The first thing you notice about Ian McKellen is the blueness of the eyes. It’s almost other worldly in its sparkle. One can’t use the phrase ‘piecing blue eyes’ because they do not pierce you they do not even look at you. He in fact looks out, as if on a stage, to the view at the large window that overlooks The Thames.
We are seven floors up in his hotel suite in Canary Wharf, which is just around the corner from his home.
I remember those eyes. Specifically I remember them gleaming out on stage where I have seen him in Macbeth, Richard III, Bent. He has this unque ability to make everyone in the audience feel he is looking at them and make them understand Shakespeare even though they went just to see him. They are the eyes of Gandalf the kindly wizard from Lord of the Rings epics.
He is tall, slim handsome. Dark grey skinny jeans, black boots, blue shirt. He doesn’t dress like a man of 75 (76 on May 25). He looks much younger than I expected but that could be because I’ve just seen him play the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the exquisite film, Mr Holmes.
I wonder did it unnerve him to play someone so close to death? “I am 76 this month. People you know very well die all around you, so you discover you do think about death quite a lot; theirs and your own. So to play someone who at the onset, who is so old and is trying to find some sort of elixir of life to remember everything – I can understand it.
“Playing old used to be a matter of deciding which foot to limp on. But it’s up here,” he points to his head. “You have to tell your brain how old you are. It’s a cliché isn’t it? But inside you don’t feel your age but you are reminded when you take your pills or in particular when friends are dying, that at last mortality becomes reality.”
I find this strangely emotional, even though he didn’t mean it to be. I’ve read how he completely underplayed his need for hearing aids, dental implants and the removal of cataracts from his eyes. He even shrugged off his diagnosis of prostate cancer assuring us he was completely fine. I shudder. Mortality is horrible. “I don’t know about that. It’s what happens?
“I’ve seen quite a few people at the ends of their lives and they all seem ready for it. I think the preparation has been going on for some time. You are frightened aren’t you? And as you get older you accept it. Deaths of friends that are accidents, mistakes are dreadful for them and the people they leave behind. But if I saw an obituary that said Sir Ian McKellen died aged 76 you would think ‘well he had a good life.’”
What? There’d be a nation in mourning. And yes, we would be shocked because 76 doesn’t seem especially old. “Young people say he’s really old, he’s well into his forties.”
Does he hang out with many young people? “Sometimes. Sometimes not. If I have a party there will be people my own age and younger ones. Friends who have children. For them the younger generation is a big part of their lives. I do have young people I’m fond of….”
He seemed to become super friendly with Harry Styles when they met on the Graham Norton Show. Did they stay friends? “We exchanged emails. He wanted to see the latest Hobbit film and because of who he is he couldn’t easily go to the cinema so I arranged a screening for him in New York. Since then he has had other things to do…
“I think it’s a mistake to restrict your friends by age. You wouldn’t say I only act with people my age.”
The Mr Holmes he played was a brilliant man who was losing his mind and trying to remember everything. Was that frightening to connect with?
“No. Most parts you play you have some connection with. You just say he’s that sort of man, I’ll adjust to his way of thinking. The work has been done, the lines have been written. It can sometimes be enough just to say the lines. You don’t see the significance of what you have said until you see the film.”
It was perhaps more poignant for me because my father had a brilliant mind that he lost to Alzheimer’s. McKellen suddenly looks up and at me, right at me for the first time. “Was he miserable?” No he was angry. He wanted to know the details, the minutiae of his mind unravelling and how long it took. I notice he is much more animated, much more comfortable talking about other people than himself. But then again he is much more comfortable being other people.
“Mr Holmes doesn’t have dementia, he’s got most of his faculties. He’s just trying to gear himself up with energy and solve problems, which I think is very optimistic. And you feel at the end of the movie that he’s a better person for what he has discovered and for what he goes through. So for me it wasn’t depressing at all, it was a sunny film.”
I wonder has he seen the other Sherlock Holmes’s, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Jr. Which was his favourite? “I’ve not seen Robert Downey Jr’s. I’ve seen little bits of the Benedict one which was clever and witty. My favourite was Jeremy Brett for Granada Television. He took the character very seriously. It’s a detailed performance, very black, upsetting and not comfortable and I think that’s what I like about it.
“There have been so many actors that have played Sherlock Holmes you can’t worry about how good other people have been otherwise you would never play anything, Hamlet or Macbeth. I’m quite used to playing parts other people have played,” he says demurely. “Of course they didn’t play this particular Holmes. It is mine, I’m the oldest Holmes so far.” He smiles as he says the word “oldest” with relish.
The movie meshes the past and the present. It’s rather haunting when it trails back, searching and nostalgic. Does McKellen himself look back or live in the present or future?
“I just had a very nostalgic three days with my cousin Margaret. We worked out quite quickly that even though we don’t see much of each other, we are each the person the other has known the longest. There’s nobody who’s known Margaret longer than I and vice versa. Is that nostalgic? We spent a lot of time remembering things that happened and talking about our parents.
“I wish I had been more nostalgic for the past when my sister Jean was alive. She was five years older than me and died six years ago. Together we would have remembered things about our childhood that now I’ll never know. Things that happened in the war. I was thinking about writing a memoir so I’m trying to remember the evacuees that stayed with us. We lived in the north and they were evacuated from Middlesex. The father was a fire fighter so he didn’t come but the mother and her two children came, Tony and his younger sister, I can’t remember her name, and we lived together for a year. Can you imagine, a little house, four of us and then suddenly three strangers moving in.”
McKellen was born in Burnley, grew up in Wigan and later went to Bolton School for Boys where he was head boy. His father Dennis was a civil engineer and a lay preacher, his mother a theatre lover and home maker.
“I try not to think of the future, I catch myself thinking I’m glad I didn’t have any children. I would worry for their future. Besides I don’t think I would have been a very good parent. I don’t think many people are. I think it’s the most difficult thing anyone can do.”
Did he never think about being a parent? “I’m a gay man. In my generation you would never imagine having children. Some people want that. But I see my friends struggling with being a parent. You have to be so generous don’t you?”
Does he mean gay or straight friends? “Both, I don’t think there is any difference except perhaps if you are a gay parent you must have thought really hard about having children. It would never have been a quick night in the sack.
“I don’t think gay man of my generation ever thought about it. We didn’t think about getting married. The state wouldn’t allow gay relationships to be declared. And then they pointed at us and said look, they are irresponsible, they are not like us, they don’t have families. No we don’t because you tell us we can’t. It’s silly.” He says all this matter of factly, the anger sucked out of it. It’s an inner dialogue that must have gone on for so many years of his life. He knows its every twist and turn.
He came out when he was 49, almost by accident on a Radio 3 talk show when he was discussing Clause 28, the 1988 bill that said no public servant, including teachers, could be seen to be promoting a gay lifestyle. He has always talked about coming out as a huge relief. Of course his friends and theatre family knew he was gay and he was fully established in his career but letting the world know was not just an emotional milestone it paved the way for other actors to declare themselves.
At the time he was Britain’s most famous theatre actor. It is only after this date that what were to become his most renowned film roles started to come in – The Lord of the Rings movies, the X-Men franchise, The Golden Compass, The Da Vinci Code, Gods and Monsters.
Perhaps it was easier because at 49 the romantic lead roles were dwindling and many of his characters were asexual. When Rupert Everett came out he said that he regretted it because then he was never taken seriously as a heterosexual romantic lead again. “Rupert is a bright man and that was how it seemed to him. But I would not say that is true for me. When an actor’s career doesn’t go in the direction they want it too it’s not just down to one particular reason. I suspect his views have changed now. I would take acting out of the equation. I have not met anybody who thought that coming out wasn’t the best thing they had done in their life. It was the most important thing, life changing and life-affirming.”
I wonder if coming out is an old fashioned phrase as things have moved on immeasurably. “I know people who are not at ease saying they are gay but I don’t know many young people who have problems with it. I hope in fifty years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.”
For him and his generation things were much harder. Life was closed and full of stressful secrets. It is perhaps easier to come out to your friends then siblings and parents last.
McKellen’s mother died when he was twelve. “That relationship is irreplaceable. When my father married two years later I think one of his motives was to provide me with a mother, which she never was. She was Gladys and I had a very different relationship with her. I ended up being very close to her. But she wasn’t my mother and I would love to have known my mother as an adult.
“My father died when I was 25 (killed in a car crash). We weren’t that close and for the previous four years I’d been at university. I don’t know how different my life or my thinking would have been if they had both been alive. There would have been a lot for them to get over. In that we weren’t a family who….” He pauses, even now finding it difficult to find the right words.
Confronting who you are and telling your parents in a time when it was illegal would have been so hard. His first proper love affair was with history teacher Brian Taylor from Bolton. It began in 1964, coincidentally the same year his father died. It endured until 1972. Six years later he met Sean Mathias at the Edinburgh Festival and they were together as a couple for a decade. They still work together. Mathias directed him in Waiting For Godot (2009) and together with another businessman they purchased the lease on The Grapes pub in Limehouse, close to where he lives.
There is nothing about him that seems extravagant. He is not over the top with his emotions? Does he do anything that is excessive, luxurious? “Compared to other people my house is luxurious, but it’s within my means. And I’m never tempted to live anywhere else. It roots me.”
It is in this moment that I wonder how different he would have been if his mother had not died. What if he could ever have confronted his feelings? He would he have ever have come out at all? Did his parents easily access their emotions and talk openly?
“There was a lot of love and caring and no-one ever lifted a hand in anger. But they were not emotionally open. It never became a problem but I think it would have done if they had been alive. We didn’t seem to talk about things that were important. I would have to have come out and God knows how that would have gone down. It’s a deep regret that I didn’t have the chance to tell them.” He has stopped looking out of the window. The conversation is suddenly important to him. As his mother died when he was twelve, surely he didn’t know then if he was gay. “No I didn’t.” Post war Britain didn’t encourage introspection, it encouraged getting on with things. He nods. “Clearly there are a lot of families that don’t really nurture each other and some that do.”
Perhaps the fact that who he really was had to remain hidden and disconnected from his parents. It informed his desire to be an actor where you are connecting with everybody. “That is an astute observation and there is some truth in it. One of the things that strongly appealed to me about acting was that it was a substitute for real life. I know more about acting and what it involves, it’s effects, it’s craft than I do about anything else in my life. I think I’m a good actor but I couldn’t say that I have a strong grasp of other areas. So initially it was a substitute, a lot to do with being gay, unable to be myself in real life because the law said you couldn’t be. That suppression is cruel and barbaric.
“Within the theatre, one could not only express emotions publicly, although not your own – they were your own but filtered through a character. So that was an outing, a healthy one within the community of theatre. There was acceptance and love that you didn’t get anywhere else.” Does he mean the theatre was his real family? “That is right. Acting is not about ego and drawing attention to yourself, it’s about getting on with people and doing it together… but then I have to come and talk about myself,” he says with a gently raised eyebrow.
He really doesn’t like revealing. It’s not in his make-up. He’s learned too well to keep important things hidden.
When he was 18 he won a scholarship to St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to read English Literature. A grammar school boy suddenly mixed in with very posh people. Was that alienating?
“There were a lot of divisions when I was university between men and women, between boys who had come from doing their National Service and those who had come straight to university. They had killed people and now they were coming back to the rules of the university. There was a division between north and south and I was mocked for my accent. There were scholarship boys like me and those from southern public schools. Many divisions, and that was just one of them. Those divisions helped you to find yourself and find your friends.”
Trevor Nunn, David Frost, Corin Redgrave and Derek Jacobi were all at Cambridge around the same time. He had a secret crush on Derek Jacobi, the actor with whom he stars in the ITV comedy series Vicious where they both play outrageously mean and camp individuals. Back then it could not have been more different. “I wouldn’t take it any further then, you just didn’t. We didn’t ever talk about being gay, it was a secret.” They didn’t even come out to each other.
“My best friend at school qA David Hargreaves. We acted at school, we went to the theatre a lot, we were inseparable in the way kids could be. Right thorugh school. He ended up a professor of education at Oxford and Cambridge and he was gay. We never knew, we never talked about it. Isn’t that interesting?”
They were kindred spirits and didn’t realise why. “Even my friendship with Derek we never called ourselves gay. I can’t remember what we did call ourselves. I remember I was meeting people like myself and many of them would go to the theatre but I didn’t wake up sexually until after Cambridge.”
Did he ever have a girlfriend. “Who I had sex with?” He looks a little shocked. No, had feelings for, who he kissed, who he felt maybe he could go there with? “Yes, a little bit. It didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few who were a bit sweet on me and of course I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t attracted to them so I went along with it, a little bit. I was experimental as many straight men were experimental. I don’t mean to make it sound clinical. I had some very close relationships with girls that had I been straight would have led onto a serious relationship. Of my closest friends there are as many women as there are men.” Does he want to fall in love again? “No it’s nothing I would like in my life. My passion in life is that I know a bit about the status of gay people in this country and around the world. It’s nice to have something that I have a strong feeling and connection with.”
I’m slightly haunted about his mother. About if she hadn’t died when he was so young how he would ever have come out. And what a difference that would have made in his life and what a difference that would have made in the rest of the world as so many gay men have looked to him as a mentor.
“I didn’t know my mother was dying. She was sleeping downstairs and had been in hospital. I didn’t know she had a mastectomy until after she died. I was away on a school camp. I thought she was ill but she was going to get better. I didn’t see her in any distress.”
The 12-year-old McKellen chose not to come back for the funeral which seems to illustrate just how separate he could be from his emotions and the deep places he found to bury them. Emotions that later would be filtered through characters that would dazzle us.
He did once go back to the house they lived in growing up and talked to the woman who had bought it. “We had moved from Wigan to Bolton and that was where my mother died. The woman who bought the house (in Wigan) claimed that on the day my mother died, she felt a presence. She didn’t know that my mother had died but she found the lights being turned on and off and then she thought she saw someone come up the stairs. She had the idea that my mother would have gone back to the house where she was happiest at the moment of her death.”
In 1998 he did a one-man show called Knight Out in which he discussed his life and career. The speech that he would do at the end was called Letter to Mama by Armistead Maupin. It was the letter that Maupin wrote to his mother when he came out. It would touch everyone in the audience. Perhaps because he was using it as his channel. Perhaps it was the letter he would have written to his mother telling her things that he could never have done.
“I’d been watching some little films that my uncle took. My cousin Margaret bought them down. My father was a handsome bugger and my mother was pretty. You see them as kids just getting married. They couldn’t have known what they were letting themselves in for.”
From whom did he inherit the electric blue eyes? “I am colour blind so eyes don’t register with me. It must be the blue shirt that makes my eyes look more blue.” The eyes, his mother’s eyes, twinkle, the same other worldly twinkle.
Mr Holmes is out June 19