25 May 2006

Ian McKellen E-Posts

28 June 2001


From: Fiona McKenzie

Q: As a writer press-ganged into backstage work with the student drama society I'm a member of, I wondered if you were ever involved with the non-acting side of plays at University. Also, during films such as X-Men or LOTR which deal heavily in special effects, does it help you as an actor to know how they do things, or is it better to maintain the illusion?

A: Since I was a kid I have been fascinated about how plays and films work backstage and off screen and this continues 40 years on since I became an actor. However I was offered two jobs at the outset — one as an actor, the other as an actor and assistant stage-manager. I took the first of these, although I still think it appropriate that actors should understand the problems of stage management and indeed of all the other departments working out of sight of the audience. Teamwork in the theatre involves much more than just the cast.

I don't think detailed awareness of film technology leads to better acting but again sympathy with the whole business beyond acting at least makes the job more interesting and dilutes the actors' tendency to think our contribution is pre-eminent.

Closer to Heaven

From: Tom Sahipakka

Q: I read that you attended the premiere of the Pet Shop Boys' musical opening. How was it? Great job you did as Nosferatu on Pet Shop Boys' Heart! Do you know Neil and Chris well? :)

A: I have kept in touch ever since the Heart video and have seen the PSBoys in concert, most recently in Toronto when I was filming X-Men there in 1999. They have also been good friends of Stonewall UK and appeared in a number of our fund-raising Equality Shows.

Neil sent me tickets for the opening night of Closer to Heaven which I was keen to see because of their music and because Frances Barber their star is also a friend of mine. I hope you enjoy the show. You will if you like PSBoys music — it is basically their latest album intertwined with a story and words by the gay playwright Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing). Everyone works flat out and it is big on dance, telling the backstage story of a seedy gay club in London (remember Heaven is the UK's biggest night club).

The leading character is played by Paul Keating who sings and dances and acts in a way that I wish I could have done at his age. As for Frances, she is terrific and made the evening for me. It is fun hearing other people sing PSBoys' music and you will want to get the cast album I am sure.

Straights for Gay Rights

From: Jason Blalock 

Q: I am a straight gay-rights activist and find your attempts at educating the public heartening. It's sad, though. I live in the American South, which is almost certainly one of the most bigoted places left in the world. It's almost amazing how the people around here cling to their ignorance if I (or any other straight person) start speaking for gay rights, we are automatically assumed to be gay, and all our arguments are therefore null and void.

A: I think I know the feeling — for years I was assumed to be straight and still am by those who think all gay mean wear lavender feathers. It is always encouraging when straight people are concerned about gay rights and I thank you for your activism. When you experience a touch of homophobia you realise at first hand how important the work is.


Q: I would like to ask Sir Ian about his poetry reading with Yevgeny Yevtushenko in September of 1976 at the Royal Festival Hall. I am writing a Master's Thesis in History on Yevtushenko, and would be very interested to hear Sir Ian's impressions of Yevtushenko and his work, an account of the audience reception of the readings, whether the two have kept in touch.

A: I was working for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the time and Yevgeni stayed in my Stratford-upon-Avon apartment for a few days while we prepared his programme. The format was simple — he would read his poems followed (or interspersed) with my reading of the English translation.

He was a perverse guest often cooking a breakfast of cabbage which he left boiling on the stove whilst he jogged along the River Avon. His English fiancee was in attendance. He liked lots of attention in private and public, most enjoying a group of admirers who would buy him vodkas in the Dirty Duck pub. They were rewarded by his sexy smile and a close-up of his ring which he claimed to have belonged to Rasputin. His glamour was compounded by his being about the only artistic export permitted out of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. At home he was very popular, reputedly giving poetry concerts in football stadia. Abroad, some Socialists found him a suspicious figure — why was he allowed out of the USSR unless he was a KGB agent? Why did he support the regime which imprisoned other writers?

I liked his verses, their simplicity, their rhetoric and their gentle challenge to the Soviet authorities. I wish I could have read them in the original Russian. But I was half-sympathetic to the demonstration during our Festival Hall concert, when David Markham (Corin Redgrave's father-in-law) mounted the platform to engage the audience in anti-Soviet dialectic. Yevgeni didn't have enough English to understand, but his impresario for the UK tour stood in the wings saying "This is great for publicity!"


Micheál Mac Liammóir

From: Ian Dawe

Q: I was wondering what you thought of the great Irish actor Micheál Mac Liammóir, who (along with his partner, Hilton Edwards) was a longtime associate of Orson Welles. As a student and teacher of molecular biology, I rarely get the chance to experience his wonderful Iago (the best I've seen) [Othello, 1952] with a class. Sometimes I do (as happened this week at a teaching workshop when they left the curriculum up to me) and the students invariably ask me about him. Did your paths ever cross?

A: I met Mac Liammóir only once, in his dressing-room at the Arts Theatre Cambridge (circa 1959) after a performance of his solo show The Importance of Being Oscar (Wilde). My fellow-undergraduate Corin Redgrave introduced us. Unlike most actors after a show, Mac Liammóir was applying not removing his make-up!

Otherwise I know him mainly through his autobiography "Enter a Goldfish" and in the early chapters of Simon Callow's "Being an Actor" and from that characteristically full-blown Iago. Did you realise that he was English not Irish and that his name was a pseudonym? That was his only secret and his open relationship with Hilton Edwards (perhaps easier in Dublin where eccentricity is even more prized than in London) was heroic.

Micháel MacLiammóir as Oscar Wilde

Protean or Not Protean

From: E. Kevin Hall

Q: Do you have any comment on what seems to be the fact that actors today can be easily classified into two types: 1. those who generally just portray their own personalities and 2. "actors" in the general sense.

A: I agree but it has always been the case that some actors succeed because they play on a public persona (not necessarily theirs in private life) which draws the public back time and again. These "personality actors" play a limited range of characters but their fans wouldn't have it any other way. Those audiences who don't respond to such actors' personality will often be dismissive of the expertise involved. I have always hoped to be your second sort, the "protean actor" who enjoys disguise and exploration way beyond my own personality and experience.

X-Men 2

Q: I was wondering whether you are returning for the X-Men sequel when it starts filming?

A: I am contracted to play Magneto in the sequel to X-Men, which is scheduled to start filming by the end of this year for a Christmas 2002 release date.

Is There Honey Still for Tea?

Q: Can you please tell me from where the title:- IS THERE HONEY STILL FOR TEA originated ?

A: Roger Rees' compilation for the Royal Shakespeare Company's small-scale tour which I produced in 1978 dealt with English themes and obsessions. Rupert Brooke (who died on a First World War battlefield) wrote about his time at Cambridge living in the old vicarage at Grantchester upstream on the River Cam "Stands the Church clock at ten to three? And is there honey still for tea?", afternoon tea being an English institution.


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