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Six Degrees of Separation

Words by Ian McKellen

The highest compliment a director can pay an actor he has worked with, is to repeat the invitation. So when Fred Schepisi, who used me in Plenty, asked me to play the South African businessman in Six Degrees of Separation, I was flattered and said "yes please".

I had seen Stockard Channing in the London production of John Guare's play — and I was glad that Fred had wanted her to bring her stylish performance to the screen. It was fascinating to observe him gently guide her away from the bold theatricality of her stage creation and successfully adapt it to the intimacy of the camera. He was equally tactful with Will Smith, the confident young star of the television sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Perhaps his confidence was only a facade, because at the cast read-through of the screenplay, he was accompanied by his wife, father, manager, agent and a couple of other supporters. Fred coaxed and cajoled Will, during take after take, until he was completely satisfied, thereby making possible his subsequent film stardom. To Will's credit he never lost his cool and if he was uncomfortable in the company of an all-white cast and crew, he never showed it.

My only disappointment was that Will refused to fulfill the script's requirement that his character should kiss another man. I wasn't around when he reportedly said that such a gesture would upset his fans, otherwise I should have explained that his twinge of homophobia was unseemly and unnecessary. When I met him at the Los Angeles opening of the movie, I made sure to give him a kiss for the benefit of the paparazzi.

The senior actor in the movie was Donald Sutherland whose own confidence was well-placed. He is a virulent non-smoker and his contract stipulated that no one should be permitted to smoke on or near the set. Stockard and I shared our nicotine in the privacy of her bathroom but Donald was never fooled. Sniffing round me he'd say "Been at it again have you?"

I adopted an Afrikaans twang as Geoffrey, not realising that an Anglo/South African accent would have been more appropriate. A friend went to see the movie in Johannesburg and gleefully told me that as soon as I opened my mouth, the entire cinema erupted into laughter.

Apart from the fascinatingly disparate group of actors in the movie, it is worth seeing alone for the splendid photography of New York, a central character in the story. Manhattan has never looked so beautiful on film. My interior scenes were shot in an hotel off 5th Avenue, newly refurbished into luxury apartments overlooking Central Park.

One day my walk to work was impeded by the annual St Patrick's Day Parade, when all New Yorkers turn Irish, sometimes painting themselves green to prove it. A lesbian and gay group who wanted to declare their sexuality and nationality simultaneously, were refused permission to march with the rest, who were, however, content to include masked members of the IRA. The parade's organisers were indifferent to the new laws of the Republic of Ireland, which had that year abandoned all the anti-gay legislation left behind by the British Empire. Pondering this irony, I sulkily watched the shenanigans from the 5th Avenue sidewalk as a buxom Roman Catholic nun strode by, banging her tambourine in time to the brass band playing the familiar Irish air "There's No Business like Show Business". She caught sight of my doleful face and shouted "Cheer Up!" I called back to her: "I'm English, I'm Protestant and I'm gay - what do I have to be cheerful about?"

Then I ran off to the comfort of Fred Schepisi's filming.


Call sheet for St. Patrick's Day 1993

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