For years, 70-year-old Ian McKellen was a highly respected actor who alternated between films and stage, which included lots of Shakespeare. Then just before turning 50, he came out on a BBC radio show and in the last two decades his career has skyrocketed. He’s appeared in blockbusters such as “The Da Vinci Code,” the X-Men series and of course as Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” McKellen’s new TV show, “The Prisoner,” debuts on AMC on Nov. 15. He chatted with Nicki Gostin.
Nicki Gostin: Tell me about your new show.
Ian McKellen: My new shirt?
Gostin: No, your new show.
McKellen: It’s called “The Prisoner” and it’s based on a wonderful English show from the Sixties that some Americans may have seen. It’s about a village where everything is taken care of, everyone is happy and everyone is provided for and along comes a character named Six, played by Jim Caviezel who doesn’t like it. I play Two, and I run the village. I can’t really tell you more because otherwise I’ll spoil the ending. All is revealed at the end of the season.
Gostin: You seem to be doing a lot of sci-fi.
McKellen: I don’t consider this sci-fi. It’s about Big Brother, government surveillance, family, relationships. It’s about the here and now, not something that could happen in the far off future.
Gostin: Do you think there is too much Big Brother in our lives now?
McKellen: It’s a tricky question. You can’t say no we shouldn’t have any government security especially since 9/11 but now for instance in London, where I live, there are cameras on every street. After a while you don’t even notice them. Of course, the next step will be they’ll want to put cameras in your home and they’ll say that if you’re innocent then you have nothing to hide. If somebody had told me 20 years ago that there would be surveillance cameras on the streets of London I wouldn’t have believed it.
Gostin: You’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare.
McKellen: Yes, a bit.
Gostin: Any roles that you’ve always wanted to play but haven’t?
McKellen: No, I don’t make wish lists of roles; you’re bound to get disappointed. When I take a Shakespearean role it depends on lots of things. Like who’s directing, who else in it, how long rehearsal is; if it’s a movie, how much am I being paid. When I decided to do “Richard III” it took two years before we started filming.
Gostin: Did you grow up where boys took the girls parts in Shakespeare?
McKellen: Well, I went to an all boy’s school and we didn’t import girls from a local school for the plays, so yes I did. By the way, Shakespeare wrote those parts for boys to perform them. I always felt uncomfortable doing them not because I was in a frock or anything but because I was usually the romantic interest and I found that bewildering.
Gostin: Were you good in school?
McKellen: You mean well-behaved? I’ve always been well-behaved.
Gostin: I meant academically.
McKellen: My marks were up and down, but I was lucky enough to get into Cambridge.
Gostin: Well, you have to be smart to get into Cambridge.
McKellen: That was 50 years ago. It’s a lot harder now. I also had a maverick tutor who heard I was an actor. I performed a Shakespeare soliloquy standing on a chair, and I think my bravado got me in.
Gostin: You recently said you would never get married. Can’t you get married in England?
McKellen: I have a civil partnership. I understand there are legal benefits in getting married. I could get married in some parts of America, but it wouldn’t be legal back home. Marriage is something that never really interested me. Until I was 28 years old, it was illegal to have homosexual relations punishable by prison so that thinking took a lot to get over.
Gostin: It makes me sad hearing you say that.
McKellen: I don’t like to talk about it too much because straight people don’t want to hear about it and young gay people think, ‘Oh come on, get over it.’ I don’t understand why people would want to deny others their civil rights. Marriage is a civil ceremony. It has nothing to do with the church. It seems to me that they are people who don’t want others to be happy.
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Gostin: What is coming up for you?
McKellen: I’m going to be filming two Hobbit movies, which are prequels to “Lord of the Rings.” I haven’t signed yet but that is what I’m planning on doing. I’ll be in New Zealand for about a year doing them.
Gostin: Did you have any idea how big “Lord of the Rings” would be?
McKellen: No, well I think if you looked closely. There were all these hundreds of thousands of fans of this book, which is one of the most beloved books of the last century, and they were eagerly awaiting the movie. But to still have people going to see the movie now on a big screen is wonderful. It’s also lovely to have boys and girls come up to me and tell what a big part of their lives “Lord of the Rings” has been. As you know, I don’t have grandchildren but lots of people have grown up with Gandalf.