Acting giant reflects on NZ society
Sir Ian McKellen has a deeper understanding of New Zealand than most visiting stars. He talks about playing Gandalf again - and about Helen Clark's startling confession.
ONE OF the greatest actors of our age sits outside the stage door in Melbourne, taking a break during a dress rehearsal. The play is Waiting for Godot, so he is dressed as a tramp, in a raggedy suit, with an unkempt grey beard fringing his chin and battered bowler between his splayed knees. "Then a man walked past and said, `Do you need some help, brother'!" recalls Sir Ian McKellen, in a voice as rich as chocolate. "I thought he was joking. Then he tossed a coin in my hat and walked away! I suspect he thought I really was a tramp, which is very gratifying as an actor."
McKellen, of course, is the kind of actor's actor who could play any role convincingly. Here in New Zealand, we know him best as the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but he has also drawn rave reviews as a sci-fi superhero, a South African tycoon, a Nazi officer, Widow Twankey. He even personified Death in one movie.
Born in Lancashire in 1939 and educated at Cambridge, McKellen gained notice as a spectacularly gifted actor at an early age, and has been in heavy demand on stage and screen ever since. He has been a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company for more than 30 years, excelling in such heavyweight title roles as Richard III and Macbeth, but he also loves to get down and wallow in the mud of popular culture, with hilarious guest spots on Extras, Coronation Street and The Simpsons.
And now he's coming to New Zealand to play a homeless man in Samuel Beckett's 1949 play, Waiting for Godot, directed by McKellen's former lover, Sean Mathias.
"Here I am at 71, playing a 70-year-old man with bad feet and short-term memory loss," he says with a laugh. "It's a fascinating character, and I get to work alongside Roger Rees, my old mate from the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Matthew Kelly, who I always admired in Stars in Their Eyes. Also, Waiting for Godot is one of theatre's truly great plays, a sort of absurdist drama that's as funny as it is disturbing. The characters are trying to survive in an unpredictable world, and one way they do that is by having hope that when this mysterious Mr Godot arrives, they'll have a job and somewhere safe to sleep at night. People say it's confusing, but anyone who's ever bought a lottery ticket knows who Mr Godot is. He's the man who's going to win them millions." Sarcasm oozes down the line from across the Tasman. "Unsurprisingly, he doesn't often turn up."
McKellen last turned up on our stages in 2007, in a touring production of King Lear and The Seagull, but a decade ago, he temporarily called this place home. McKellen spent a year or so in Wellington in the early 2000s, working on Lord of the Rings, and is rumoured to be reprising the Gandalf role in two Hobbit movies to be made in Wellington by Mexican director Guillermo del Toro.
"Actually, that has not been confirmed. I've read the script and Guillermo would like me to come back as Gandalf, but I don't have a contract as yet. I'll talk to Guillermo and Peter Jackson when I pass through Wellington with Godot. If it's confirmed, I suspect I'll be back in your country for something like 15 months, and I shall be very happy to be there. You live in a wonderful place. I remember New Zealand with nothing but affection."
Readers all over the nation are undoubtedly wincing at this point, expecting the next few paragraphs to be given over to the usual "New Zealand blew my mind" cliche-fest. McKellen doesn't play that game. He lived here for an extended period and has thought more deeply about this place.
"I find your society genuinely admirable in many ways. For example, I met Helen Clark while I was in Wellington. I was invited to her official residence, and waved in by a lone policeman who didn't even check who I was, then I had a barbecue with her. I congratulated her on the public's enlightened attitudes towards racial issues, but she disagreed. She said to me that New Zealand was really a very racist country, and she was determined to do everything she could as prime minister to change that. I thought that was a very bold, honest statement to make to a foreigner, and I really respected her for that."
McKellen sensed this kind of openness in many other areas of New Zealand life. "There was a real feeling that people were trying to get on with each other and not interfere too much with how others lived their lives. For example, I met three men who lived together in some sort of menage a trois, though I don't know what their sleeping arrangements were. They were raising a family of young children together. I've never encountered a family situation like that in the UK, but here it was happening in New Zealand, and the kids were terrific and so were the parents. I thought, well, perhaps this is the future: a society like you have here, where families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes."
ANOTHER THING we have in abundance in New Zealand is handsome young men, and McKellen fell for one on Wellington's Cuba St in 2000. The relationship blossomed, and in 2002, he attended the Academy Awards in LA with Nick Cuthell, a New Zealand artist and model, 40 years his junior. There is a long tradition of distinguished older actors showing up at the Oscars with young arm candy, but McKellen was one of very few gay nominees ever to attend with a male partner. Cuthell sat throughout the ceremony with his hand on McKellen's knee, which caused much nudging and winking among the gutter press.
Was McKellen surprised that taking a same-sex date to the Oscars was such a big deal in this day and age? "Yes! Of course, no one's ever looked to Hollywood for being the vanguard of social change. They're a little bit sleepy out there from far too much sun. They'll catch up eventually. Really, the world is only changing in fits and starts in regard to homosexuality... Again, gay rights are another area where New Zealand has led the way, probably because you're a small society where people bump into one another, and once you get to know a gay person, you're no longer suspicious and fearful and prejudiced against them."
McKellen came out in 1988, and in 1991 became the first openly gay Englishman to be knighted. On his website he identifies helping to achieve social and legal equity for gay people as his "most urgent concern", but also notes that many people believe "actors should stick to acting" rather than endlessly pronouncing on social issues.
So, would he like to pronounce on acting for me? What does he get from it personally? "I do it, I think, because it's a place where I feel very safe. As I've gotten better as an actor over the years, I've noticed I feel increasingly secure whenever I'm working. And it's very sociable. On every production I'm reunited with old friends, and I meet new ones. I also like the fact that the theatre cares little for age and gender, so old people like me get to work with interesting young people who respect us for our skill and experience. It's unusual work in that respect."
McKellen leaves me hanging for a few seconds, then this: "Whenever I find myself in a studio or rehearsal room, it's like going home. It's a good life for a man like me."
Waiting for Godot has six performances at the St James Theatre, Wellington, June 30-July 3, and three performances at the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch, July 13 and 14. Tickets via Ticketek phone 0800 TICKETEK (842-538) or www.ticketek.co.nz.
Sunday Star Times