Sir Ian McKellen is in Cape Town to perform in Samuel Beckett’s watershed tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot, at the Fugard Theatre. As we walk down the atmospherically lit corridor with its exposed brick and warm wooden floors, McKellen is touching the walls, the corners, as though reading Braille, almost fondling this magnificent old building. “The most beautiful theatre in the country,” I comment. “More than just this country,” he says.
Sir Ian, with his pale-blue eyes and the handsome face of a character actor, is a fetching 71-year-old, despite having grown his hair and leaving it rather dishevelled for the part of the vagrant he is playing. His dress is bohemian, too; more about comfort than fashion.
He speaks measuredly, as you’d expect from a knighted actor, one who has clearly absorbed much of the wisdom of the great playwrights he performs. So when he chooses to use the F-word (very occasionally) it has a particular impact.
It may come as a surprise to many South Africans that you have a relationship with this country, specifically the new South Africa. I first saw you in 1994 at the Theatre on the Bay.
Sean [Mathias, the director] and I came as part of a group from the National Theatre of Great Britain in September 1994, and the [general] election had happened in April. This was the National Theatre’s thank you to the Market [Theatre]. I made a few connections and one of the things we did on that occasion was to march. I think it was the second gay rights march in Johannesburg. Tony Sher and his partner Greg [Doran] and I made a banner saying “UK”, and we carried that — we were the United Kingdom representatives on the march. There was some abuse. So I felt a little bit part of South Africa.
Edwin Cameron was making a submission to get sexuality in the Constitution as grounds on which you could not discriminate. I was invited back to do that show [A Knight Out], which I did at Camps Bay, Durban and the Market [Theatre]. And on that trip I went to lobby the new president [he smiles, pauses and avoids saying Mandela] at the ANC headquarters with Simon Nkoli and Phumzile Mthethwa [he pronounces her name perfectly].
So, I have a big emotional connection with the country. I have come back here on holiday half-a-dozen times and when I was doing The Prisoner [a TV miniseries]. But this is the first time I’ve been in a play here.
By having yourself and Patrick [Stewart], the X-Men, reunited in Godot [at the Haymarket Theatre, London], was there a conscious strategy to bring Beckett to the generation that dwells mostly in Middle Earth?
It was all too good from a publicity point of view, wasn’t it? Some people do come to see Gandalf and they’re not disappointed, because I have a beard. We’ve had some very young kids, nine-year-olds, who have dragged their parents along. I think you can bring kids to this, because it’s not complicated. A kid doesn’t have to keep asking, what are they doing?
I think there must have been a lot of productions that tried to explain, had a running commentary going alongside the text. These guys [in Godot] have no job, not enough to eat, nowhere to live and they are hoping their situation will improve. That’s the plot really — that’s not difficult.
How is acting in film different from stage?
There are many ways up the mountain, many ways of acting. One might involve ropes, one might involve just walking, but you’re still climbing up the mountain. I couldn’t act in any medium unless I was using my imagination and feeling what it would be like to be the person. On film you have to do that in intense little bursts … in the moment that it is being filmed. So you must be feeling it, and being it, and sensing it, and you must not be presenting … The camera will observe what you’re doing and will then literally project it.
In the theatre you have to do more and it’s more rewarding because of that. You’re more engaged — in every possible way. You have to be outside yourself as you are inside yourself, which you don’t have to do in cinema … A lot of filming is being ready for the moment when you have to do it. Theatre is one long take and no director in sight, just you and the audience. But you won’t be able to act in either medium unless your imagination is engaged.
It seems the stentorian-voiced actor with the grand gestures is no longer believable. Perhaps our exposure to film is responsible. Stage acting, the best, has become more naturalistic.
It has, yes. However, we have played this show in very large spaces — 1 400 people, large for a Beckett play. The people in the front have to cope with you playing to the back, but that’s part of the experience of theatre. My own career has been a journey towards being as real as possible. David Garrick and [Richard] Burbage were praised for being very real, but we know they didn’t act the way we do. There are fashions in acting. It’s not enough just to behave, you can’t just be Gogo [Estragon in Godot], you have to present as well. Playing King Lear, you can’t just be an old man, because you’re speaking in verse. There’s something extra … Lear is not Coronation Street.
But then you have Godot, which is something that can be done only on stage. You can’t film it.
Yes, yes. Beckett was asked once to look at an excerpt of Godot on television, and he said: “No, no, no. My characters are trapped on the open space of the stage.” It’s full of that quirky awareness that the audience should have that they are watching a play. The play says “Yes, you are watching a play”. Gogo looks at the audience and says: “Inspiring prospects. Let’s go.”
What do you make of television?
I’m intrigued by TV, but it has rather passed me by. It’s interesting how to act on television, and of course it’s in people’s homes. Almost all TV now is film. There was a time when you had four cameras on you … a technical exercise. I’ve done quite a lot [Coronation Street, Rasputin, The Prisoner], but I’ve never quite understood it.
Why do you act?
Well, I act now because it’s what I can do. I have learned how to do it, and I enjoy finding out more about it, and I’m not frightened of it. And it fascinates me. It’s more than a hobby, and not just a way of life either. It’s a craft, really … as much as somebody who makes chairs. And I can make all sorts of different chairs.
I became an actor because I didn’t know how to do it, and that intrigued me … I came to acting through being an audience. My father knew the manager of the local variety theatre. I used to go and stand in the wings and watch these acts — comics, singers, animal performers, magicians. I tried to work out what happened when they stepped from the dark of the wings, from the dust and the misery really — [they were] not paid much, dreadful dressing rooms, awful digs, but stepping into the light and transforming. Well, I wanted to be a part of that. I didn’t quite know how to do it; it seemed to me the most exciting thing a person could do.
I think that was mixed up with being gay. At the time I became an actor, it was illegal for me to make love. There was a lot that was secret, but not on stage. There I could be open and share my emotions, and draw attention to myself in a way that in real life I couldn’t. I had to deflect attention in case someone discovered the truth.
I’ve always thought gay people often make good actors, because they knew from an early age how to play a part. The fear of discovery makes one very convincing.
Yes, I think there must be a connection there. And I heard one could meet gay people in the theatre. There were no clubs or bars in Bolton [where McKellen grew up], no literature, no lesbian-gay society, no gay newspapers, nothing. But in the theatre I’d heard there were “queers” and an atmosphere of acceptance that was not true of the rest of the world.
I became proud to be an actor. My proudest day was when I got my equity union card. I was part of a band of people I admired and I joined a club. It made me feel safe.
In Gods and Monsters, Whale [McKellen’s character] says as a gay boy in a working-class family he was like a giraffe harnessed to a plough. You, however, were spared that …
Yes. My parents admired actors. My father was worried I wouldn’t earn any money, so we agreed I’d try it for two years. I’m still trying [he smiles ironically]. It wasn’t thought odd by my family to be an actor.
Hollywood seems as homophobic as ever, except for English actors. How does one address that prejudice?
There are some young gay actors in Hollywood. The oddity is that if you cross the continent of America to New York, Tony Award-winners are constantly thanking their boyfriends from the stage. What I have noticed about internalised homophobia is everyone thinks theirs is a special situation. I cant come out as a politician, because no one will vote for me; I can’t come out as a teacher, because the parents will complain; I can’t come out as a actor because … Well, the “because” in Hollywood is that the advertisers on TV wouldn’t like it. But my film career took off only when I came out. So, I don’t know, your life is better once you’re out.
What they regret is not coming out.
Absolutely, like me. Rupert Everett recently said he’d advise young actors to consider not coming out, because their career will suffer. I say to young actors in Hollywood that if you are so mad to be in movies that you will lie about yourself, and live a lie, and constantly be hiding: Is any career worth that? If you want to be in movies become an openly gay make-up artist, openly gay director, screenwriter, manager, masseur, agent. They’re all there. It’s only the actors. Don’t-ask-don’t-tell is an obscene instruction.
Okay, the obligatory question: What’s next?
There is the possibility still that The Hobbit will be made into two movies. But there is a finance problem, because MGM has collapsed … MGM is currently 133 bankers and they all have to sign off on the bottom line.
I thought of working less regularly … but then, hang on, the time will come when the pins give way and memory goes — it’s happening to people my age, they can’t work anymore. So while I can, why don’t I? I was saying to Sean [Mathias], coming to this theatre, if this were in London within a bus ride of my home, I’d move in. I’d just like to work here, do plays. I would love that!