In a trailer on the edge of a film set beneath an underpass in downtown Cape Town, Ian McKellen, 69, is musing about fame and death, and what the papers will say when he goes. " 'GANDALF DIES,' I expect," he says. The thought tickles him. Not the dying part. The part about being a classical actor and having billions of fans, most of whom are 12. "When you spend as long as I have doing beautiful work which is only seen by a few thousand people, to be involved in popular entertainment without lessening one's standards ... that's fairly appealing," he says. "You become part of the culture." It's not that McKellen ever shied away from fame. On the contrary, he sought it out "to publicise myself to people who might employ me." You might say he overachieved. "Now it's ... well, it's gone well beyond that."
McKellen has been thought of as one of the world's great actors for more than half his life. But in the last decade, he has also transformed himself from a strict stage thespian — highly rated, seen by very few — into a big screen star. This year, he can be seen on the stage around Britain as Estragon in Waiting for Godot, and on television in the U.S. and Britain opposite Jim Caviezel as the villainous No. 2 in a remake (partly shot in South Africa) of the 1960s British cult series, The Prisoner. He combines high art and mass appeal once more next year when filming begins on The Hobbit, a fourth movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's books, in which he will again appear as the great wizard Gandalf. McKellen claims no great strategy for combining critical and commercial success. "How am I expected to make sense of a career which has basically been about me enjoying myself and hoping people would come to see me too?" he asks. But the result, as The Prisoner's producer Trevor Hopkins says, has been to grant him a position of which every actor dreams: "Ian's really in a place to do whatever he wants to do." (See pictures from the 2009 BAFTAs.)
A long time ago, when a Hilton was a hotel and Big Brother was a character in a book, there was acting and the stage — and a generation of British actors to whom those were the only things that mattered. On any given night in the small provincial theaters of Britain of the 1960s, you might catch the likes of Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave or Patrick Stewart plying their trade. All were born or grew up during World War II, many in northern English counties known for their booming diction, and all shared the same obsession. Says Stewart, 68: "All we wanted to do was be on the stage doing great plays with great actors. We spent years and years doing play after play."(See the 100 best movies of all time.)
McKellen was a leading light in this group. Leaving Cambridge University in 1961 with no formal training in drama, he dove into British regional theater — and stayed for decades. "I took jobs other people would not," he says. "I wanted to find out how to act. I learned on the job." By the 1970s, McKellen and many of his contemporaries were often to be found in one place: at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in Stratford-upon-Avon, where the bard was born. There, in 1976, on a bare stage in a tin hut called The Other Place that could seat 150, McKellen and Dench gave two of the great stage performances of all time. "No interval, but straight through," says Dench, 74, of their Macbeth. "And not a normal kind of production at all. Plain black costumes, all very simple in a very small, dark place. We all stood round an orange box." The play was, as Dench says, "a breakthrough." The minimalist production, directed by Trevor Nunn, spawned a thousand imitations. Of McKellen, Shakespearean scholar Bernice W. Kliman gushed: "No other actor has so well depicted the existential nausea of a man who has chosen evil."
Fame, fortune and Hollywood should have followed. But little changed for McKellen. "I am an RSC sort of actor," he says of his decision to stay in Stratford. "There is nothing more sinister or enlightening than that." Besides, the RSC was in its golden age. The concentration of talent intensified with the arrival at Stratford of a new generation of actors including Kenneth Branagh, Jeremy Irons, Charles Dance and Sean Bean. By then, the veterans had developed an informal set of rules for themselves: Take the craft seriously (Dench: "deadly"). Don't take yourself seriously (Stewart: "That's death to creativity"). Never think you know it all (Dench: "Absolutely fatal"). And if the part was good and you were mindful that anything you did onscreen came from what you learned on stage, then by all means take a role on television or in film.
Many of them did — to both acclaim and fame. Kingsley took the lead, and an Oscar, for Gandhi in 1982. Stewart stepped into the uniform of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in 1987's Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dench took the lead in a British sitcom, A Fine Romance, and then hit the big time in 1995, when she played M in the James Bond films, and four years later, when she won an Oscar for her eight minutes in Shakespeare in Love. (See pictures of the best Oscar dresses.)
McKellen didn't follow his friends to Hollywood at first. Though he left Stratford for London and Broadway — where he won a Tony Award in 1981 for his role as Salieri in Amadeus — he stuck with the theater. In 1988, he came out on BBC radio during a debate over a British law, Section 28, which restricted how schools approached homosexuality. He went on to cofound Stonewall, a gay and lesbian rights lobby group, and regularly leads marches and protests across Europe (joking to the crowds that they should call him "Serena" after he was knighted in 1991).
It was campaigning that finally introduced McKellen to the joys of mass appeal. "If you spend most of your time being a classical actor, you do feel you are not quite in touch with what is going on in the street," he says. "The minute you talk about gay people, you are in touch, you are making a difference, you do really join the human race. It was very satisfying to me."
Encouraged, McKellen decided to join the human race as an actor too. He still takes classical theater roles, touring the world as Peter Sorin in Chekhov's The Seagull in 2007 and as King Lear in 2008. But he now also does blockbusters, investing Gandalf with impressive gravitas in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and reveling in superior evil as Magneto in the X-Men films. And, yes, television too: a 10-week part as an author in Coronation Street, Britain's biggest soap; an Emmy-nominated turn as a hyper-homosexual version of himself in Ricky Gervais' comedy series, Extras; and, of course, The Prisoner. (See pictures of Ricky Gervais.)
McKellen says celebrity has allowed him to finally relax as an actor. "The Lord of The Rings changed my life," he says. "[Becoming a star] confirmed that all that hard work, getting good as an actor, had paid off. People now accept that I am what I always wanted to be." The proof, says McKellen, is that he can afford to be "a bit cheeky" in the roles he chooses. What he means is that he can do precisely what he wants. And he's achieved that by doing exactly as he pleases. Which, whenever the curtain does finally fall, wouldn't be a bad obituary.
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