Whilst his talk for the chamber later on is quite clearly a performance, while I am sat with Sir Ian McKellen in the Morris Room of the Oxford Union he is quieter, and his answers have long drawn out pauses as he carefully considers how to reply. He seems more relaxed, maybe even a little tired. In his capacity as an advocate of LGBT concerns and the equal rights movement, he spent the morning talking at The Cherwell School about “what it was like growing up gay as a kid, and teaching them to be kind to each other”, as well as the implications of the new law which indicates state schools cannot discriminate on the basis of sexuality. McKellen starts by talking about Stonewall, the LGBT rights charity he helped to found, “Stonewall helps schools to train the teachers and so on, and I’m part of that process. They’re well on their way to eradicating homophobic bullying and helping staff and students who are coming out to do that if they want. I’m just generally waving the rainbow flag.”
It’s a role which has defined his life almost as much as his illustrious acting career, which has lasted over 50 years. Since coming out in 1988 on a BBC Radio 3 programme hosted by “homophobe” — as McKellen terms him — Peregrine Worsthorne, McKellen has worked tirelessly as an activist for LGBT rights. This started with the establishment of Stonewall to tackle the then under consideration Section 28, which would have stopped local authorities “promoting homosexuality” as “a kind of pretended family relationship”. In the chamber, McKellen expresses amazement at what has been achieved since then, describing the legalisation of gay marriage as an unexpected bonus.
I ask McKellen if he sees himself as an advocate or an educator, but he responds in a remarkably unassuming manner. “I think I just bear witness. Because I’m in the public eye, ever since I came out, some time ago now, I’ve been asked questions. It seems at times that I’m running an agenda and running a movement, but I’ve never done that. But I supported the idea of Stonewall, which was to get rid of all those laws which were in the land which discriminated against people who identified themselves as gay. That’s taken some time, but it’s been achieved. So I was always proselytising on that side of things.” He lets out a dry laugh.
“Now I just want to deal with the bigger problem which is that after years of treating gay people badly, it’s sort of embedded in the culture and you have to root it out. Schools are a good place to start. No one’s born prejudiced. They learn the behaviour. Schools seem to want to provide a safe environment so that kids can develop themselves and, indeed, study. I just help that along. But I am in no sense the leader.”
Since coming to university, I’ve known several people who have decide to come out to their friends and families, almost always with a positive response. There’s no doubt that Oxford has become a more liberal and open minded place than it was even ten ago. But when McKellen was at Cambridge, homosexuality was illegal, so, as he points out, “You didn’t start advertising the fact that you were gay. You probably didn’t even define yourself as gay.” I ask McKellen why he thinks more and more young people are choosing to come out at university, and how universities need to adapt as a result. “I think it would be very unhealthy for a person who identified themselves in any shape or form as gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, etc., to have gone through university unable to say that. That would suggest that there was something really wrong with the environment here, and there shouldn’t be.
“I think that everyone from the university authorities and Vice Chancellor down, through all the individual colleges, should make it clear that you are an individual and you are yourself, and you can express yourself without any possible repercussions from anybody. I think that if there are any gay dons in Oxford they should be out. It’s part of their responsibility to set the tone of what this place is. So that means that all the people who the college employs, and people who are their students, should be able to follow that lead and be open and honest themselves.
“And I think that should be true of schools, too, and it increasingly is, so a lot of people, like the Oxford LGBTQ society that I’ve just met, were all out before they came to Oxford. They arrived in Oxford determined to help other people who maybe weren’t as lucky. If you couldn’t come out during your time at Oxford, it should be a pretty sad state of affairs I should think.”
With the photos of awkward politicians wearing ‘This is What a Feminist Looks Like’ t-shirts to viral videos by FCKH8 selling shirts with big, bold slogans, I’m interested in McKellen’s view of this merger of fashion and commercialism with equal rights movements. “I’ve worn the t-shirt ‘Some People Are Gay. Get Over It.’ with great pleasure. It was designed by a group of young people who Stonewall stuck in a room and said, ‘You’re not coming out until you’ve come up with a good slogan.’ It’s punchy and to the point and been translated into every language in the world.”
It should be pointed out of course that the t-shirt McKellen is referring to is, unlike FCKH8’s ‘Some Chicks Marry Chicks, Get Over It’ tee, not-for-profit. “On the whole I don’t wear slogans on my body. I’m not tattooed. Oh, actually I am!” He interrupts himself, pointing to his shoulder where he has the number ‘9’ inked to signify his involvement in the The Lord Of The Rings. Every member of ‘the Fellowship’ has the same tattoo. He continues, “But I think life’s a bit too complicated to be reduced to a few words on a t-shirt. But I might wear a t-shirt on occasion, like on a gay pride march.”
Of course, it is McKellen’s acting career which has earned him his fame, awards and knighthood. Although his career defining role is undoubtedly Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, he is just as well known for being a Shakespearean hero and master of the art of stage acting. He demonstrates this for us in his talk with a rendition of a speech from the Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More. But the profession of acting is changing. Dame Judi Dench and Dame Helen Mirren have both expressed concern in recent years that acting has become an elitist institution hampered by the expensive cost of drama schools. “I think it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I think they absolutely have a point,” he says when I ask if he agrees.
“That’s why the National Youth Theatre puts together students who’ve been through the programme, and they’re now doing a three month season in the West End. They’re being paid for doing it. That seems to me as good a way into the business of acting as any drama school. Drama schools are self supporting, they have to make their money, and they probably make it by having too many students. They probably know that those students don’t have a chance of getting a job at the end of it. I don’t know how you deal with it. I didn’t go to drama school so I don’t know much about drama schools. You don’t have to have go to drama school to become an actor.
“But they do have a point that when it comes to higher education for Drama students, you’re going to have to have some money. There are scholarships of course. There probably should be more. But I would doubt that the answer and solution is that everyone who wants to be an actor should be able to go to drama school for free, because that would be very misleading. They’re not going to get work. Too many people want to be actors.”
He pulls a slightly pained expression, saying, “It’s dreadful.” And institutional elitism? “Are there too many posh actors around the place? Well that’s because there are too many posh stories being told. You can blame Downton Abbey for that.”
With the growth of TV and the reduction in the number of theatres, some actors have expressed concern that the profession is being undermined by young performers going straight to the screen before learning the trade on the stage. McKellen laughs at this notion. “Well where are they meant to act on stage? There aren’t that many jobs!
“When I started out we had a closed shop in our union. You could not act unless you were a member of the union. The union said, ‘You can have a provisional membership, and when you have that provisional membership you may not act in film, act on television or act in the West End of London.’ In other words, you had to work in a regional theatre, or theatre in education. Every town of a decent size in this country had its own theatre with its own actors who stayed together for a year. And that’s because the young actors weren’t allowed to work anywhere else.
“Mrs Thatcher broke the union, you no longer have to be a member of the union, so the young actors say, ‘Why the hell should I go and work in Oxford when I might get a job in television?’ And then the funds to the Arts Council are being reduced and all those theatres that existed when I was a kid have gone, so where are the young actors meant to go? They queue up to be in film. It’s complicated.
“But if you want to encourage actors to learn how to act, as many of us did, in regional companies, then you’ve got to provide the regional companies, and you’ve got to re-establish the union. Otherwise, nothing is going to happen. It’s discouraging, isn’t it,” he says, leaning in with a lowered brow.
My time with McKellen is brought to a close as he heads to dinner before his talk. Having seen the line-up of speakers for the term, he adds, “Ask Stephen Fry. He’ll answer these questions much better than I can.” It seems somewhat apt as the final note of our conversation. It summarises McKellen’s modesty as an actor, activist and highly intelligent human being.