Ian McKellen by Scott Mendelsohn

BOMB 65 Fall 1998
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Ian McKellen in Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters. Photo courtesy Lions Gate Films. Right, Ian McKellen in Bryan Singer’s Apt Pupil. Photo by John Baer. Courtesy Pheonix Pictures.

In preparing to meet Sir Ian McKellen last June, I watched a 1984 BBC documentary in which he discussed his approach to Macbeth’s final “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy. Dressed in street clothes, without a production to support him, Ian McKellen’s interpretation taught a compassion for Shakespeare’s bloody tyrant that had eluded me through my own many readings of the piece. He conveyed this in only 12 lines.

14 years and a knighthood after that documentary was made, I met a retiring individual, a bit weary as he passed through New York on his way to play Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in Los Angeles, but receptive and quick to engage in our discussion. He has succeeded in crafting definitive performances of classic and contemporary roles for over 30 years because he has held onto the basic joy of playing the part. Whether he is depicting the horrific rise and fall of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or the quiet, witty and desperate final days of director James Whale in the upcoming film Gods and Monsters, Ian McKellen never loses the sense of play that makes great theater possible.

More recently, Sir Ian has brought his visibility as an artist to bear on British politics. In 1988 he came out as a gay man to protest the passage of the Thatcher government’s “Section 28,” a law making illegal the public “promotion of homosexuality.” That year he also co-founded the Stonewall Group, which lobbies for gay and lesbian equal rights. To his activism he brings the same qualities he embodies on the stage: a clarion vision of human behavior in all its complexity.

Scott Mendelsohn As we’re speaking on the 29th anniversary of Stonewall, and about 10 years after you decided to come out publicly, I was wondering if you have any reflections on that decision.

Ian McKellen Well, 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. All politics means is making connections. I didn’t make connections with my own experience as a gay man.

SM It’s interesting to me that you took so long to come out publicly. Surely politics was on your mind. The Shakespearean roles you’ve performed are mostly kings—governments, intrigue and pitched battles. And you’ve played gay roles throughout your career.

IM I sort of noted that there were people called to activism, but they seemed a lunatic fringe. I didn’t see they had much prospect of changing the world, nor were they particularly trying to. But they were standing up and being themselves, making themselves very noticeable—which perhaps didn’t appeal to me too much.

It is ironic that in the first film I ever made I played a gay man. It was in 1966. My character got Sandy Dennis pregnant on his one night of straight sex. I hardly noticed I was playing a gay character. And I played in the first production of Bent, which is perhaps the ultimate coming-out play. I just missed the obvious lead to say, “Oh, and I’m gay too. The actor’s gay.” We all did. Martin Sherman, who wrote the play, who was out himself, never came up to me and said: “Isn’t it about time? Why don’t you think about it?” It wasn’t part of the conversation. Now that really isn’t true anymore. People do say to their friends, “Come on. It’s better over here.”

I was not the symbol of change, I just took advantage of it. Although I have often played gay parts and still do, I have never limited myself to being a queer artist. That would cut me off from so many of the plays I want to do. Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare, on the whole, are not concerned with gay life.

SM I’m impressed at the way you’ve been able to tackle the gay roles that interest you, without becoming ghettoized as an artist. The two movies you have coming out in October certainly let you span that range. In Apt Pupil, from Stephen King’s novella, you’re playing a Nazi in hiding—a heterosexual—who’s discovered by an all-American boy next door. And I’m very excited to see Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein adapted into the film Gods and Monsters. I’m quite a Christopher Bram fan.

IM So am I.

SM In that film you’re playing James Whale, director of the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. As portrayed in the book and the movie, he was unabashedly gay. Although Whale played by the rules Hollywood set to contain gay visibility, he didn’t question his identity.

IM Though he’s clearly not a gay activist. Playing the part has rather been a reflection on my own life. I mean, James Whale came from the same social background as mine, he was an actor most of his life. He became a director rather late in the day. Then he came to this foreign land, a land of freedom, and learned to live life on his own terms.

If James Whale were to have a glimpse of what we say about him today, he would be appalled and astonished to see the development in modern attitudes towards gay people. But he’s an honorable man, it seems to me. A pleasant man, although people disagree on that. Some say he was sort of a chum, charming, generous; others say he was a bitter, difficult man. So the film obviously gives a partial view.

SM Christopher Bram has imagined for Whale a relationship with his yardman—a distinctly heterosexual young man. Clay Boone is an ex-Marine who’s quite invested in the anti-gay values he was raised in. And then to present this unlikely pair in the ’50s—that’s a dangerous relationship.

IM But they meet at a time when their separation from the rest of society is a trouble to them. Whale is withdrawn because he’s had a stroke. He can’t paint, he can’t write, or have a conversation without constantly being flooded by memories. And Clay is unhappily single, bored to death, and not particularly successful at living up to the masculine ideal—he too has his problems. Despite their distance, you feel they’ve become wonderful friends by the end. The young man copes with the nature of Whale’s attraction to him, even when Whale tries to involve him in his own personal demons.

SM His experiences in World War I.

IM The way that Christopher Bram’s novel relates the Frankenstein movies to the First World War, when a certain evil was let loose in the world…Both the book and Bill Condon’s movie manage to say something new about having survived the First World War. They encourage us to look again at Whale’s attitude towards horrors and death from his experience as an officer in the trenches. The dreadful experience of the war never left Whale. And his feelings about the war affected his work in Hollywood, just as being gay affected his work.

SM Apt Pupil is also about a man whose sudden relationship with a younger man forces him to confront his war experiences. The relationship in Gods and Monsters turns out to be deeply compassionate. Apt Pupil also shows a young man discovering the effects of war on an older man. In the latter, however, the old man Dussander is a former Nazi commandant in hiding. It is also a dangerous relationship, but in a different way.

IM Yes. The boy is attracted by Dussander’s evil behavior. I use that word “evil” cautiously—Dussander’s behavior is so outrageous that it can’t be tolerated. It may, however, be explicable.

As I read Stephen King’s story, the writer believes that there is such a thing as pure evil that you can capture and can be affected by. I don’t agree. The psychology of my character is not explicitly explored, which made it a very difficult part to play. I kept wanting to know Dussander’s true background: What had his life really been like? What was his relationship with his wife? Why didn’t he have any children? All sorts of legitimate questions. The film is more focused on the psychology of the boy. That’s the fully rounded character in the film. With the director Bryan Singer’s help, I constructed a past for the character based on the novella. It is there, even if the audience is not entirely privy to it.

In the end, the film is a melodrama, which is not at all derogatory in my mind. I think Bryan Singer has made a movie that can reach 14 year-olds. I was nervous about seeing the film, in case the young people who were going to see it would be merely excited by it, merely horrified.

SM Actually, when I first read the story in high school, I read the violence with a degree of voyeurism. Now I hope I would move beyond that to try to understand the motive behind the horror.

IM If young people are introduced to a past they didn’t know, or a past that seems rather distant, then it’s the moral film I always hoped it would be. The point of the story is not what the teenage character does when faced with these horrors, it’s what he should have done. He should have judged Dussander instead of becoming obsessed with his past.

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Ian McKellen and Charlotte Cornwell in Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Photo by Gautier Deblonde, courtesy Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles.

SM The film raises the question: What is an appropriate, humane response to inhumane crimes? I wonder if that’s something you bring to your political work.

IM How do you mean?

SM Your empathy. Politics may be about making connections, but often those connections are used to stigmatize, to isolate people we don’t understand, label them as “criminal” or “evil.” As an actor, you use your imagination to understand all kinds of people, not just sociologically but viscerally, in such a way that you communicate to an audience.

IM Well, it doesn’t always work like that. In the end there’s a limit to an actor’s ability to affect the world simply by playing parts. You just present the evidence and tell the story and hope it’s understood.

When I played Richard III, when I played Iago, or when I played Macbeth—these are great, great parts often labeled “evil” by critics and audiences: “He’s an evil man from Shakespeare.” My feeling is that Shakespeare’s philosophy allows you to know that these aren’t evil men, but rather they are frail men. These are human beings writ large, and their faults are also writ large. They have too much power for their own good, and if you look carefully you can see the origins of their evil.

I thought I was perhaps one of the first to play Richard III who actually understood the origins of his extremely bad behavior. He’s not a psychopath. Other people actually commit the deed.

SM So he doesn’t actually enjoy the act of murder.

IM No. In fact he isolates himself from murder. But the reason he does what he does … It’s very complicated with his mother. She says to him that she’s robbed him of her love because she hated the way he looked. He was deformed. That’s a very clear exposé of why he turns that hatred back on the world: he’s not loved. Now that’s a rather 20th-century view, isn’t it? The play presents a post-Freudian view of deformity and interactions, and it’s in this context that I played the part. Yet still some reviews went no deeper than “Ian McKellen, the master of evil.”

SM So if reviewers can’t move past their preconceptions about Richard III to see the subtleties you’re portraying, why should law makers be more easily swayed?

IM Right. Still, England is a country which adores actors. My opinion does carry weight. And I wouldn’t really like to leave it up to my play with Martin Sherman to win the war. Finally, you have to go out and do something about it.

SM You’re off to Los Angeles now to play Doctor Stockmann in Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. That’s a play all about someone trying to go out and do something about his city’s political problems.

IM It’s one of the great parts. Part of its greatness is that he’s not straightforward. Arthur Miller’s adaptation simplified Stockmann’s motives and lost much of the richness of the play. Christopher Hampton’s translation, which is the one we’re using, is much more complex.

SM As I reread the play I expected it to be more like Clifford Odets, more black and white: a hero fighting for right against obvious wrongs. In his fight to bring the pollution of the town baths to light, Dr. Stockmann is right, in terms of public health. But he’s a difficult character to like.

IM Ibsen’s cottoned on to the truth about people who are trying to advance society. They’re often extremely uncomfortable people, and you wish they’d go away. Not that what they’re saying isn’t right, and may not eventually prevail. It’s rather like Dr. Kevorkian, isn’t it? Doctor Death. He himself says, “I wonder if you’ll need me in 20 years time?” But that man cannot be let near a camera or a microphone because he expresses his view in a positively contemptible way. He’s his own worst advocate; and Dr. Stockmann is the same way.

SM There are practical realities about how to effect change.

IM Which he will not accept. And then Ibsen hangs the whole thing on the crux of two brothers. One is always breaking the rules for the right reasons, while the other one has made the rules for the wrong reasons. We can all understand that. We can see these two middle-aged men fighting and see what they were like in the nursery.

Ibsen wrote the play in a passion after the failure of Ghosts, which was reviled in every country in the world. He felt quite beleaguered and wrote this one—it’s very personal. Usually we think Ibsen isn’t in his own plays. He is in this one, he’s Dr. Stockmann.

SM The artist howling into the wind.

IM He’s the great humanist, Ibsen. I’ve always liked Ibsen’s plays; I prefer them to Chekhov. Thank God both of them are there, but Ibsen just gets to the core of things. Compared to Chekhov, Ibsen has almost no subtext. An audience watching one of the great Chekhov plays would be leaning forward to catch every nuance. With An Enemy of the People, they can sit back and everything in the story is clear, is on display. It’s all spoken, it’s all out there.

SM Is there a moment, an image we would see in your portrayal that captures the essence of your Stockmann?

IM You know, it’s difficult to discuss a part that I’m acting. I’m not asking the audience to understand what I’m doing, and tick it off and make notes. I’m being the character, and the audience will judge for themselves if I’m believable as the character, and whether they approve of what the character does. If you want to understand my Stockmann, you have to watch it all. I don’t hang that understanding on any one moment or series of moments. I think perhaps the main characteristic of the way I play Stockmann is that I allow the character to be very unattractive at times, behaving selfishly, egotistically. The startling conclusion of the play is that after this fierce battle with his brother, Dr. Stockmann leaves politics. He’s going to change the world by teaching his children.

It’s a wonderful part. I love being out there in California. I’m curious to see if LA’s going to turn out to see it. I’ll be doing publicity when I get out there, and I’m tempted to pitch it like a movie: “We made this property called An Enemy of the People. And you know Jaws has the same plot?” It’s all about water, which is a hot topic for Californians.

SM It sounds like you’re ready to bring the show to Hollywood.

Raised in New Mexico, Scott Mendelsohn is a poet and playwright who lives in Brooklyn.

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Originally published in

BOMB 65, Fall 1998

Featuring interviews with Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon, Ian McKellen, Sam Taylor-Wood, Thomas Nozkowski, Geoffrey O’Brien, Alexander Nehamas, and Mark Richard.

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