Interview: Ian McKellen on bringing his Hamlet to the Edinburgh Festival

The veteran actor prepares to play Hamlet once more at the Edinburgh Fringe

Sir Ian McKellen answers the door of his London home, smart in blue tweed jacket, shirt and tartan tie, thick grey hair neatly combed and bright blue eyes smiling, and invites me in. Behind him the River Thames can be seen framed by floor to ceiling windows, the sun bouncing of the water as he leads me across the wooden floorboards into the early Georgian townhouse in Limehouse where he has lived since the 1980s, through spaces filled with artworks and souvenirs from his career, and down some steps into a lounge area with windows overlooking the river.

One of Britain's leading actors on stage, TV and in film for nearly 60 years, 83 year-old McKellen has had an award winning international career with roles such as Gandalf the wizard in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and Magneto in the X-Men series, and alongside his acting work has been a leading campaigner for LGBT rights.

After first performing at the Edinburgh Festival in 1969, he’s back again, with Hamlet, for the third time in his career, in a production at the Edinburgh Fringe. First playing the role in 1971, he starred last year in an “age-blind” staging in Windsor and this time round will share the part with the Danish dancer Johan Christensen at the Edinburgh Fringe with a ballet version by Peter Schaufuss.

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It’s just us and the atmosphere is relaxed as McKellen invites me to sit in a chair opposite him on the sofa, offers me a slice of the banana cake from the coffee table along with tea, coffee, water? then lights a cigarette, inhales, sits back and crosses one leg, ready to talk.

“Would you rather I didn’t…?” He says politely.

I tell him I get vicarious pleasure from it as a non-smoking smoker.

“A non-smoking smoker, that’s nice. I’ve been one myself. And I think by the time I get up to Edinburgh, I hope I won’t…” he takes a long draw, “be smoking.”

Ian McKellen will appear in Hamlet in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Pic: Devin de Vil

Why (apart from the obvious)? Does it affect his performance?

“No, it doesn’t seem to,” he says. “In fact, I have my lungs tested at least once a year, and the last time the doctor said ‘I see you’re a smoker’. That’s the first thing they put on the list isn’t it, ‘SMOKER!,” he shouts and his voice bounces around the room. “He said ‘I’m amazed. Your lung power is stronger than it was six months ago.’ So I said, ‘I’m in the middle of playing Hamlet and using my lungs a great deal and I wonder if that makes them more healthy.’ But I don’t like the smell and it’s clearly not good for you and offensive to a lot of people so on the whole, it’s not a good thing to do is it?”

With the smoking issue settled to our satisfaction, the interview begins.

“So what’s your background, how did you get into being a journalist?” he says, turning the tables and demonstrating his impeccable manners and curiosity about others. Journalists are often regarded as a necessary evil, but not for McKellen, who treats me as a welcome guest and is solicitous and charming. In fact, he’s worn his tartan tie specially.

Ian McKellen returns to a play he has performed many times, but this time it's a ballet. Pic: Devin de Vil

“It’s Macbeth tartan. I bought it in Edinburgh. I bought two, and gave one to Lawrence Olivier who was a famous Macbeth. I saw him do it with Vivien Leigh at Stratford. I worked for him at the Old Vic and in his latter years, when he wasn’t working any more, I gave him this tie and he was TERRIBLY pleased. And when I next saw him - he didn’t know we were going to meet again - he was wearing it, so I know he liked it.”

Then McKellen returns to the subject of journalism, in which he is interested because it’s the first job he considered as a teenager.

“I went to see the editor of The Bolton Evening News, and he said ‘I get more requests per day for jobs than I have jobs to give in a year, you’d do better finding a more reliable way of earning a living.’ So I became an actor.” He laughs.

However, the editor said he would consider anything the teenager had written so McKellen began submitting articles.

Ian McKellen with dancer Johan Christiansen, who will dance in Hamlet.

“It was for the Chit Chat column - unsigned pieces about nothing, or everything, bits that had happened at home: we’d seen two robins rather than one in the garden, stuff like that, and the THRILL! Each evening I would go to the library after school and open up the Chit Chat column, was I included? And most of my stuff made it into the paper. So the first money I ever earned was as a journalist. Seven and six.”

Journalism’s loss was acting’s gain, although McKellen writes for his website and did think about an autobiography but the year’s publicity required by the contract put him off - “Imagine talking about yourself for a year,” he sighs, and pulls a face. Instead a Lancashire childhood that saw him watching amateur and professional theatre and performing in school shows sparked a love of drama.

“I first fell in love with the theatre as an audience, not as a performer,” he says. “And because I liked it so much I wanted to find out how it was done and that propelled me into theatre adventures at school. But I didn’t decide to become an actor until university when I bumped into a lot of other people who were as mad about the theatre as I was. But they intended to be professional. I was going to just become… I say just… I was going to become an amateur actor.”

Which was never going to happen and brings us to Hamlet. What is it about the play that keeps drawing McKellen back?

“Hamlet. Well… [he offers and reaches for a slice of banana cake]. I played Hamlet with Prospect Theatre when I was 30 and toured and it was televised. I was lucky because that was a good age. You’re young enough to remember your teens and he matures during the play. I thought well, not one of my best performances but as often happens with Hamlet, the audience really enjoyed it. It’s a rattling good yarn.

“No-one can play Hamlet really, you just bring your own personality to it. I really enjoyed it and when that was over I thought ‘I’ve got rid of Hamlet’. Then Sean Mathias [director of Bent and No Man's Land], my great friend who I work with a lot, said I’d like to do an age, colour, gender blind production at Windsor if you’ll play Hamlet. I was so intrigued by the idea and looking forward to working with Sean I said yes. It wasn’t that I wanted to re-explore Hamlet, but it was fascinating and fun.”

Because of Covid the performance of the play was filmed in the theatre, on the stage, under the stage, in the dressing rooms, front of house and on the roof with Windsor Castle illuminated in the background as the Castle of Elsinore.

“We were given permission to illuminate it even though the Duke of Edinburgh had just died,” says McKellen. “Then theatres opened and we were allowed to do it on stage, 84 performances, and we went on to do The Cherry Orchard and I had a much smaller part, thank goodness. I thought, oof, finally, got rid of Hamlet!”

“I’d forgotten of course, that I had agreed to be in a film of Hamlet, which turned out to be a film ABOUT Hamlet, by the Scottish film director, Ken McMullen and I ended up being the ghost in that. That’s just come out. It’s called Hamlet Revenant and it’s at the Cannes Film Festival.”

“Then Peter Schauffus said I want to revive my ballet of Hamlet and instead of using the recorded voice of John Geiulgud we’d like you to be on stage with the dancers. Again, what was interesting was not the Hamlet, but the fact it was Peter Schauffus and I was going to see how you create a ballet. So it was for the fun of that that I’m back with doing Hamlet again.

“Right at the heart of it there’s a dance that’s often cut. Before the play, the actors do a dance and Shakespeare writes down the moves, choreographs a dance. I think this is the one play where dance is absolutely crucial to the plot development. It’s not a decoration. So there is a dance, a ballet in the original full version of Hamlet, and now it’s back.

“Anyone would think that I was obsessed with Hamlet, and I’m not!” He laughs. “The appeal for me of doing this was that it was a ballet, that it was Schauffus and that it was Edinburgh. [He slams a hand on the sofa] ”Hamlet… ha, ha! A ballet. An 83-year-old Hamlet.” He laughs.

And will he join the other dancers in it?

"I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just stand and speak. Who knows. It’s new territory.”

As well as through his acting, McKellen has affected the lives of people he won’t ever know with the decades of work he has done championing LGBT rights. Does he think we’ve made significant progress?

“I think so. I’m always mindful that Scotland got rid of Section 28 before England. I think as a young, gay person the laws in the UK mean you cannot be discriminated against legally, so it’s good. Better than anywhere else in the world really. I’m not including trans in that - I don’t know enough about that - but gay people, wonderful. When we started Stonewall, we wanted to establish legal equality and that’s been done, but making sure the laws are honoured and that people aren’t any longer rude to each other or worse, violent, takes a longer time.

“But the big change has been in gay marriage. That’s been the deciding factor that I think will mean we can never go back, because increasingly you know someone close who is gay, you’ve been to their wedding, cried your eyes out at the wonder of it. Because the laws have changed our behaviour towards each other has changed although there are still outbursts of homophobia. And I think the church’s wretched attitude is SO behind the times… bafflement. It’s because they think there’s one God, although there are many, and God never changes and God’s laws exist. But it’s not like that is it, really?”

It’s a lasting regret to McKellen that change took so long and it was impossible for gay men to be open about their sexuality when he was younger.

“I would have been more comfortable. I would have been happier. I’d have been a better person. I would have had a better life. Oh yes, I’m scarred for life. That’s why I get so exercised and angry. On behalf of young Ian. I never talked to my parents about it, so I regret that. We never had the proper relationship we should have had. Mother died when I was 12, my father when I was 24. And I never told my father. I never gave him the chance to say ‘I love you’.”

McKellen means in the context of his being gay, as he knows his father loved him.

“Yes, but it wasn’t complete,” he says.

“My life would have been different. I think one of the reasons I found acting so attractive was because the law said you are not permitted to express yourself fully and be open and share your emotions.

“Is it any wonder I fell into a world where I could do all that in disguise? My job is to show my emotions on stage and on screen, the thing I couldn’t do in the rest of my life.

“The minute I came out, my acting got better. Everything gets better. But for the first 30 years of my acting, it was all about disguise, and now I’d say it’s all about revelation. Being honest. That’s why people should come out, whatever their situation it will get better. Their whole life will be transformed and the lives of family and friends and people they meet. I suppose there are still people who don’t feel comfortable being open and honest and that’s a great pity.”

“But If I had been more honest back then I would have been put in prison,” he says. “I know people who were put in prison, people who were fined, for making love. You say this to kids and they don’t believe you really. I say ‘well, that’s in my lifetime.’”

Silence falls, filled by the sound of Thames breaking on the shore below the window through which can be seen one of Antony Gormley’s figure sculptures, standing on a plinth in the waves, and I tell McKellen there are six in Edinburgh, standing along the Water of Leith river.

“Are there really? That’s lovely. I was in his studio and I said ‘is that for sale?’...

Wait, this sculpture is his?

“Yes. Well of course it’s a piece of public art, and I’m not allowed to touch it, even clean it - he comes to clean it. I said I thought I’d like to put it on the beach, like in Formby, and he said, all right and virtually gave it to me, £10,000 it cost, which is nothing for that. But when he came, he wanted it on the pillar and it had to be facing that direction. I said ‘well if you can’t get permission I’ll just put it on my balcony’. ‘No you won’t,’ he said, ‘it’s there or nothing.’ So there it is. I shall certainly go and visit the Edinburgh ones.”

I ask McKellen if he could choose to be one of the characters he has played which would it be and there’s a pause as he mulls it over.

“I’ve never been asked that before… I don’t think any of them honestly, because I don’t think I’ve ever played a person that didn’t have some quite major fault.”

Apart from Gandalf perhaps, the role for which he is possibly best known?

“Ah, Gandalf. No, there’s nothing wrong with Gandalf. He smokes, of course. It always amuses me about films which so many kids adore and parents love their kids to watch, that all the main characters are smokers. Yes, Gandalf. I love Gandalf the Grey. The White is a bit of a stick isn’t he? He’s on a mission. But Gandalf spends his life helping people and trying to understand them, liking them, and seems when he’s off duty to have a good time. With the other characters… you wouldn’t want to be Macbeth would you, or Coriolanus, or Hamlet clearly, oof, or Richard II; they all have dreadful things happen to them.”

“And I just feel so lucky to be allowed to still do it,” he says, referring to acting. “Thanks to the success of The Lord of the Rings films, and The X Men series - they’re still current.”

“We made Lord of the Rings 20 years ago but I meet people in their teens for whom they’re as fresh. Most of the requests I get for photographs are Gandalf, but also Magneto, so it’s been a real blessing to me that I’ve got a contact with the very young generation. Because otherwise at 83, if you don’t have a family, how would you ever meet them? It’s a thrill when young people want to meet me.

He tells me of an American family who arrived at The Grapes, the pub next door, of which he is co-licensee, only this week.

“I go to the quiz, and there was a 20-year-old student with his parents from Kentucky, who came to the pub because it’s Gandalf’s. When I walked in, the lad couldn’t believe his eyes. Well, how nice for me to have a relationship with someone I’d never met. That’s the power of cinema, that you can affect the lives of people you don’t ever know.”

“And the fact is I’m not fit for any other job. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I’m doing it a long way past retirement age. You don’t have to retire. You might BE retired, by the fact that no-one’s offering you any work. But no, it’s true, it’s one of the few jobs that you can go on getting better at.”

Ian McKellen Will Star in HAMLET - Ashton Hall, Saint Stephens, 105 St Stephen Street, Edinburgh, EH3 5AB, 2 - 28 August Tickets: https://ctzn.tk/HamletMCKELLEN

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