Sir Ian McKellen: What I've Learned

The 75-year-old actor on childhood, the internet and shepherd's pie

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Whenever I see a Lego figure of Gandalf I think, “That hasn’t quite got the subtlety I was trying to bring to the character”. Lego must forgive me! I’m more a Meccano man.


Some people might assume I go around talking about being gay all day long because it often comes up in interviews and I’ll start spouting off. They may get the impression that I have nothing else on my mind.


I care less what people think of me now. That used to worry me enormously. “Why can’t I have boots like everybody else at school, mum? Why do I have to be wearing shoes? I don’t want to be different”. These days I don’t care. It’s part of – here’s the gay stuff – it’s part of the confidence that I got when I came out.

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If you get to 75 and you go out with your old friends, you talk about morbidity and mortality and decrepitude, as I did the other night for four hours.


One of the things I’m less pleased about is that when my mother died I thought, “Oh, that makes me rather special now because I’m a one-parent family”, rather than, “What have I lost?’ I was 12. I dare say, inside, I’d not quite got over my mother’s death, which, I suppose, felt like some sort of rejection. Of course, it wasn’t. It’s a blessing if I have a dream about my mother. That’s lovely, to revisit her.

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Actors call each other “love”, “darling” and “sweetheart” and so on to break down the barriers strangers have between them so they can work together in an intimate way.


I saw the Taj Mahal a few years ago. It was wonderful and, knowing that it had been there all the time, I did feel as though it had been waiting for me to visit. I would like to see Machu Picchu, though I suspect I’d be disappointed because there’d be a lot of people there.

My nickname at primary school was Kellogg’s. I’ve always been glad that nobody has ever called me Mac. Stephen Fry christened me Serena when I got knighted, which I thought was a bit impertinent.


I don’t think I’m top choice. In the theatre – for Shakespeare – I’m quite near the top, but not for all directors. In film, I’m way, way, way down. Spielberg has never asked to work with me; Tarantino’s never asked; Sam Mendes has never asked. It isn’t as if there’s a long list of films I’ve turned down, but there are plenty I wish I’d had a go at. That is the truth.


If I’m travelling I take pyjamas with me and I make sure that there’s going to be a dressing gown around and, hopefully, bedroom slippers. Which of those I wear in bed will usually depend on the temperature and the nature of the linen.


I grew up in a teetotal house. I never drank tea, coffee or alcohol until I was 18, and I can do without them easily. That sounds like I’m really in charge of my life. I’m not at all.


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MORE WHAT I'VE LEARNED:

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As a declared vegetarian, I make a very good Quorn shepherd’s pie. I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago and the headaches that I’d had since childhood vanished overnight. My indigestion got better, too. Though I find bacon and pork pies very difficult to resist.


I lived in Wigan during the war. There were no buildings going up so I had the impression that Wigan had been completed, there was no sign that anyone was changing anything. I’m still not used to the idea that London isn’t finished and never will be. I find that quite unsettling. I like going to places that seem to be done, like a little village.


How do I kill time? Oh, don’t. Fucking internet! I’ve always loved dictionaries and encyclopaedias. Now you’ve got all that on your computer. It’s fantastic. You’re looking up something about Dickens and you’re invited to explore more and more and more. I don’t know if that’s wasting time or not, but it doesn’t help me learn my lines.


I do get patriotic when I’m abroad. If people are disparaging about Britain – even if they’re talking about areas that I don’t like – then I get on the defensive. And if someone criticises British weather…!

My father – and his father – believed you have a responsibility to society in general. They manifested that through Christianity and social work. Both were pacifists. They were always looking at the world as somewhere they should participate in and try to improve. That’s what I remember most about my father, who died when I was 24. We never became close, but I admired him when he was alive and I do still.


I went to Cambridge University and to be a grammar school boy on a scholarship was to be the odd person out. I was mocked because of my accent so I did consciously try not to have one. Of late, I’ve let it come back.


Go and see Macbeth. It’s undoubtedly among the greatest plays ever written, there’s no sub-plot and it’s short. If it’s done properly, it only takes two hours without an interval so you’ll be knocked sideways. You can put that play on anywhere and it sells out. That’s why it’s supposed to be unlucky: if you heard in your company you’re going to do Macbeth it was because they couldn’t pay you by the end of the week so they had to shove it in.


I have intelligence but I’m not an intellectual. At school, I was effortlessly academic but not a hard worker. I ended up as head boy by fluke. I was the goody-goody.


When you’re told you’ve got cancer, you want to know the implications. My cancer is the least threatening of any you could have because if you catch it early, as I did, there’s absolutely no threat to your life or, indeed, to your functioning. I have prostate cancer.


I’ve never hit anybody. I once raised my fist to someone I was living with. They were appalled and so was I.


My stepmother was a Quaker and if I respond to any religious organisation it would be the [Religious] Society of Friends, who I think are absolutely admirable in their declared beliefs and also the way they carry them out. I am an atheist. I wonder at the galaxies and everything but I don’t believe we’re living in something that was created by divine intelligence.


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MORE WHAT I'VE LEARNED:

Martin Amis 
Ralph Fiennes 
Willem Dafoe 
***