbed into a political discussion, "Do you think I should come out?" "I'd never had a famous closeted person ask me that question," Maupin says. "I remember thinking at the time that I was being humored; I didn't really believe he was going to act on it."
But he did, calling Maupin and Anderson, 6,000 miles away, immediately afterward. "He was elated. He was proud of himself," recalls Anderson. "I don't think Armistead and I have anything to do with his coming-out. I think people ask questions that they already know the answers to. Ian wanted support [for a decision he'd made on his own]."
McKellen was indeed grateful for the encouragement. "You know," he says, "there have been a number of cases when I've felt, I must say something to this person about their lives even though I don't know them very well. Because if someone had said something to me earlier on, maybe my life would've changed for the better earlier on."
And has he had any success in nudging other closeted celebrities out of the closet? "Oh, no," he says. "I've had spectacular failures." He laughs. "Oh, God. There's such a range of them, of course. There's the actor who will come up to you at a Hollywood party and say, `Ian'--as you're about to give them a big wet kiss--[whispering] `I'm not gay in L.A.' Some people assume that if you come to their party, meet their boyfriend and the boyfriend's boyfriend and the ex-boyfriends and all the other men there--and then [you're] asked about having visited that famous person, you are expected to lie to the press. It's very hard."
The lie that most galls McKellen is that an actor's offscreen sexuality limits his on-screen roles. He has absolutely no patience with Tom Cruise's lawsuits alleging that if audiences think he's gay, he will no longer be able to play romantic leads or action heroes. "He's talking nonsense," McKellen says. "It's a very juvenile view of an audience's reaction to actors. Is Tom Cruise suggesting that if he ever wears a beard in the future which is not his own, that we are not to take that performance seriously? Or, indeed--now he's no longer married--that if he were to play a married man, he couldn't possibly be convincing? One doesn't have to speculate on Tom Cruise's sexuality to attack his point of view."
Far from hindering his career, McKellen argues that coming out made him a better actor. "When you come out, you change--utterly," he says. "You are for the first time yourself. And what has an actor got to use onstage but himself? That's all I've got: my experience, my imagination, my body. In coming out, your sexuality is now freed--it's not disguised. It doesn't surprise me that people tell me that I'm an actor with more range than I had before."
As for gay actors who stay closeted hoping to become the next Tom Cruise: "How desperately do you want to be one of the four or rive romantic leading men that there are at any one time in Hollywood? You're saying that you can't be honest about your sexuality because it's going to ruin your chances to do what is almost impossible anyway? Get another job!"
No one is immune from McKellen's judgment when it comes to what he sees as the simple matter of gay equality. His personal assistant in New York, Lee Armitage, may be the daughter of Colin Powell's right-hand man, Richard Armitage, but McKellen has stern words for Powell's support of the U.S. military's ban on openly gay service members. "When he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs, I thought it appropriate to say that it was a symbolic event in that a black person had made it to the top of the tree. What's good for the blacks [should be] good for the gays."
Even British prime minister Tony Blair, a left-wing politician who has stood up for many gay fights causes, is subject to McKellen's wrath for his refusal to push for the elimination of Section 28--still on the books after 13 years. "For it not to be repealed by a left politician is extremely worrying. You think, Well, there's some sort of stranglehold over the establishment." He begins to raise his voice, declaring, "Homophobia rules!"--then catches himself: "You'll get me all worked up in a minute."
These are battles McKellen will never stop fighting. But though he cofounded Stonewall, England's leading gay rights lobby, and continues to direct and produce the group's annual fund-raising concert at the Royal Albert Hall--to the point of acting as stage manager and celebrity greeter when necessary--McKellen downplays his role as a leader in the gay rights movement. It's his job just to be "a good story for the mainstream press to cover," he says. Returning to the crusade metaphor, he adds, "I carry the flag sometimes, but I didn't design it."
But just as it's hard to imagine the "great commander" Gandalf on his day off, the offstage McKellen remains elusive. What does he do for fun?
By now he's quite refreshed by his meal and primed by a good deal of political conversation, and this question momentarily stumps him. "Well, this is quite fun," he volleys. "I talk to journalists." But no, really, what does he do when he's not working? "Well, I should be beginning to ask myself that now," he says, searching for an acceptable answer, "because my boyfriend is here. I expect together we'll explore New York a bit. I mean, there's so much to see in this city." At the suggestion that a boyfriend does at least get one out of the house, McKellen brightens: "He sometimes keeps me in! But I would expect to see more of my friends in New York and not just my boyfriend."
This, finally, is the answer he's comfortable with. "So, friends," he says. "What do you do with friends? Well, you talk to the friends and you go out to the cinema with them and you eat with them and you argue with them and go to parties with them. And just be more social, I think. I do like going out--I don't particularly like sitting at home. What good is sitting alone ...?" There's a twinkle in his eye now-can a clever allusion save him from this awkwardness?
"He's very good at friendship," Mathias says. "He loves entertaining. He's very good at chilling. He chills very well."
"I think Ian is constantly battling the impression that he is somehow removed from the rest of humanity," says Maupin. "I have a memory of us going up to the Sonoma Mission Inn [a spa in Northern California] on a little jaunt one time many years ago in the late '80s--just a completely charmless place. I remember Ian dropping his towel and mooning us surreptitiously every time the other folks in the spa weren't looking. He had us completely in hysterics."
"He's incredibly approachable," says Gods and Monsters writer-director Bill Condon. "But also I think one of the things that makes an actor great is that they're willing to show all sides of themselves. And Ian especially has been willing to show some rather ugly sides of himself--certainly in movies like Richard III or [playing a Nazi in hiding in] Apt Pupil. You actually get to see some really frightening things that, when you're with him in real life, you sort of wonder where they all come from. He is always surprisingly sweet and tender compared to what you might see when he performs."
Or when he's just off camera. "There's a scene of James Whale having a pool party in the movie [Gods and Monsters]," Condon recalls. "It was guys skinny-dipping in a pool. Our extras casting woman managed to populate the pool with mostly straight extras who weren't aware until they got there that they were in a scene that had gay content. A lot of them just left as soon as they found out, so even Adam Cook, who did the props for the movie, was in the pool in a bathing suit. Ian, who wasn't in the scene, had perched himself in a lawn chair near the pool, and Adam came up at one point and said he was sort of disturbed. The guys in the pool were talking about, `The director's a fag, and that actor's a fag--it's all fags making this movie.'" McKellen quickly put things in perspective: "Well," he said, "who's making $45 a day to take their clothes off and who's sitting here in this lovely chair watching them?"
Who indeed. McKellen is proud of Gods and Memsters--not just of his own work, but of the whole gay and lesbian team that made it happen: "Clive Barker, who godfathered the whole situation; the producers, Paul Colichman and Gregg Fienberg; the director, Bill Condon; me; the costume designer, Bruce Finlayson; the entire AD [assistant director] crew, who were lesbian; the light and camera men, who were all openly gay; and others. This was our story, so there isn't a corner of that film, really, that hasn't been presented with love."
In a way, Gods and Monsters made it possible for McKellen to join the Lord of the Rings cast. That and the kid-friendly blockbuster X-Men, in which McKellen played the superpowered villain Magneto. It's as if McKellen--as he remarks about Gandalf--"thought up the whole strategy" ahead of time: Oscar, Magneto, Gandalf. And voile! A new platform on which to wave that banner for gay equality. Is McKellen that clever?
Says Maupin: "Ian has a real conscience about that sort of thing and knows that this is precisely the time that he should remind the public of what he's all about."
And what is he about? What is it that turns an actor into a knight, a part-time preacher's son into a gay activist? If we still don't know, McKellen isn't telling. "I'm just a gay man living in the world, really." And his eyes twinkle.
Find links to McKellen's Web site and to sites about The Lord of the Rings movies at www.advocate.com
RELATED ARTICLE: The gay guide to Middle-earth.
As Ian McKellen points out, no one in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth seems interested in sex, much less sexual orientation. Certainly not McKellen's character, the wizard Gandalf . But that doesn't mean there's nothing in the story for gay and lesbian audiences, even those so far uninitiated in The Lord of the Rings:
* SAME-SEX SMOOCHING. The most affectionate relationship in LOTR is between two Hobbits : Frodo (Elijah Wood, right), who bears the One ring during the quest to destroy it, and his servant and companion Samwise (Sean Astin). "No one should come to see this version of Lord of the Rings hoping to have the relationship between Samwise and Frodo explicated specifically in gay terms," McKellen says. "However," he adds firmly, "they will see the two of them kiss, I think, and certainly embrace and hug." As far as Tolkienesque romance goes, that's it.
* A MAN'S MAN. Frodo's protector Aragorn , a.k.a. Strider (Viggo Mortensen), is the heir to ancient kings and, before the events that take place in the first film, has spent several decades wandering the wilderness with no one but other manly Men, scorned by the more settled Men they encounter. sure, there's a political marriage in his future--to Elf princess Arwen (Liv Tyler )--but that's two movies away.
* BLOND AMBITION. The Elf member of the Fellowship is Legolas (Orlando Bloom ), whose very name speaks to his tall, androgynous appeal. And if Bloom looks familiar, you may recall his brief appearance in Wilde as a rent boy.
* A POWERFUL QUEEN. Nobody messes with Galadriel (Cate Blanchett ), the Elf ruler who wields a magical ring and is one of exactly two (count 'em) women of action in LOTR. (The other is doesn't show up until Part 2). Not that the enchanting Blanchett needs mythical jewelry to overpower even the strongest human heart--gay, lesbian, or otherwise.
* NIGHT OWL. There's certainly something queer about the sunlight-hating Gollum, the One Ring's former keeper, who shadows Frodo throughout his quest. Gollum calls himself--and the Ring--"my Precious" and calls Frodo "Master." As Nathan Lane once said, You do the math.
* FIDELITY TO THE END. If you're still stuck on the Frodo and Samwise thing, one final spoiler from the third movie, The Return of the King, due out in 2003: Samwise finds a wife; his companion does not. "Frodo, as far as we know, dies a virgin," McKellen notes. What do you call a Boston marriage in Elvish? --B.C.S
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|Author:||Steele, Bruce C.|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Dec 25, 2001|
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