“Shakespeare is a part of my life – like eggs,” Ian McKellen said, lounging comfortably in a buttoned-up grey kurta and puce neck scarf on a sofa at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. The world may instantly recognise the British actor as Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Magneto from the X-Men movies. In person, McKellen does share Gandalf’s warm, generous manner and sagely twinkle. But the 76-year-old thespian is in India to honour a far deeper connection as he tours with BFI Presents Shakespeare on Film, a package of 18 British Shakespeare films presented by the British Film Institute and the British Council.
For over half a century, McKellen has poured himself into the Bard’s works, winning Laurence Olivier awards for his stage performances and even releasing an iPad app on Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary to make the Bard’s works more accessible. Part of the Shakespeare on Film package is Richard III, which McKellen co-adapted, co-produced and also played the title role. Directed by Richard Loncraine, the 1995 film transposes Shakespeare’s take on the blood-thirsty English king to a fictional, fascist 1930s Britain.
McKellen, also a strong activist for LGBT rights, wraps up his Mumbai tour this week by launching the seventh Kashish Mumbai International Queer Festival. Read on to hear the charming, outspoken actor talk about the best way to enjoy Shakespeare, encountering the gay world in the Bard’s works, and how Richard III propelled him to his Hollywood roles in Lord of the Rings and X-Men.
What is your relationship with William Shakespeare?
I first went to see a Shakespeare play when I was about eight or nine, by an amateur company where I lived in the north of England. I went to other plays too, so Shakespeare just was part of theatre to me, and very enjoyable. When I came to study it at school, it didn’t seem like a chore because I related it to the fun of going to see a play. I found myself acting in Shakespeare productions at school.
By the time I went to University to study English and more Shakespeare, I had seen and had been in a lot of the plays. Shakespeare was just a part of my life, and still is, I can’t imagine it not being. And so I like to encourage other people to discover Shakespeare but it’s not easy, Shakespeare’s certainly difficult if you try and read it in the classroom. That’s not really the way to meet Shakespeare, you really want to meet him where he belongs – through the mouth of actors, preferably I think, in the theatre.
If you get to know Shakespeare well, or just a couple of the plays well, like Hamlet or Macbeth, you will be able to sympathise with people in situations unlike your own. You will be able to understand Hamlet’s grief at his father’s death, his suspicion of his uncle the murderer, his determination to take revenge – things you may never have done yourself. These characters are so alive. When you meet Macbeth, or other people who do terrible things like Richard III who organises the death of all his enemies, Shakespeare makes it so believable, so truthful, that you realise – and I’ve realised this as an actor – we are all capable of doing the most dreadful things to each other, and the most loving things as well. We are capable of anything. So the big lesson I’ve learned from Shakespeare is don’t point a finger at somebody and say, “You are evil. You were born wrong. You should be destroyed,” or whatever.
Shakespeare makes you understand, and if you see Richard III, I think it becomes pretty obvious where Richard began to go wrong, and it was the day his mother gave birth to him and she looked at him and said, “I hated you from the day you were born.” Well, anyone who has been told that, it’s horrible. Shakespeare was writing about characters who lived in his imagination; even in the history plays, it’s all come out of his head. But you can still recognise those characters today, and that’s why I like to do Shakespeare in modern dress, because it’s something actual, recent, alive.
So watching Shakespeare would help people to appreciate diversity.
Well, why not. It’s been assumed until quite recently that Shakespeare had no interest in gay people. Well, any gay person would tell you that’s nonsense. There are many gay relationships in Shakespeare, it’s just that people haven’t really noticed. In The Merchant of Venice, the play about Shylock the Jew, the Merchant of Venice is actually not Shylock but the character called Antonio, who starts the play. His first line is, “In sooth– in truth – I know not why I am so sad.” Well, we find out very quickly why he’s sad, his boyfriend Bassanio, has just said, “I’m going to get married, and will you lend me some money?” That’s a gay situation, that’s an older man and a younger man, and Antonio is happy to kill himself for the love of Bassanio. People have always thought it is a play about Jews. Yes it is, it’s also a play about gays, and about slaves.
That doesn’t make me say that William Shakespeare was gay; some people claim that but William Shakespeare wasn’t a Jew. He doesn’t have to be what his characters are. But the fact is, whatever your interest in life, whatever your position, you will find yourself somewhere reflected in the dilemma of the characters in Shakespeare.
How do you balance the stage and film when adapting Shakespeare?
They’re both different media, and Shakespeare doesn’t easily translate into the cinema. The cinema is interested in what you see rather than what you hear. People who go to a theatre show are called an audience; they’re not spectators, they’re not viewers, they hear – “audio”. If Shakespeare’s medium is spoken words, radio is probably the next best thing to live theatre. Cinema – in the end, people make films based on Shakespeare, and that’s fine. Vishal Bhardwaj, whom I had the joy of meeting in London recently, his films are wonderful, and yes, they’re Shakespeare but they’re cinema as well. I don’t think you could see any of his films and say, “That’s it, I’ve seen Othello now, I’ve seen Hamlet.” You haven’t really, you’ve seen a version, and that’s fine. I wish [Geoffrey Kendal’s repertory in India] Shakespeare Wallah was still going around.
How was the experience of working on Richard III?
We’ve done that play a lot on stage in England and across the United States and elsewhere. I thought our version of it, which was to set it in the 1930s when fascism was on the rise in Europe, would translate to the cinema very well. So I imagined the screenplay from Shakespeare, and then spent two years raising funds to make it. I sort of produced it, I co-wrote it, and I was utterly absorbed by it, but it was a good exercise for me because I was playing the leading part in a film, a medium I wasn’t altogether confident in, but in this case I was because I knew the material so well. Of course, I had the help of the director, Richard Loncraine.
Subsequently I realised that it was the success of that film that gave directors the confidence to ask me to be in their films. That began with Bryan Singer and Apt Pupil, and then X-Men, and then Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. I don’t think they would have happened it I hadn’t made that film. So that’s again confirmation that Shakespeare is a big part of my life. And now Richard Loncraine and I have produced the Heuristic Shakespeare app of The Tempest, which was his idea, and we’re probably going to do a lot more plays as apps. There are many, many people who haven’t quite discovered Shakespeare, and I hope this BFI season that is available in India will amuse and interest people.
You have performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company and on Broadway, and also in TV series, music videos and Hollywood blockbusters. How do you see the showreel of your theatre and film career?
When you’re making what you call a blockbuster movie, it feels exactly the same as if you’re making an independent movie. It’s just you and the camera and your friends. It’s not exactly the same because it’s likely that if it’s a big film, you have more time to make it. But the process of playing the character and meeting the camera is the same. When you just ran through that list of things that I’ve been involved with, that’s what I like. I like the idea that I’ve had a career. Some actors have one big hit, or maybe three. I don’t think about my hits, I just think about the progression of what I’d done. I’ve been in nearly 300 plays, I’ve been in 60-70 films, I’ve been in a lot of television, I’ve lived a public life to a certain extent, and it all adds up to me as a career and something that is still continuing. So when people say, “What are you most proud of,” I don’t know. It’s the whole thing, I’m proud of having had the career.
You’re a huge gay rights icon ever since you came out on BBC Radio in 1988. How are the struggles today different from when you started?
Looking at what’s happening in India at the moment, it looks very familiar territory. It’s probably how England was 30 years ago. You have a repressive law in place for which I should apologise, because it’s not an Indian law, it’s a British law that we left behind. You should have got rid of it, and you tried to, and it’s come back, but it will go again, I’m sure. I read the silly things that people say about gay people, how their sexuality isn’t natural, that it’s against the words in some holy book.
The Christian Bible, for example, used to be used to defend slavery, apartheid, the ill-treatment of women, and now gay people. These are old books written by long-dead people, and what’s the point of the human race continuing if it doesn’t become more tolerant, more loving and more understanding. We can improve our behaviour and our relationships. I am confident that because there are so many people in India who agree with me and are aware and want things to change; we just have to keep tackling those areas of resistance that inhibit change. They’re all frightened. The politician thinks: What will people think if I vote to remove Section 377, will I get re-elected? The teacher: Will I be able to control my class if they know that I’m gay? The actor: Will anyone employ me, will I be allowed to play a love scene if people know that I am gay? Everyone’s worried about somebody else – stop worrying.
The most powerful thing that gay people have in their control is the ability to be honest. If they say to the world, “Look, I’m always the person you thought I was, and now you know a little bit more about me: I’m gay. Give me a hug.” There’s nothing more potent than that. People are frightened of what they don’t understand. There must be a lot of people in India who think, “There aren’t any gay people, I’ve never met one.” They have. There are many countries where it is worse than India, but that is no comfort. I just hope that soon, with all the other preoccupations of a great democracy, that people understand that this is so unnecessary and this something that the government can do and it costs no money. What it gains is people’s respect; they will go down in the history books for having changed the world for the better.
Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor for National Geographic Traveller India.