25 May 2006

Ian McKellen E-Posts

15 August 2000

Q: Thank you for your portrayal of Magneto in the movie, The X-Men. It was superb. I enjoyed the movie though my favorite role you have portrayed is still Henry in the Shakespearean movie adaptation of Henry V.

A: I don't mind being confused with Kenneth Branagh, whose screen Henry V you evidently enjoyed as much as I did. Others have recently congratulated me on my performances in Love and Death on Long Island and as Lawrence of Arabia I hope John Hurt and Peter O'Toole don't mind.

Q: Why is there no mention of the Star Wars movies in which you have appeared? I am amazed how you can transform yourself from Senator Palpatine, to the SS officer in Apt Pupil, to your performance in Gods and Monsters!

A: I think you have the wrong Ian. In Phantom Menace, Senator Palpatine is played by Ian McDiarmid I have not appeared in any of the Star Wars episodes.  

The Globe

From: byroninthetrees@yahoo.co.uk

Q: Being a great Mark Rylance fan, I'd love to see you perform at the Globe Theatre with him.

A: In July I saw an afternoon performance of Hamlet starring Mark Rylance, the artistic director of the newly built open-air Shakespeare's Globe Theatre on the south bank of the river Thames, close to the site of the original Globe Theatre where Richard Burbage played the first Hamlet. The auditorium was packed with eager groundlings standing close round the thrust-stage. I was sitting behind them, on a cushioned bench, sheltered from the light rain that fell mid-performance.

Mark is at home on the wide stage and relishes the close contact with the audience. When he turns aside from the play's action to address them, there is an intimacy that conventional theatres cannot achieve. At the Globe, the actors and audience share the space and, therefore, the play too. There is no need for amplification of the voice nor for artificial lighting. The setting is permanent, each scene overlapping the next and confirming that Shakespeare benefits from being focused on the actors rather than on the decorations of designer and director, which characterises most current productions of his plays.

When Mark Rylance plays on it, the Globe's stage becomes a more viable platform for Elizabethan drama than the picture-stages of proscenium theatres.

New Media

From: Mike Lukash Lukecash@aol.com

Q: I am a Flash animator who is working on new forms of story-telling.  As you are an actor who maintains a web site, what do you think the role of the internet will have on acting, movies and storytelling?

A: You sound more in touch with the future of the internet than I am. Perhaps its most exciting potential is in the immediacy of communication which will allow an individual or group to contact a wide-ranging international audience at the touch of the keyboard. As the technology expands and becomes cheaper, there will be soon nothing to stop anyone who has a story to tell from posting it for the world to read and see. We could soon all be performers and directors, a new democracy of communication blurring the lines between amateur and professional artistry.

Gay Activism

Q: As a straight man, I am horrified by how my gay friends are treated by the law and society. Other than supporting them personally, do you know of any "friends of gays" active groups through which I could help gay and lesbians as a whole?

A: It will depend where you live. Gay bookshops or gay/lesbian telephone help lines will advise on organisations in your area. An effective help would be to make clear to your elected officials that you expect them to support their gay/lesbian constituents by repealing repressive legislation locally or nationally. A letter in the press or a phone-call to a radio chat programme supporting gay/lesbian issues, can be potent when they come from a straight person.

Some links:



Acting in London

Q: I am a young, black actor who is currently studying in New York. I have been attracted to the idea of pursuing a career in London. I adore the classics and want to do as much classical work as possible. I perceive that I will have more opportunities in the classics in the UK. I have read good things about multicultural casting and I get the sense that actors are simply more respected as artists in the UK.

A: There may well be more productions of classical plays in London than in New York or other American theatre centres. Although the principle of multiracial casting was first championed in Joseph Papp's Shakespeare productions in Central Park NYC, it is now well-established on both sides of the Atlantic. Its development (and acceptance by conservative audiences and critics) will depend on the rise of young stars from all races, reflecting the cultural mix of the cities they work in.

As for your working in the UK, check the immigration rules which unfortunately inhibit the exchange of international performers.

Big Break

Q: I am unsure as to how you got your "big break" or even if you did have one?

A: Looking back, it's hard to see a defining moment that could be called a big break, unless it was my early decision to look for work that could teach me rather than make me rich and famous.

Derek Jarman

Q: I've been reading Derek Jarman's books recently and his anger fair sears the pages at times. He really opened my eyes to 'conventional' attitudes to gay men. I don't know if you agree with his writings, but he certainly won me over.

A: Derek Jarman's films, art and writings expressed the free spirit of a pioneer. He was openly gay in public and private at a time when the closet ruled. Not all of us who follow want to define (or limit) ourselves as "queer artists" but his example has been potent even after his death. When AIDS controlled his later life, his honesty about his illness was central to changing perceptions about the epidemic, particularly in the UK.

Acting Gay

From: Stephen Grady

Q: I recently acted in a play with "gay" themes (in Arkansas no less) and was a bit shocked to find that my director, who is gay, seemed to want me to play a bit of a stereotype. The character was a gay Latino, and the other members of the cast seemed to want me to fit my performance to some preconceived notion of what a gay Latino man acts like.

I was wondering, is this common in theatre? I am a Latino man who definitely does not resemble any stereotype of what is usually "male", "gay", Latino", etc.

A: Not knowing the play in question, I can't be much help, as what fits the style of one play will not fit another. I sometime squirm at the memory of my own stereotypical queeny performance as Harold Gorringe in Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy but then farce lends itself to over-exaggeration. If you were being encouraged to present a "type" when the script needed something more rounded and true, I sympathise.

From: cg101252@aol.com

Q: Have you ever seen anything that you would like to have a copy of to help recapture that (magical?) moment in a theatre when there are only two people in the theatre: you and the actor on the stage?

A: Yes and no. There are many thrilling theatre moments and performances which live on in my memory Peggy Ashcroft's Imogen, Laurence Olivier's Shylock, Coriolanus and Captain in Dance of Death, Uta Hagen in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joel Grey's original MCee in Cabaret, Lena Horne's Lady and her Music and on and on. But suppose these performances were available on video, confined to the small screen and fixed by the camera's eye. The experience of re-viewing them might replace and reduce the initial excitement in the theatre which has stayed alive in my mind's eye. The effect of a performance anyway will depend on the audience's attitude at the time so that, I believe, it can ever be repeated or recaptured.

The Odyssey

From: Justin kepler@tiac.net

Q: I've just finished listening to your soaring reading of Robert Fagles' translation of The Odyssey. How did you come to participate in such a wonderful project?

A: As with most jobs, the offer came out of the blue. I suppose my experience with Elizabethan dramatic verse, which uses the formality of high rhetoric as well as the spontaneity of naturalistic speech, fitted Homer's range.

Rep Theatre/Actors' Company

Q: When I returned from drama studies in the U.K., I started a repertory company on the West Coast of Canada with a fellow student. I would love to hear any advice on what you consider to be the essentials involved in a rep system - especially at or near its time of inception (which essentially my company still is).

A: A Repertory Company implies a permanent group of actors who have a body of work available for performance. The closest I have known to that ideal is the old Moscow Art Theatre, whose actors had contracts for life and whose repertoire as late as the early 1990s included the Three Sisters directed in 1944 by Danchenko who co-founded the company with Stanislavski.

When I worked for British regional "rep" companies in the 1960s, plays succeeded each other and were not often played in true repertory with a change of programme night by night. Even so the spirit of company was strong and I still honour salient characteristics: Leading actors who are happy to play supporting parts. The same group of players learning from each other over a year or two. Plays which contrast and demand a variety of acting styles.

With the Actors' Company (1972-74), the idea of a company was founded on simple principles. We were all paid the same and, on tour, took it in turns to occupy dressing room no. one and to address the media. We all agreed to understudy and each had at least one leading part per season. Collectively we chose the plays and indeed the directors, all of whom enjoyed the novelty of being employed by their cast instead of the normal reverse. Our manager carried out business plans that were argued out at full company meetings. Our work onstage was just an extension of this joint decision-making.

I hope this is useful until such time as I post a fuller version of the Actors' Company's work.

Life as Theatre

From: Simon Stevens stevenss@spectrum.curtin.edu.au

Q: I am intrigued by Shakespeare's strongly held conviction that we are all thespians: we wear masks, don costumes (the right look for the job, etc.), pretend to be what we are not, rehearse our lines and movements, and tell people we're happy when we're sad. Is it therefore the role of the actor to expose the actor in all of us?

A: The point you make was the starting point for my solo show Acting Shakespeare. I chose extracts from the plays that were related to acting. The metaphor of theatre rings throughout the plays confirming that "all the world's a stage" the motto loosely translated from the Latin which decorated the original Globe Theatre's flag.

Lord Tebbitt

From: David Harrington khundave@hotmail.com

Q: I noticed that in response to a letter that you had posted, Lord Tebbitt referred to you as "that awful homosexual" when you recited poems of Walt Whitman for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Do you think that Lord Tebbitt realized the irony of the fact that Mr. Whitman was also gay?

A: No: and I don't know whether to be sorry or relieved.

A Letter to the PM

From: Darren Saint dsaint@eisa.net.au

Q: It is mentioned on your website that you are supporter of 'New Labour'. Is this just a reference to their current name or did you only start supporting the labour party after it had transformed itself into 'new labour' during the last few years of Conservative government? Forgive me also for asking what might be the obvious, but what is your stance on Section 28?

A: Although I have voted Labour in every general election, I think the following letter to New Labour's leader sums up my present position.

Dear Prime Minister,

Section 28

The argument was long since won. The Lords' vote will one day be irrelevant. In the meantime it leaves me sick at heart.

We both know Section 28 was originally adopted by the Thatcher government as ‘a piece of red meat thrown to the right-wing wolves' Tristan Garrel-Jones's assessment. These days it is defended on specious grounds.

Any decline of marriage as an institution is surely the responsibility of heterosexuals not of gay people, who are not allowed to marry each other. One day (quite soon in USA, as in Scandinavia) gay partnerships will be legalised. Why should those loving couples who want their relationship bound by British law have it reviled as being "pretended"?

Further, why should their early years be potentially blighted by the spirit of Section 28's inhumanity? They deserve to have teachers who are prepared to transgress that spirit by telling them the truth. The truth is that marriages are not necessarily centred on having a family of children and that some marriages don't work. The same is true of gay relationships. The truth is that sexuality is not susceptible to any promotion. The truth is that Section 28 encourages bullying, and silences honest debate in the classroom.

When, at the outset of the New Labour Government, the Secretary of State for Heritage, accompanied by his partner, sitting beside Prince Charles at a Buckingham Palace event compered by Stephen Fry who had lately triumphed as Oscar Wilde, the acceptance of homosexuality by the establishment was so visible that it seems to have riled the wolves of conservatism. Such "signs and signals" in the media and in public life, lie at the rotten heart of that knotted alliance of ignorance and sanctimony which defeated us in the Lords and which characterises Papal, Mullah, and press pronouncements on the subject. The Soho bomber, now he is in prison, doesn't have a vote, but Lord Tebbitt does. Gays make these connections and call it "homophobia".

In deciding how best to keep your manifesto promise, please be supported by the Commons and the Scottish parliament; by those many devout people who disagree with their religious leaders; and by all gay families in the United Kingdom who are offended and saddened by this latest hiccup in the body politic. Soon Section 28 will be coughed up and the nation will be a mite healthier.

In the meantime, perhaps you think Stonewall and people like me could help you more, or that you will look out-of-touch with Baroness Young's middle-England if you persist in being "politically correct". Perhaps you are advised that it can wait until after the election.

I hope you recognise that the chance to do good arrived with your premiership and that, now, you decide you should take it.

With best wishes, yours ever,

Sir Ian McKellen


From: John Steven Lasher

Q: I offer an amusing 'close encounter of the third kind' with the great John Gilegud for your website.

Back in the early 1980s, during which time I was living in the San Francisco, I boarded the lift of a department store. My destination was the fine dining restaurant on the top floor. Usually, I would look out of the glass partition en route. This time, however, I looked inward towards the lift doors. Standing not more than, say, 50cms from me was none other than Sir John.I have worked in the entertainment industry for a quarter-century, so little impresses me. However, Sir John impressed me so much so that my mouth dropped open.

'Young man, your mouth is open!', he replied.

'Sir John, it is not often that I encounter a man of your great stature in a lift', came my answer.

As the lift doors opened to the fifth floor, he intoned as only Hobson, his character in 'Arthur' might, 'Life is full of surprises!'

A: Indeed it is. I'm glad you relished the surprise.



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