Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Do you prefer acting in films or plays?
IM: I always used to think the stage was preferable but that was before I had done many big parts onscreen and begun to gain confidence as a film actor. Before I made Richard III, I didn't feel at home in front of a camera, certainly not as relaxed as I have always felt with a live audience. I put myself through a quick course of screen tests from The Band Played On to Restoration, so that by the time we started Richard III, I was ready. I have always enjoyed the process of discovering a character within myself: rehearsing a play can be just as absorbing as presenting the part night after night. Filming is like one continuous rehearsal, with discoveries about character being made scene by scene as they are shot. There is no audience other than the camera lens but now I feel that is just a difference and not, all things considered, a disadvantage. I miss the special camaraderie of theatre work and will always want to return to it.
Q: How did you start as a professional actor?
IM: As a kid, if anyone asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I obliged with the answer they expected: "an actor", as I enjoyed showing off in school plays. At Cambridge University, where I was in over 20 undergraduate productions, I decided that I really did want to turn professional, partly because all my pals felt the same. My contemporaries included Derek Jacobi and Trevor Nunn. Our shows were often reviewed by the national theatre critics and some of them played briefly on the West End stage of London. I applied to three regional repertory theatres during my last term at university, armed with some good reviews and my two contrasting audition pieces, one classical, one modern. I got accepted by Coventry's Belgrade Theatre and without going to drama school, started acting full-time in September 1961, earning 8 pounds a week.
Q: What advice do you have for a young person who wants to act?
IM: As I was told 40 years ago, no one but you can decide whether you should be an actor. It's a risky career for all but the very few. There will be long periods of unemployment and even good work can be underpaid. Opportunities vary depending on your nationality and your country's theatre, television and film industries. Whilst you make up your mind, you can do worse than act whenever you can, working with people who you admire. Also watch others act on screen and stage and work out what makes their performances good or less good. Read plays and screenplays out loud to yourself.
Q: When did you come out as a gay man and why?
IM: I officially came out during a BBC radio broadcast discussing the wrongs of "Section 28", Margaret Thatcher's law to disadvantage lesbians and gays by banning the so-called "promotion of homosexuality". Until then I had not defined my sexuality in public, nor told my blood family. Everyone else knew. At work being openly gay seemed to have no disadvantages and my live-in partners and I never disguised our relationships. I wish I had completed the coming-out journey long before I was 49 years old. My fear that honesty would harm my career was ill-founded. My family and I have never been closer. I have discovered a multitude of new friends and the lesbian/gay/bisexual movement, its literature, research and politics. I don't get angry with my colleagues who persist in equivocating about their sexuality, because I remember for how long it seemed to me more comfortable to accept society's judgment on homosexuality and dodge its disapproval. When a famous actor lies about his homosexuality you just have to feel sorry for him. Remember no one ever had to lie about his heterosexuality.
Q: Have you a favourite part or one you want to play?
IM: No, believe it or not. How could I compare the reward of playing Shakespeare's great heroes with the thrill of a year in a Broadway hit or being nominated for an Oscar? Each job has its own special joy. As for the future I should be disappointed not to tackle King Lear and maybe there are other gigantic parts yet to be written - yet none would be worth playing if the director and cast weren't first-rate.
Q: What other actors do you admire?
IM: Those who dare to be different part by part. Those who like hard work and challenges. Those who put money and status low on the list of priorities. Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Gambon, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Lindsay, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and many others who are not yet well-known.
Q: What do you do when you are not acting?
IM: If I am working each day revolves around the job and my only relaxation will be e-mail, reading and the occasional cryptic crossword. If I am not working there will be more of the above plus travel, friends, theatre-going and cooking.
Q: Where do you live?
IM: Since my first West End job in 1964, I have made my home in London. King's Road, Chelsea with friends in a flat. Then with my boyfriend in Kensington until we split and I bought my first house in Camberwell, South London. In 1980, I bought an 18th century terraced house in East London overlooking the Thames, where I expect to stay. I have lived away from London for considerable stretches - a year in New York City with Amadeus, a year in Los Angeles filming, months on the road touring abroad and currently another year away, making The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand.
Q: What does it mean being a "Sir"?
IM: The United Kingdom, like most democracies, has civil awards which are society's acknowledgement of outstanding achievements in all areas of life. A knighthood is granted by the Queen, on the advice of her government, and carries with it a medal for formal occasions and a title for everyday. My citation was: "for services to the performing arts". My professional name remains the same and I don't want to be known as Sir Ian except when previously I would have been called Mr. McKellen. The title is for life, is not hereditary and involves no payment or responsibilities.
Q: Is the filmmaking process as grueling as everyone else in your industry says it is? To be honest from our (the audience) point of view it seems very fun (although long and tedious).
IM: "Long and tedious fun" about sums it up. Actors get driven to and from work mainly so they don't disrupt the shooting schedule by having accidents. We get up before dawn and get home maybe 15 hours later. At work we are fed for free and relax in our personal trailers. On the set we are kept warm if it's cold (as it was shooting X-Men in Toronto) or kept cool if it's hot (as it is currently in New Zealand on The Lord of the Rings). All this attention is to prepare for the vital moment when the camera turns and we actually earn our salaries by acting. How do we prepare in the meantime? Personally, nothing too distracting -- a daily crossword (if I can find the London Times newspaper) or a book (currently "Harry Potter" by J. K. Rowling) or snoozing or even answering e-mail. And I read and reread whatever scene is being shot next.