July 16, 1998


Public Enemy

Sir Ian McKellen is drawn to roles that hit close to home--Dr. Stockmann in "An Enemy of the People," James Whale in "Gods and Monsters." And then there are the nasties.


Reporting by Rob Kendt


Like most British actors of his generation, Sir Ian McKellen was raised on the stage and returns to the boards regularly; along with a select few of his peers, he's also got a healthy side career in Hollywood films. But unlike just about any other actor of his trans-Atlantic stature, he has found a way to bring both strands of his career together, in a sense: performing onstage in the film capital of Los Angeles.


In the spring of 1997, while in town to shoot Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil as well as Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters, McKellen found the time to mount a four-week staging of his popular one-man A Knight Out show at the Los Angeles Theatre Center as a benefit for his two pet causes--theatre and gay rights--and now Sir Ian is back in L.A. with Trevor Nunn's Royal National Theatre production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, in Christopher Hampton's adaptation, which played to acclaim in London last fall and lands at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre for a six-week run starting July 22.


In a bit of especially blessed timing, the Ahmanson run has allowed McKellen to attend L.A.'s local gay and lesbian festival, Outfest, and to accept an achievement award for his activism from novelist Armistead Maupin. But McKellen won't be in town when Apt Pupil and Gods and Monsters--a biopic about James Whale, the director of such film classics as The Bride of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House--make their U.S. premieres this fall. Instead, this errant knight will be back on the British stages that made him, doing three plays at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a regional theatre in Leeds.


We spoke to this mildly voluble, self-effacing gentleman recently over fruit and cheese at the Taper annex. The last time we met with him was in April, 1997, weeks before his Knight Out opening in L.A. (Back Stage West, 5/1/97). At the time, he had a salt-and-pepper beard for Apt Pupil (which David Hockney immortalized in his cover portrait), and he had just agreed to do An Enemy of the People with Nunn--a decision whose scheduling meant passing on the London premiere of Tom Stoppard's Invention of Love. We asked him about that choice and about his unique position in the trans-Atlantic acting market.


Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: When last we spoke, you were a bit sad, because doing Enemy of the People meant you couldn't do Invention of Love.


Ian McKellen: That's right. It was either/or.


BSW/D-L: Are you happy you went with An Enemy of the People?


Ian: Very. Invention of Love is a big success for John Wood, but I really don't regret having done this play. I think it's the sort of play I like best. It's on a big public issue of something that needs to be talked about--the relationship of the strong, outspoken individual with society, who doesn't like what he's saying--but told in the context, not of polemic or rhetoric but as a domestic story of a man who's got a long-running battle with his brother, who happens to be the man in charge of the local government, and his own family, whom he has to carry with him.

It's been thrilling to play it to audiences, who really respond--particularly Americans, actually. The Americans who came to my dressing room after often just sat there and drank their way through my refrigerator talking about the play. Bryan Singer burst into the dressing room and said, "Jaws!! It's Jaws!" When someone who likes the theatre as little as Bryan does approves of your play, you know you're onto a winner, really. But it is the same story of a seaside town with one industry and somebody who says the water is dangerous.


BSW/D-L: I don't want to read too much into your choice of roles, but after being associated with the play and the film of Richard III, and now Dr. Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, do you think your current signature role may be a larger-than-life public figure with an element of political intrigue?


Ian: There always is a moment in An Enemy of the People when my brother says to me, "You love causing a fuss, don't you? You love complaining about the government! You can't wait to rush into print with your latest ideas!" And I think to myself, "Is this Ian McKellen he's talking about, or is it Dr. Stockmann?" So I do have a personal connection with it.

But on the whole, you can only play the parts people offer you. Sometimes you go out on a limb on your own, as I did with Richard III, and say, "I want to do this movie," or indeed Gods and Monsters, which I chased after. But you get offered the parts you get offered, and I suppose it's thought by this time that I can play strong characters, and bad, wicked characters, and give them some humanity. People always say to me, "Why don't do a comedy?" Well, I just played Peter Pan, and I played Alan Ayckbourn for a year in the West End; I do do comedy. I think my career's probably a bit more varied than some people realize. "Why do you only do the classics?" Well, I don't only do the classics.


BSW/D-L: It's striking that you're skipping New York and coming straight to Los Angeles with Enemy.


Ian: Well, it's nothing personal, but [Center Theatre Group artistic director] Gordon Davidson got in first. And although it's the sort of production you might expect to see at the Brooklyn Academy of Music or Lincoln Center, I guess Gordon was smarter than they were and had a gap in his programming here. It's too big a production to tour around--it's got a massive set, and I think there are 60 actors in it. It's a big circus.


BSW/D-L: But you do seem to have cultivated an L.A. base or connection.


Ian: I know, people say, "Do you live here?" And I suppose the smart thing to do would be to say, "Of course I do." I don't actually.


BSW/D-L: Has it worked out well, then--the balance of theatre and film work? You shot Apt Pupil and the Whale film, then went back to London to do Enemy of the People--and also Peter Pan, right?


Ian: I played Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, which made it a very strenuous evening. Yes, it's worked out very well.


BSW/D-L: Will you be lining up other film work while you're here? Or do you even need to be here to do that?


Ian: I don't know. I think Hollywood likes to feel that you're committed to the industry, but whether that requires you to actually take up residence here, I'm not certain. It's fortuitous, because both the movies I did last year are coming out in October, so to be able to talk about them while I'm in L.A. is good.


BSW/D-L: What attracted you to the role of James Whale in Gods and Monsters?


Ian: I'd read the novel on which it is based, by Christopher Bram, Father of Frankenstein, and it was an obvious subject to be filmed because the whole background is Hollywood. And I realized that, as he was an English character who had been an actor for most of his life and who was openly gay, there was a lot that I could immediately get to grips with. He's got a very well-developed sense of humor, of irony, of camp, if you like, and I could connect with that as well. I knew it was going to make a good film. I hadn't realized it was going to make as good a film as it's turned out to be--it's a gem. For anyone who knows the Whale movies, it's a joy, because there are internal and external references to the movies, and in the style of the acting of some of the supporting parts.

And it's an important story in terms of gay people in Hollywood, because here was a man who unwittingly was a pioneer. He didn't join any gay activist movement; one didn't exist in those days. But looking back he seems to have been historically a crucial figure, and quite brave, though that wouldn't have occurred to him.


BSW/D-L: Does the film then explore the gay subculture of the time?


Ian: No. I mean, there's reference made to it; he invites a lot of comely young men round to swim in his swimming pool. When George Cukor, a closeted gay director, invites him to his garden party, Whale behaves outrageously.

I think the point that's gently made is that it was unusual for Whale to be openly gay, and that as a private individual being gay was absolutely central to how he spent his time and what he enjoyed doing. Sex certainly comes into the movie, but it's more complicated than that, because it's a man at the end of his life who, because of a stroke, is losing his abilities; he can't read properly, he can't concentrate, he keeps going in and out of the past and present. He can't paint or draw, which was his first love. But he doesn't seem to have lost his sex drive. That's one of the pegs on which the story is hung.


BSW/D-L: What sort of scripts and roles are you being offered these days?


Ian: I get offered very, very, very, very, very old people--120-year-olds. I do look quite old in both Apt Pupil and Gods and Monsters. And I get offered the nasties; the English accent is thought to be now the most evil in the world; it used to be Russian, didn't it? I don't read that many really good scripts. I don't suppose any actor does, actually. And I hope one of the outcomes of these films coming out is that people will be reminded that I am around. And I do want to do more film, but you'll never catch me now being in a film with a poor script, so that does limit it.


BSW/D-L: Now, you'll be onstage in Leeds when your films are opening here


Ian: Yes, which bewilders everyone involved in the movies. "What are you going to do these plays for?" Because I'm an actor. What do you want me to do?


BSW/D-L: So you haven't been entirely seduced by Hollywood.


Ian: Well, I do love being here. Working with the sort of out-and-out professionals that you get in this town is a real thrill, and feeling that I'm part of this on the whole honorable industry, and that I can make some kind of contribution to it, is very satisfying. But of course, I would very much like to make films in the United Kingdom, because there's a revival of confidence there, and a lot of the movies that have come out recently that have been successful have been very much about life as it is lived--not that romantic version of old Britain that doesn't exist anymore, except in the imagination of Merchant and Ivory (one's American and one's Indian, and you can sort of tell if you're British).


BSW/D-L: Are you in the position in the U.K. that you can get a film made? If a young British filmmaker came to youÉ


Ian: Well, who knows? I don't think so. If you wanted a movie made, there are plenty of people you'd go to before me, and probably you wouldn't go to an actor at all--you'd go to a director or a source of funding, like Channel 4 or the BBC. Emma Thompson, maybe. Tony Hopkins, although he doesn't really live in the U.K. anymore. Some of the younger actors--Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, but they're almost turning themselves into Americans. Ewan McGregor. But middle-aged actors? There aren't many of them who could finance a movie, I don't think. You'd be amazed at the names you'd put forward, and yet--it would be insulting to mention them. You're only as good as your last film's box office.

Which, by the way, isn't true of the theatre. In the theatre, you're allowed to have a career, allowed to have your ups and downs. People are interested to see what choices you make, what risks you take--if you change directions, if you're going back to old material. They become very loyal and follow you through, and they don't expect to drop you because there happens to be a performance which doesn't quite come off or a production they don't quite approve of. But in the film industry, which is in terms of money and immediate impact and a very wide audience that isn't au fait with the details of people's careers, you're only as good as your last movie.


BSW/D-L: It's strange, because I think a lot of Americans have an inflated sense of British actors' value--maybe it's an inferiority complex, but we almost think of the British as gods of acting.


Ian: There are some wonderful, wonderful British actors, it's undoubtedly true, and not just of my generation. The number of world-beating women actors--I mean, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Emma Thompson, Tracy Ullman, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Richardson, Rachel Weisz--it's astonishing how many there are, much moreso than men, actually. But, you know, I go and see a movie like The Opposite of Sex, and I don't know any of the actors in it, and I'm just overwhelmed by their expertise. You'd be hard put to find an equivalent group of English actors who could have done that, I think. So if some American actors have an inferiority complex about the Brits, the reverse is exactly the same.