30 July 2000
Q: Do you choose roles based on the previous work of the director?
A: It is reassuring to have seen a director's previous films but a good working relationship will depend on a mutual respect and ability to communicate. Sometimes very distinguished directors have poor social skills. So when I am interviewed for a job, although I try not to show it, I am testing the director's personality and have turned down a number of prestigious films as a result. The true test of whether you can work well with a director is to give him or her a try.
Breaking into Hollywood
Q: I am a broadcasting and film major at Central Missouri State University. Any advice you might be able to give me on how to get into the movie industry would be greatly appreciated. I have tried emailing people in Hollywood before and I have never received a response.
A: Perhaps the reason others have been unhelpful is that simply they don't know what to recommend. It took me 30 years to feel a part of the film industry even though I had agents supporting me. The first job is obviously crucial because, as in any area, actual contact with prospective employers is more valuable than a thousand letters mailed with a curricula vitae. So my advice would be take any job on or near a movie, however badly it pays. You have a lifetime to establish yourself and the bottom of the ladder is a good place to start. Best of luck which is what we all need.
Alfred the Great
Q: The last time I saw Alfred the Great was on television in the early '80s. I noticed that the period scenery and costumes were very accurate. This influenced me greatly and subsequently I enrolled in many medieval history classes in college. Since then I have done much personal research in early British history. I have participated in historical re-enactments organizations specializing in the Viking period. I have also made my own period garb and armour and endeavoured writing several film treatments to showcase these interests. Do you know if Alfred is available on video?
A: The designers of Alfred the Great were proud of the accuracy of their historical research. For instance, the crops around the mediaeval buildings erected in County Galway in the west of Ireland, were grown from cereal seed that pre-dated modern hybrids. They would be pleased that their work inspired your own. I don't know if a video is currently available, so watch out for a television screening which you could record for private use.
Q: I looked over your theatrical credits and noticed you never seem to have performed in a musical. What is your opinion of musicals? And do you enjoy watching them if not performing in them?
A: I enjoy working in all sorts of theatre, although I haven't been in a musical since I did Salad Days (Ipswich 1962)! I was more recently cast opposite Judi Dench in the Royal National Theatre's production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music, until shooting of Richard III intervened.
I am not musical-mad but see most of the blockbusters eventually. Most recently I was at the opening of Cameron Mackintosh's latest venture, the musical of Witches of Eastwick at Drury Lane Theatre in London.
Q: Here in the USA, the State of Vermont recently passed legislation entitling same sex partners to register for "civil unions" which allow all the rights of a marriage without actually calling it one. This is a great step forward in civil rights and I was curious what your thoughts might be.
A: If any couple want their loving relationship recognised in law, with full rights and responsibilities, they should be free to register their union. Whether the state calls this "marriage" seems to me irrelevant and to some religious leaders unpalatable. The recognition of the civil rights of gays and lesbians should not be hindered by whatever word is chosen to describe it. I hope that Vermont's civil union would include the right to produce, adopt and bring up children.
Q: Is there an early performance from your career that you'd sooner forget?
A: If there is, I have forgotten it! Most of my early work was on stage and so can no longer be seen: and for that I am grateful.
Apt Pupil Dialect and Dialogue
Q: I am Austrian and I watched Apt Pupil, to hear your interpretation of a German accent. It sounded quite authentic and I'm thankful to you for not pronouncing the "th" sounds as "s" sounds, which unfortunately is a German and Austrian habit. Sometimes you sounded almost like an Austrian speaking English. You only spoke one German sentence and I am very sorry, but I must correct you. I don't know, if you remember the sentence, but you said "Rede mit mir?" Correct would be "Reden Sie mit mir?" It's only a minor and completely unimportant thing, sorry for my being pedantic. I wanted to ask you, if the accent was a handicap for you?
A: Any accuracy of accent in Apt Pupil was due to the help of Tim Monich, my dialect coach (who also worked on X-MEN). I'm glad you seem to have approved. Once I had added the Californian twang to the basic German sounds and rhythm, it was the basis on which I built Dussander's character.
As for the incorrect German, I apologise because that is just the sort of detail which niggles me when I notice it in other actors' performances.
Q: I thoroughly enjoyed the BBC/Masterpiece Theater presentation of David Copperfield. I must especially compliment you on your performance as the cruel but strangely sympathetic schoolmaster. I do have one Dickens related question: have you ever considered bringing The Old Curiosity Shop to screen?
A: A few years ago I was offered a television film of The Old Curiosity Shop and turned it down the role of "Grandfather" partly because I felt I was too often cast as older than I really am. Yet here I am filming Gandalf, whose real age is a few thousand years old!
Pursuit of Passion
Q: I am a twenty-seven year old American with no idea what I want from life, and I feel this great need to express myself creatively in someway, although I'm not quite sure how at this point. Acting would be one medium that has fascinated me off and on for many years, but to hear many of the great actors speak of it, (including yourself) they describe a great passion for this art form, a passion I'm not sure that I have at this point. Do you think that it would be worthwhile for someone in my situation to give it a try? I will also admit that the thought of getting up on stage fills me with a great deal of trepidation.
A: Deciding on a career is so personal that a stranger's advice is not very relevant. But acting is not a job to take up unless you are prepared for the worst unemployment, penury and despair. That is why passion and determination are almost essential. All in all, I would think again.
The Bible and Homosexuality
Q: With the greatest respect from one completely imperfect person G-D created and loves to another, how do you justify your homosexuality while professing to believe in the Bible? I am not condemning you at all. I simply desire to know why you believe this lifestyle is alright when the Bible presents it as wrong in both the Old Testament and the New. Yours humbly and respectfully in our Messiah.
A: As an atheist I don't have the gay Christian's problem in reconciling traditional Church teaching with homosexuality. There are however many theologians who would disagree with your certainty about the Bible's condemnation. Christ himself, I note, was silent on the subject.
Unironic Americans and Englishmen in the rain
Q: Last year I took a vacation to England (two weeks of bliss, by the way) and caught a British comic poking a bit of fun at Americans and our inability to understand irony. I took slight offence and then remembered she was probably just being ironic. Then I watched a television special about the James Bond movies, in which one of the original Bond directors made essentially the same claim. I was just wondering if this is a common perception among the British? When I think of my favorite British humorists (Noel Coward, Monty Python, Douglas Adams) I must admit that their "flavor" of humor is one you don't often see in America.
A: Yes it is a common perception that irony is lost on many Americans. You will have noticed that British speaking is more varied in tone than most American accents. We use a wider range of inflection which may sound oddly sing-song to you but has the advantage of conveying a subtlety of intent that compliments the meaning of the words. Irony usually subverts this meaning. So when at this time of year an Englishman in his mackintosh sheltering under his umbrella says "I just love British summers", he means exactly the opposite. Confusing but, to me, funny as well.
Q: You say in answer to one comment "This does not of course mean that I play Magneto as gay man." Now I mean no offence here, but to me - and I would hope to most people - it would not matter one jot to me if this character - or any in any film - was played as gay. It's who the person is, not what the person is that matters.
A: I understand your confusion. I used "of course" to indicate that I had read the script and noted that Magneto's heterosexuality was self-evident. Had he been written as gay, then of course I would have played him as a gay man.
Q: I have one little question. What would it take to get an autographed photo of you?
A: Until quite recently it would have taken no more than a request to www.mckellen.com but of late there has been such a flood that I can't find the time to respond to all the very sweet letters, some of which even offer to send stamps. As a kid I had an autograph album, so I sympathise with the genuine collector. I have, though, been a little alarmed that my signature is auctioned regularly on E-Bay, suggesting that not all those autograph hunters to whom I replied were quite as innocent as they pretended.
Q: I live in Houston, Texas with (dare I say) my husband of two years. We are both admirers of your work. Lately with all of the political warring over whether we will ever become actual equal citizens of this country, we have thought about moving to Europe. Well, England to be precise. Vermont adopts a civil union in the same timeframe that California bans gay marriage. Mississippi bans the rights for gays to adopt children and Canada enacts gay marriage. I would like to know your thoughts, in general or specifics, on the possibilities and/or difficulties of gay Americans moving to England. I know that there is no perfect nirvana for gay men and women in our society, but England has evolved well beyond America in its compassion for humanity. That is something I would love to wake up to each day and embrace.
A: The grass is greener - I had always thought USA more welcoming to gay people in that many of your major cities are in advance of UK's tardy recognition of the rights of all citizens to be equal under the law. The advantage of living in your continent, whatever your views and needs, is that you can find some congenial community amongst the wide variety across the states. By contrast the UK is small and one town much like another. The cities are, it's true, more gay-friendly than the rural areas. With constitutional devolution the four countries are, however, beginning to adopt varying local laws. So currently, Scotland has just repealed Section 28, the nasty anti-gay law that only last week was upheld by the House of Lords which holds sway over law in England and Wales.
If you are serious about emigration, you should think more about Edinburgh than London, Cardiff or Belfast. But Edinburgh is nowhere near as liberating for gays as San Francisco.
Q: I'm a Finnish college student and I have started to get interested in your movies recently. What do you think are the best movies you've made?
A: I think Gods and Monsters the most satisfying in that Bill Condon's direction matches the style of his screenplay.
Q: Are you going to direct movies?
A: There are enough poor directors around without my adding to their number.
Q: Are you going to write more movies?
A: I sometimes toy with a few original ideas for movies but nothing has been written yet.
Q: I am an Italian non professional actor and I appreciate very much your work. I would like to have the opportunity to see you in a live performance and I have heard that you are coming to Italy in Autumn. Is it true?
Q: I was curious as to what you and your fellow thespians could do to promote the taping of plays, produced in London, New York, Los Angles etc. For those of us who are not incredibly wealthy, or not able to gain access to a lot of wonderful productions, I think, would easily pay whatever price for a tape or disc of the best known, or unknown, stage productions. Not to mention the scholastic benefits. There are too few recordings of great work being done out there.
A: You are by no means the first to wonder why more acclaimed stage productions are not preserved for the screen. It is not simple to capture a theatre event on film or video tape. Cameras recording during an actual performance don't work well with stage lighting and the acting in close-up can look too exaggeratedly theatrical. It is better to transfer the show to a studio (without audience) where the lighting , acting and setting can be prepared specifically for the camera. This is what was done with the Royal Shakespeare Company's Macbeth and Othello. Often, however, the cast and/or director are not available for the extra weeks' work and new contracts can prove tricky. Best of all, is to re-imagine the stage production for the screen in the way that Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh did with their Henry V's, and Olivier and I did with our Richard III's.
Cinema vs Theatre
Q: Is cinema an unintelligent medium compared to theatre? Do the movies have anything stimulating to offer or do they in general simply try to appeal to the masses?
A: Those films and plays which aim to appeal to the widest possible audience are clearly different in kind to those whose main aim is not big box-office. The same is true of publishing, television and all forms of public communication. What is curious is that Hollywood's professionals, critics and awards assess films which are different in style and intent by the same yardstick of popularity at the box-office.
Q: As an openly gay actor, do you find yourself compelled to portray gay characters, perhaps as a form of activism as some people choose to, or, are you content in simply accepting roles that interest or challenge you, regardless of the character's orientation?
A: I am sent many scripts with gay characters in them. Being gay myself, I am glad that the film industry is interested in the lives of a minority which has been too long ignored on screen. But there are many other considerations when deciding about a job - the integrity of the script, the talent of the director's team, the challenge to my own abilities.
Of the last 10 parts I have played (five onscreen, five onstage) only one was gay (James Whale in God and Monsters).
Coming out to the kids
Q: I myself am not gay, but my father is. I was just wondering if you ever had any children, and if so, how did you go about telling them?
A: I don't have children. But I suppose I should have tried to answer truthfully any question my child asked. Perhaps even a big subject could be dealt with casually rather than with a big sitting down and "I have something to tell you..."
Q: Have you ever worked with Ian Richardson? I would love to see a film or TV programme featuring the "two Ians".
A: Yes we were together onstage just once - in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Wedekind's Marquis von Keith (1975) in London. He was a joy to work with and one night when I forgot what my next line was, he obligingly provided it out of hearing of the audience.