Sir Ian McKellen Says Coming Out Made Him A Better Actor

06/02/2015 02:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016
JOHN MACDOUGALL via Getty Images

June marks Pride Month for the LGBTQ community. It's a time for us to come together to celebrate the triumphs we've achieved in our fight for equality. And while our victories have been many -- especially in recent years -- we must not forget the struggles that we continue to face and the LGBTQ heroes who have paved an easier path for us.

HuffPost Gay Voices recently caught up with one of those heroes -- Sir Ian McKellen. McKellen is being honored with the Trevor Project's Trevor Hero Award on June 15 and will be one of the four Grand Marshals at New York City's Pride celebration on Sunday, June 28. During our recent chat, he discussed what we should call him ("Call me Ian as long as you're kneeling down"), his own personal coming out story, his advice to LGBTQ youth and more.

You have such a fascinating trajectory as an actor and as an activist for the LGBTQ community. What does being honored with the Trevor Hero Award mean to you?

I couldn't be happier. It's lovely, lovely, lovely. There are two approaches when it comes to gay rights and the position of gay people in society. One is at the State. You have to make sure that the State does not discriminate -- that means you have to get the laws right. And the other, which is probably the easier of the two, is to make sure that everybody obeys the law and doesn't discriminate.

The Trevor Project is awfully concerned with the law, but is also particularly concerned with individuals and their unique positions. The work that they do is regrettably necessary, but they have a wonderful success rate. I'm a great supporter. I've known about them for years through James Lecesne, who wrote the short film "Trevor".

You cofounded Stonewall UK to lobby for legal and social equality for gay people. Tell us about some of their biggest success stories.

[Back then] there was no equal age of consent [to have sex]. It was 21 for gay people. Nobody worried about the lesbians -- they could just get on with it! It was 16 for straight people. Now it's 16 for everybody. Gays could not serve [openly] in the military. That's now gone. There was a very nasty law called Section 28, which inhibited teaching about homosexuality in schools. That's what got me out. That's what got me involved. Well, that law is gone. It is now, ironically, illegal to discriminate against gay people in schools -- a total reversal of Section 28! We now have civil partnerships for gay couples if they want or they can get married if they choose. Stonewall has been a prime mover in all those improvements. I wouldn't pick one as more important than the others. They've all been part of the same move towards equality: treating all citizens, regardless of their sexuality, under the law the same.

The Trevor Project helps a lot of our LGBTQ youth, many of whom are often in remote areas of the country, by providing them with an outlet that they otherwise wouldn't have. To this end, what are your thoughts on the importance of celebrities coming out?

Of course, the importance of coming out is personal. The importance of coming out is that you're out yourself and your life is changed, I think, for the better. That affects those who love you -- your friends, your family, people you work with. I would never say to a celebrity, "Come out for the good of society." You must come out for the good of yourself. The rest will follow. Nor does it mean that if you do come out, you have to immediately start talking about gay issues as if you were an expert.

I'm patron of an organization called The Albert Kennedy Trust, in memory of a man who 25 years ago came out to his family and was thrown out of the family home and eventually died at a young age. There are still young people being thrown out by their families because of old prejudices. The Albert Kennedy Trust cares for those people and mentors them and, in some cases, fosters them.

There are a lot of lonely people all over the world, even in countries where the law does not discriminate against them. No one should be forced to talk about being gay and about these issues, but I think when you come out, you're likely to be politicized, which really only means that you'll make connections. You'll realize that you're own experience can be relevant to people even in far distant lands whose cultures are quite different. The experience of coming out is an experience that all gay people share.

You've said before about coming out: "When people are worrying about coming out, they're worried about what other people will think, they're worried about whether they'll lose the love of their family." Were you ever scared to come out?

It was a different time. My mother died when I was 12 and I didn't get a chance to talk to her about it. But, there really wouldn't have been anything to talk about. We didn't have the language to talk about it. No one in England talked about being gay when I was growing up -- the word hadn't been invented. "Queer" was the word that was used about us. It was against the law to have sex with another man. If we were to express ourselves, we would define ourselves as being criminal. So, of course, you didn't talk about it.

My coming out was to eventually tell my step mother. I gave her a bit of news that she said she had known ever since she'd met me! But, I didn't feel the oppression of the closet because it didn't apply. Nobody in theater worried about your sexuality, they just cared if you're any good at the job. When I did finally come out, when I did finally tell my step mother and sister and my aunt and my nephew, nobody gave a damn!

And with the media, it was like a millstone that I didn't know had been around my neck and that fell off. And what happened immediately, according to friends, is I became not just a happier person, but a better actor. I think up to that point, I had been using acting as a disguise -- somewhere where I could express my emotions, and draw attention to myself in a way that I didn't particularly want to do in real life. Acting became not about disguise, but about telling the truth. And my emotions became much freer. I was able to act better as I think you are able to do any job. Everyone's better if they're being honest.

I like that you say that acting became about "telling the truth." You said something that resonated with me deeply: "When you come out, you change -- utterly. You are, for the first time, yourself." Do you think this helped you in the roles you played in "And The Band Played On" or "Gods and Monsters"?

I didn't turn myself into a queer actor, which I think a lot of people rather expected I ought to do or that was my new responsibility. I find heterosexuality far too interesting a phenomenon to avoid! Macbeth isn't gay nor is Richard III, or King Lear. I didn't want to cut myself off from all those things, but I had before coming out: I was in the first production of "Bent," Martin Sherman's play, which went around the world educating people about the ill treatment of gay people in Nazi Germany. I played Edward II [in the play by the same name] -- that's the first play ever written about a gay hero by Christopher Marlowe. People still remember it as, "My God! Two men kissing on television!" That was in 1970. "And The Band Played On," that's a play I really wanted to do because it's an important story, but the only reason I got it -- I was playing an American, I didn't really look anything like the character, and I didn't have his accent -- is they couldn't find an actor who would play an openly gay man! So they had to come across the pond to England! It's amazing how things have changed, isn't it?

Did you ever feel scared to be vocal and stand up for what you believed was right because of how it would affect you personally or professionally?

When I first started out and when I had my first successes and became known as a decent actor, the leaders of the profession like John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness were gay or bisexual and, of course, never, ever, ever spoke about it till their dying day. So I had those examples; I just accepted it as a fact of life that I had to be quiet about it. I don't know that I ever lost a job when I did come out, but by that time I was so well established that it would have been perverse if they suddenly hadn't wanted me to carry on.

However, it is true that my film career took off after I'd come out. One of the first parts that drew attention to me in cinema roles is "Gods of Monsters," which is about a gay man. And it didn't bother the producers and director of "Lord of the Rings" that Gandalf was an openly gay man. There was some silly dirty remarks about "Gandalf the gay," but [being gay] has not been an impediment either before I came out or after.

I regret and always shall that I didn't see the significance of coming out at a much earlier date because I think I would have been a different person and a happier one. Self-confidence is the most important thing that anybody can have. You don't have that if part of you is ashamed or hiding something. I can reassure people who don't feel they're able to, the world will like you better because people like honesty and authenticity.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality in June, what do you think will be the next biggest challenge facing the LGBTQ community?

Probably to look beyond your own country and see in what ways you can help people. There are many countries where it's still illegal to be gay. And there are countries like Russia where things are going backwards. The dreadful Section 28 -- which got me to come out -- says you cannot talk to young people about homosexuality and is now the law of the land in Russia. The [Russian] law actually uses the same language as Section 28. It really is a backward move. It wouldn't be easy for you or me to go and be honest in Russia, in the hearing of somebody under the age of 17, because we'd be breaking the law. It's a dreadful, dreadful situation.

If the United States finds itself at ease with the idea of gay marriage -- whether people want to get married or not -- it will serve as a beacon for many other countries. It's so ironic that the first country [outside of Europe] to have gay marriage was so close to the United States -- Canada!

Tell me about the new movie you're starring in, "Mr. Holmes," and your other upcoming work.

Mr. Holmes is at the end of his life, he's 93. The last case that sent him away from detective work was when he was 60 and he is still niggling in solving that case -- which he does. He discovers a humanity and a sensitivity that perhaps will surprise people. That's all done and dusted and it opens on July 17 in the States.

I got a small part [as Cogsworth] in the Disney film, "Beauty and the Beast," which is being filmed in London. I just finished recording for the BBC TV which will be shown in the States next year. And a play called "The Dresser" about an old actor and his dresser. I play the dresser and Anthony Hopkins -- whom I've never worked with before -- plays the old actor. We had a ton of fun!

Before we let you go, do you have any advice for LGBTQ youths, particularly those struggling with something right now and need help?

That they're not alone. They may feel very, very cut off. And the coming out journey may take a very long time -- as it did for me -- or it can all be done very, very quickly. But accept that it's a process. And it's a progress.

And thank goodness there is so much literature -- there's so much online, so much positive literature that you can read! The Trevor Project is a good way to start. Their website recommends reading material and other ways in which you can contact other gay people. You'll discover that you're really not alone.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For more information about the Trevor Project and the Trevor Live Gala that will honor Sir Ian McKellen, please visit their site here.

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