25 May 2006

Ian McKellen E-Posts

28 November 2000

Historical Roles

From: Matthias Hofmann

Q: I must apologize but as a student of history (mostly middle ages) I may be a little bit single-minded, so...which historical person would you like to play mostly?

A: In Shakespeare's plays I have played any number of mediaeval characters and onscreen have enjoyed impersonating real people from more recent times.

As many others have asked the same question, I have always felt a bit dim not to be able to think of someone whom I was eager to play. I judge scripts by the quality of the writing as much as their subject matter. Very recently though I realised that I do want to explore playing a 17th century Englishman whose name must wait until I've thought further about a play or screenplay.

Going Dry

Q: What happens when an actor forgets the lines of the play?

A: To one side of a proscenium stage is the "prompt corner" where a stage manager follows the play's text, also ready to give the go for lighting, sound effects and scene-shifters. He/she will be alert to the need for a forgotten line and will as discreetly as possible speak the cue, so the cast hears it clearly but the audience less so.

On open stages, the actors are often left unaided with the stage manager secluded behind the audience and unable to prompt. Wise directors will install a prompter with the text to one side on the front row of the audience, whence it is easier to throw a deft prompt to the erring actor. That's how it's done at the Olivier Theatre, the open stage of the National Theatre in London.

I once had the misfortune to dry (i.e. the words dry up) in a theatre which had no prompter in the narrow wings. All I could do was slyly leave the stage and use the house telephone to ask for my line from the stage manager in his sound-proofed booth front of house.


Q: I was wondering about your performance as Lawrence in Terence Rattigan's play Ross: as far as I can gather Ross was a made-for-tv production ­ did you ever play the part on stage? How did you prepare for the role? Did you know much about T. E. Lawrence beforehand? Is there any aspect of his character that you found/find particularly interesting?

A: Alec Guinness created Ross onstage in London, with John Mills taking over on Broadway. I played it only for BBC TV, filming in their London studios as well as on location in Morocco, just north of the Sahara Desert. Rattigan's play predates Robert Bolt's screenplay for Lawrence of Arabia as well as some of the more revealing biographies which discuss TEL's sexuality and masochism. I gave up trying to insert these fascinating insights into Rattigan's version of events, as extra lines and scenes would have been needed.

Australia, Australia, Australia

From: James J. Dominguez dexx@ihug.com.au

Q: What are the chances of you doing a stage show in Australia?

A: So far I haven't been free to accept the annual invitation to partake in the Arts Festival which accompanies Sydney's Mardi Gras celebrations, although this year I managed to nip over from Wellington for the parade and parties.

Should I ever remount my solo show A Knight Out, I hope that Australia would at last be on the schedule.

Oscar Clips

Q: I wanted to ask how you felt about the Oscars. You had much better acting scenes that could have been used to illustrate your nomination.

A: The producers of the Academy broadcast last year probably choose the snippets shown from Gods and Monsters certainly I wasn't consulted.

Venice Preserv'd

Q: I'm a second year drama student at Aberystwyth University studying Venice Preserv'd. I would greatly appreciate Sir Ian's opinion on the play and his character Pierre.

A: Thomas Otway's play is sporadically revived on British stages. I wish I had been old enough to catch John Gielgud and Paul Scofield as Pierre and Javier in the 1950's.

For the National Theatre's production, apart from, as usual, reading and re-reading the text, I did no preparative research and depended on Peter Gill's rehearsals to clarify the historical background to the play, which we set in its original period.

There is one farcical scene in the play involving a Senator and his mistress, but for the most part the story of rebellion and betrayal is highly-charged political drama. It thrills audiences still, because so few of them are familiar with the twists and turns of its exciting plot.

Fan Club?

Q: I am a huge fan of yours and would very much appreciate it if you could send me details of your fan club.

A: A short-lived fan club was set up by a sweet supporter in the early 1970's. These days I am clubless.

Countdown to War

Q: So many of the great English actors have portrayed Hitler in film (Alec Guinness, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Hopkins, yourself) and I was wondering what the attraction is for an actor to portray a historical monster like Hitler? I was curious to know how you played him for the television COUNTDOWN TO WAR.

A: I had one advantage over my predecessors playing Hitler, in that all the words in Countdown to War had been actually spoken or written by the real characters. Most of these were European politicians. Stalin, Chamberlain, Goering (and his boss) all used standard British accents, although the actors attempted to look authentic. Hitler's face remains familiar 60 years on, thanks to his toothbrush moustache and forelock: which is why Sirs Alec, Anthony, Derek and I all managed to look a bit alike!

No Shame

From: Anthony Seaman anthonywseaman@aol.com 

Q: It has seemed a pity to me that some of the most admired persons in your field chose to keep their sexual orientation private. If only those who would seek to suppress our freedoms to be ourselves were so kind as to keep their own prejudices to themselves.

It is a brave thing to share the truth of only one part of one's whole self to the world in order to oppose bigotry, knowing that many will choose that one part to measure you as a person. People ask me if I am political. I don't march, I don't write letters to politicians, my donations are personal, and I do exercise my right to vote. My political stance is to live every day with no shame of being gay. I am willing to be open about my sexual orientation in order to give my fellow heterosexual and closeted homosexual human beings the chance for an alternative (and healthier) view of what a happy gay person is. It is hopefully a view that flies in the face of the stereotypical version of gays that others would have them accept.

A: I agree that an openly gay man privately and publicly can do much to counter stereotypes and prejudice. I hope you agree that he will also be personally happier once the closet door is removed from its hinges.

As for being political, a letter can be positive when addressed to legislators who may underestimate those harmful laws which discriminate against homosexuality. Don't forget that politicians receive lots of mail (and maybe even funding) from the homophobes.


Ian McKellen's Home Page