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Interview with Sir Ian McKellen. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 27, 2018 - 14:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Welcome to the program. Ahead, the incomparable thespian, Sir Ian McKellen, in the theater where it all

began for him. He tells us about his life on stage and screen, his gay rights activism and why Margaret Thatcher was thinking of him during her

last moments as prime minister.

Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.

Now, all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. One of the greatest players who has performed all the bards' best parts is Sir

Ian McKellen.

Perhaps a younger generation knows him most as the silver screen superhero, the wonderful wizard Gandalf in "Lord of the Rings" or as supervillain

Magneto in "X-Men."

But Ian McKellen's heart and his craft belong on stage in the theater. He made his name with Shakespeare and he has never left him.

Now, at 79, McKellen is taking on one of the most profound old men in history, King Lear. It's a stamina busting role, if ever there was one,

but to quote Juliet, "parting is such sweet sorrow" because McKellen might be packing it all in after a final 100 performances as Lear.

And I tried to get to the bottom of his intentions as he guided me around a specially tailored Duke of York's Theatre here in London.

SIR IAN MCKELLEN, ACTOR: This is the Lear lounge where you're going to be able to eat before the show.


MCKELLEN: Have a snack.

MCKELLEN: And where, during the performance, we're busy changing here. This is Lear's bed.


MCKELLEN: And this is how you can get on to the stage.

AMANPOUR: Oh, my goodness. Isn't this beautiful?

So, with apologies for interrupting the understudies rehearsal, here is our discussion with Sir Ian McKellen about his life, his career and his

activism for gay rights.

Sir Ian McKellen, welcome to the program.

MCKELLEN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: So, we're sitting in the bar of the Duke of York's Theatre. This is a very special theatre to you.

MCKELLEN: It's right in the center of London and it's where I made my first professional performance as an actor. So, 1964. I remember it with

an enormous affection. Others remember it because it is the first theater that ever produced Peter Pan on stage. And then, for actors, it's

precious, particularly this room, where we are now, the bar, this is where our union, Equity, was founded in 1970.

AMANPOUR: And, in fact, we're going to have a look. There's a plaque on the wall there.

MCKELLEN: Yes, this is a copy. I've got one of my own.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): When we got up to look at this historic declaration, we saw the signatures of all the greatest names to have trod

the boards.


MCKELLEN: It's basically saying we have the right to say we will only work with the other union people. That today would be illegal. You could not

say that then.


MCKELLEN: That's how they broke - they are trying to break our union.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Equity is still going strong, but what about McKellen's commitment to the bard.


AMANPOUR: So, I've waited a few minutes to get to the bombshell that this is going to be your last Shakespeare.


AMANPOUR: That's what you said.

MCKELLEN: So, I'm supposed to have said, but I don't know really.

AMANPOUR: So, it might not be.

MCKELLEN: If you spend a lot of your life doing Shakespeare and you enjoy and are successful at it, certain parts occur to you. And most of the

parts that I would like to have played, I have done - and I've missed a few - and all that at my age that's left really are the really old man, King

Lear who is over 80.

AMANPOUR: What is it about Lear that is so compelling, as you say, for somebody maybe of your own age, but nonetheless so compelling? And the

critics have written, if you did, in fact, say this was going to be your last Shakespeare that it stands to reason that this particular play would

be the last one you chose.

MCKELLEN: Well, there was a great actor in my youth, Ralph Richardson, film star and stage star, who said, in his typical wry, witty way, you get

out of bed; it's a beautiful day; the birds are tweeting; the sun over the sky; your wife's being nice to you; nothing could go wrong; and then, oh,

you find you've got your foot caught in a Lear.

Sometimes, I think how did that happen. Well, it happened because people expect you to do it. And you expect it of yourself in a sense. And that's

why I came to play it for the Royal Shakespeare Company 10 years ago.

And we've made the Duke of York's even smaller than it actually is. We've taken out the last 10 rows of the seats downstairs, so everyone is close.

And why should they be close? So, they can hear the words exactly and they can see.

[14:05:12] There's a wonderful moment at the end of the play when he's - Lear is running out of life and his breath is going. And he says to

another character quite quietly, pray you, undo this button. Thank you, sir. And then he dies really. Almost the last word he says is button. In

this great, great tragedy, something as ordinary as a button.

And I'm convinced that in the theaters that Shakespeare's plays were originally performed, everybody could see the button. Do you know what I

mean? And if you can see the button, as we can in the Duke of York, you can also see the eyes.

AMANPOUR: You're, obviously, really in touch with the audience and really in touch with learning new things about the plays and being heard.

And once you said - this was about performing in the main hall of Bolton School where you went - this required experimenting with being audible,

above the constant squeal of 800 bottoms shifting on 800 rush bottom chairs.

MCKELLEN: That's right.

AMANPOUR: Frank Greene, I don't know who he is, was right. If you can't be heard, you can't act on stage.

MCKELLEN: Yes, that's true. He was the man who directed our plays each year and we did them in this rather large hall.

AMANPOUR: And how old were you then?

MCKELLEN: Maybe 14, 15, 16, 17, and I played some Shakespeares and other plays too. Yes, well audibility is obvious, isn't it?

These days, oh, I don't want to be an old man complaining, but on Broadway, for example, in New York, and even in London, even at the National Theatre,

center of excellence of British Theatre, microphones are employed, so that the actors can be heard or so that the actors can act in an intimate way in

a large space.

Well, I'll rather be in a small space, an intimate space where no shouting is required and where you can speak as we're speaking now.

AMANPOUR: The plays also - basically, just about every school child who goes to a decent school will read King Lear up to O level or something.

MCKELLEN: What a dreadful thing to have to do?

AMANPOUR: Well, no, it's great.

MCKELLEN: But the plays were not meant to be read, except by the actors who had to learn the lines. No, they were meant to be heard.


MCKELLEN: Audience, audience.

AMANPOUR: But why do you think then - because most of us have just read them. Maybe we've had the opportunity to go to the theater and see

wonderful plays and great actors. But how do you account then for the enduring quality, the enduring attraction of Shakespeare?

MCKELLEN: Because there is so much in every scene of a Shakespeare play, which is relevant to life, living, humanity.

Of course, there are things that are outdated now, like kings and queens, but there are presidents who do have power and there are tyrants. And

Shakespeare is very, very interested in people who have power and he wants to tell you what they're really like and what a dangerous thing it is to

have too much power.

And King Lear is such a man. He's a very foolish man. He says it of himself. He does make some silly mistakes. He's not a cruel man. I mean,

he hasn't killed people as far as we can see. But he doesn't know how to deal with his daughters, his son.

We don't hear about Mrs. Lear, but people come and see, listen and say you're exactly like my granddad when he was dying. He went a bit dotty


Or someone came along in America and said, well, it's all about Trump, isn't it? I don't get that at all. But an audience brings to it their own

life and they measure their own experience, a family experience, or politics, whatever it happens to be, whatever their interest is, and match

it against the experience of the characters that they're seeing act out their story. That's the way in which you're engaged.

And Shakespeare remains a persistently modern, contemporary and that was his genius that he knew more about us than any other person who ever lived.

Whether we were a servant or a dictator, whether we were a man or a woman, whatever we happened to be, he knew.

AMANPOUR: Honestly, it is incredible that you should say that because everybody now is feeling in a state of heightened political anxiety.

There's so much anxiety around the world.

An author who's associated also with Harvard University, Stephen Greenblatt, has written a book, a piece of work called "The Tyrant and His


He takes Richard III as his case study. And it's, obviously, a very thinly disguised attempt to make Richard III into Donald Trump. You have played

Richard III, notably in the iconic film version of it. Do you see that at all?

[14:10:02] MCKELLEN: I don't. But I wouldn't contradict somebody else who did. They are both kings. What does connect them, I suppose, is an innate

inadequacy. Richard III had a dreadful mother, in that she gave birth to a child who was physically deformed and says to his face, later in life, I've

always hated you from the moment I conceived you and from the moment you were born. I've hated you.

I don't think you can say that to your baby and expect him to grow up to be a normal, loving person. He's discovered hate at a very early age.

What it is in Trump's background which makes lying so easy, I don't know. But I would make that connection that you could delve into the back story

of a peasant or a king and find that that was the most relevant source of truth about them.

Trump has the whole world at his feet and he contacts them through television. I mean, he's a television performer. That's the only success

he's really had is fronting a regular program, which is a mock program.

AMANPOUR: You're talking about "The Apprentice."

MCKELLEN: "The Apprentice." There's nothing really at stake there. It's a television fiction.

AMANPOUR: And would you say -

MCKELLEN: And he learned from that how to get people's attention and he's succeeded. He rivets our attention as we try to understand. And my fear

is that, in trying to understand, eventually, we will become sympathetic and say, well, let's see, maybe he's right, and there's an affection grows.

AMANPOUR: Do you think Twitter is like his theatrical stage, if I can extend a metaphor?

MCKELLEN: But he's so illiterate. And he displays his inadequacies every time he opens his mouth, I'm afraid, and every time he tweets.

AMANPOUR: Everybody is enslaved by this unique purveyor and user of the Twitter platform.

MCKELLEN: Well, dictators and leaders have taken advantage of the mass media ever since it was available to them, whether it was the radio,

whether it was advertising or and whether it was - now television and film as well.

And he's the master of the television. I have to grant him that. He's realized that if you constantly feed something out, it'll be gobbled up.

And his name will be talked about and I think that's perhaps his main aim.

And it seems to me, as an outsider, that what he enjoys most in life is not power, but fame.

AMANPOUR: So, I'm getting back to you as an actor then. The Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells sees your hallmark sort of "you're a questing actor,

always looking to experiment with the details of performance regarding as your chief strength and ability to communicate emotional complexity and a

troubled inwardness." Is he right?

MCKELLEN: Well, I think I like doing Shakespeare because it's difficult and it's complicated, and that the actor's job is to absorb those

complications into himself, so that then they can be very clearly expressed to an audience, who can then deal with the information they're being given.

I don't know - I don't go to a shrink. I don't know how I work. Why do these wonderfully complicated characters appeal to me? I think because

they're wonderfully and complicatedly written; and as I respond to words and think, well, it's very important. Hence tweeting, I don't much value.

AMANPOUR: So, how does it go then? Do you do it for fun or do you equally respect the movie profession, the movie craft, as you do the onstage

theater craft because you have gone global and stratospheric in your renown by playing movies, by playing Gandalf, by playing - is it? - Magneto in


MCKELLEN: Well, I wouldn't be the first actor to caricature our business as you do films for money, you do television for fame, but the real thing

is acting in the theater. And what's real about it is the presence of the audience, of course. And so, it's a shared experience.

[14:15:00] If there's no audience, there's no play. If there's no audience, there is still the film. It just rolls on. It's dead in a

sense. The audience cannot affect the outcome.

But in the theater, yes, they can stop a performance with applause. They can make their experience audible to the actors, which we relish.

I want my breath which starts down there to pass across the very intimate parts of one's body out along through the airways, measurable, on to the

eardrum of the audience. And there's a direct communication. That is life. That's people meeting each other. And it's not available to you if

you're acting for the camera.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, I'm going to play some clips.

MCKELLEN: Oh, are you?


GANDALF: Through fire and water, from the lowest dungeon to the highest peak, I fought with the Balrog of Morgoth.


MCKELLEN: Well, you see - yes, look. I'm not saying cinema is a waste of time. And what thrilling things that you can do in the cinema. And you

can be actually there, it appears. You can be in Middle Earth. It never existed, but you can be there. Well, that is thrilling.

Unachievable on stage, you'd say. No. Because in the theater, the audience the audience uses its imagination.

AMANPOUR: One of the things so many people appreciate about you, apart from your acting, is your activism, that you have been brave enough to come

out as gay. On Radio 3 in 1988, you came out. And it was a question by the radio interviewer, who said, did you want to see article - or Clause 28



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, you would just like to see Clause 28 disappear altogether?

MCKELLEN: Oh, yes. I certainly would. Yes. I think its offensive to anyone who's, like myself, homosexual.


AMANPOUR: And that clause was a prevention, a ban on schools, I believe, promoting or explaining homosexuality.

MCKELLEN: Isn't it interesting? I used homosexual. I would never use it. A gay, I would say. I was learning how to be involved in politics, I

suppose. Hadn't quite got the language. Well, I was 49. What's brave about coming out at 49?

Well, I suppose at a time, when much activity for gay people was illegal in the country, the expectation was that you would lose your job or the

respect of others, including friends and family if you came out. None of that happened to me. My film career took off when I came out.

AMANPOUR: But you say that, in Hollywood, LGBTQ representation is very low, even though quote half of Hollywood is gay.

MCKELLEN: Well, I may have said that some years ago. I mean, I'm constantly reading about young actors proud to say that they are gay

because they've been gay all their lives. They've known it. They'd been through school and college where their sexuality has been accepted. Why

should, at the outset of their career, should they start denying it? What a stupid thing to do?

AMANPOUR: But Hollywood is not necessarily known for being at the sharp edge of change. Again, maybe a long time ago, but you said they're not

really known for their social commentary, are they?

"They only recently discovered there were black people in the world. Hollywood has mistreated women in every possible way throughout history.

And gay men don't exist."

MCKELLEN: Yes. Well, there was a time when that was true. And then, Hollywood was in the business of telling a fantasy about the world, not the

real world. They weren't reflecting the real world.

I visit schools quite a lot. I'm very lucky to do that. And I'm allowed to go in. Quite contrary to that dreadful Section 28 that we got rid of,

it is now against the law in British schools to discriminate on grounds of sexuality. So, suddenly schools are now having to talk about what it is to

be gay and understand it. And that's good because there are gay teachers. There are gay parents. There are gay children. There are gay governors

and there are gay visitors like me.

And as I talked about the past when it was illegal to make love to someone of the same gender, the jaws of the kids drop open. They cannot believe

the world I'm talking about.

AMANPOUR: I want to pick up on what you said you visit schools. You've also been to Oxford and you've talked about all sorts of things there.

My producer, Ben, who is here and who helped me with this research, was at one of your speeches. And he recalls a young man standing up. He wants to

ask you a question and he just came out to you.

MCKELLEN: Oh, you made me cry, yes. Yes, he came out. He was like a revivalist. Billy Graham, come forward, and you'll be saved. And, I

suppose, I've been speaking so positively about my own experience of being an openly gay man that he felt this was the moment for him to join in.

And, yes, he came out and, of course, received a huge reception.

[14:20:06] But I've had an even better case. I was at a school once and saying, "you know, everyone is worried about coming out because they're

worried about people's reaction. I said there are gay teachers in your school now, boys and girls, who don't come out because they're frightened

of what your reaction will be. That's why there isn't a single openly gay member of staff here, at which point a young man at the back put his hand

up and said, excuse me, I'm on the staff here and I'm gay," which he had never said before.

And 1,300 kids look round and applauded him. That was his coming-out experience. Total acceptance.

AMANPOUR: You're the first openly gay man to be knighted by the Queen.

MCKELLEN: Second. Second.

AMANPOUR: Second, I'm sorry.

MCKELLEN: The first was Angus Wilson, the novelist.

AMANPOUR: But maybe you were the first openly gay famous person.

MCKELLEN: (LAUGHTER). Well, that was a sign of the times that my career as an actor, which was thought to be worthy of a knighthood, could not be

impeded by the fact that I'd said I was gay.

And I'll tell you a story. It's rather long, so you wouldn't be able to include it. But I was playing Richard III in Paris, having breakfast,

croissant, coffee in my single bed watching a screen, which had 10 Downing Street on it because this was the day that Mrs. Thatcher was finally

resigning as prime minister and we were waiting for her to emerge.

And the phone rang and they said, this is Downing Street. I said yes, isn't it fun? Assuming he was a member of the company, why don't you come

down and we'll have our croissant together. He said no, no this is Downing Street. Oh, I'm sorry.

Yes, the prime minister has been trying to get hold of you because she wants to know if you would accept a knighthood from the Queen. I said, oh,

yes, all right, I'll think about it and I put the phone down. And as I did that, the door of Downing Street opened and out came Mrs. Thatcher

famously crying.

And I thought, my God, she's been waiting behind that door to know whether I'm going to accept a knighthood before actually resigning being prime


So, the very, very last thing she did was to give me a knighthood. And, of course, she was a supporter of Section 28, but that was an indication to me

that the world actually was changing.

AMANPOUR: That is incredible.

MCKELLEN: And she could not control it.

AMANPOUR: But what about those backlash wins? Are you concerned that the very socially conservative Supreme Court justice just nominated by

President Trump, Justice Kavanaugh, could do things like reverse Roe v. Wade, but also gay marriage?

MCKELLEN: Yes. Well, that's the system you have, isn't it? I'm much more frightened of the words and beliefs of your vice president with regard to

people like me.

I gather he thinks I should go somewhere and be cured. I believe he can't trust himself to be in a room with a woman on his own. That's a disturbed

person who should not be in any control of situations.

I think, perhaps, judges are a little bit more temperate than that, are they? I don't know. But, yes, it is, of course, worrying. But then,

that's just the system that you have.

AMANPOUR: Is it just the system or is it -

MCKELLEN: And it must make you aware, when you put your cross, what you're voting for.

AMANPOUR: But what about the idea that some of these games are -

MCKELLEN: Could be -

AMANPOUR: - not - yes.

MCKELLEN: Well, that some people say to me, Ian, why do you go on and on and on about it when I say because I get asked about it. But the other

reason is that, if you don't go on about it, if you take your freedoms for granted, they won't necessarily be with you forever more.

So, yes. But the gay rights movement began for me in San Francisco.

AMANPOUR: Harvey Milk.

MCKELLEN: Harvey Milk and Armistead Maupin, the author, who was my godfather and talked to me about coming out long ago when I was on tour


So, United States is a very large place and there are centers of excellence and there are centers where -

AMANPOUR: And Stonewall, which is New York, obviously, and it's the name of the activist organization you co-founded.


AMANPOUR: As you just opened King Lear here in London in the theater where you did your first ever performance, what did you feel all these years


MCKELLEN: I suppose two things. One is that I'm much, much better at the job than I used to be. The only advantage of seeing yourself on screen

years later is to say - well, I was no good, but I if I did it again, now I'd be better.

And that is partly the aim, and the inevitable aim, for me of doing a hundred Lears in a row, is that the hundredth is going to be more

insightful than the first. I learn night by night by night.

[14:25:04] It used to be doing a matinee of eight shows a week. I would peep through the curtain to look at the audience just to remind myself why

we were there. We are doing it for these people who've never seen the play before, they need to hear it afresh. The fact that I've done it a score of

times is irrelevant. I must make it fresh. It must be live.

And, usually, my eye would chance on a kid of 14 or 15. Why were they there? Who had brought them? Did they come on their own as I used to do

when I was there? It is for them, I do it. For the alert 14-year old.

And I was rewarded the other night coming out to the Duke of York's Theatre and there was such a little boy. I think he brought his parents. I think

he wanted to see Gandalf, but he saw King Lear.

AMANPOUR: They're not that different.

MCKELLEN: They're both old. So, of course, it's a thrill to play to old people like myself, people who have seen many King Lears and feel they

still haven't got it. They still want more.

But then, to capture the mind and the heart and affect the life of a young person and that they discover live theater early on, I think that's what

gives me the most excitement.

AMANPOUR: Well, and you give that excitement back.

MCKELLEN: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Sir Ian McKellen, thank you so much for being here.

MCKELLEN: Bye, bye.

AMANPOUR: What an inspiring man!

And that is it for our program. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast, see us online at and follow me on Facebook and


Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.