Ian McKellen Interview
Credit: Matt Holyoak / Camera Press / Redux

What's the best advice you've ever received?
I just followed my parents' example and advice on living, which was to leave the world a better place than you found it. They were professional do-gooders, ministers of the church, social workers, teachers, and missionaries, that sort of thing. I was a bit of an odd man out going into acting, but my mother had said, before she died when I was 12, that she wouldn't mind if I was an actor because she thought that actors give so much pleasure to people. Christianity was very related to their life – it wasn't just something they did on a Sunday. I realized I didn't share their faith, but I share their attitude.

What advice would you give the younger you?
Work isn't everything. I think that has been my fault and my virtue at the same time.

What did being a kid in wartime England teach you?
Well, I was a child, so I have nothing to compare it with. And it was a good life for a child because everything was focused on the family. The rations came through once a week; you could only buy so much butter, so much meat, so much bacon, so much sugar, so much tea. The family was always together, sharing those difficulties, and that suited us because we were very close. I was very aware of the war of course: We slept under an iron table in case there was a bomb during the night. But as a kid you just take it as the way life was. I don't think it was frightening; it was just a fact of life.

You were famous in the theater for decades before you became world-famous as a movie star. Did you desire the sort of recognition that came later?
Fame creeps up on you. When I was on my very first job in a regional theater in the U.K., there was a little group of fans that I knew locally, and that was a sort of fame; walking around the city, people would recognize me and say hello. Really what I've got now is only an extension of that. I can go into places I've never been before and there are people who know my face. I find that very reassuring actually. Basically, I'm a shy person and it's very helpful to me to be in a group of strangers, some of whom know a bit about me; it eases my way through. I would never have wanted to be excessively famous, where one's fame rules one's life. I'm on the subway all the time in New York and the Underground in London. People are friendly enough. It's not an inconvenience. I'm not someone who wears shades all the time and ducks into a darkened car in case I'm recognized – that would be absolute misery.

How should a man handle regret?
Like the characters in 'Waiting for Godot,' you carry on. You wait for life to get better. But something what's done is done. If you've hurt somebody, of course you must do your best to make amends, but other than that you should forget it. There's no use. Carry on. You can't change the past, but you can change the future.

How difficult was it for you to come out of the closet when you did?
It was very easy, but I was 49 years old. I hadn't given much thought about it before then, to tell you the truth. I was living very happily and openly as a gay man. It all happened in a bit of a rush when I decided to come out. I was angry because of a law that was anti-gay in the United Kingdom, and it was easier to come out in my indignation. 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. I'm involved in an organization which helps kids like that in the U.K. called Albert Kennedy Trust, and we have a lot of homeless kids thrown out by their parents. I do have a regret about coming out – I wish I had come out much earlier, but again, what can you do? You do what you can now.