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

How should a man handle his critics?
An actor spends all of his life being criticized – that's what [actors] do in rehearsal. There's a man sitting there and a woman sitting there and they're paid to criticize you. If you get criticized, good, I don't think people get criticized enough. People talk behind your back and they criticize you, but they don't often come up and say it to you. And the older you get, the less likely you are to get advice, and that's why it can be a shock for parents when they suddenly get the truth from their kids. I don't think that you should ever resent someone who gives you advice, whatever their motive. They may not mean you well if they're giving you advice, but you never know, there may be something worth listening to. We could all do with improvement.

Which Shakespeare play should every person experience?
You're missing out in life if you haven't seen a good production of 'Macbeth' and seen the depths to which human beings can sink. And I would regret any friend not going and seeing a good production of 'Twelfth Night.' There are many others, too, but those are the two plays I think audiences as a whole most easily respond to and they both use exquisite language of course.

How does a man find his calling?
You don't necessarily. If you land in doing something which you enjoy doing and you carry on, as I do with acting, then I think that's luck and good fortune. Others might say how boring it would be to be doing the same job all your life. I've enjoyed getting better at acting. I do a better job now than I did even five years ago. If you'd rather be doing that than something else, then that's the job for you. It's up to you to do not what you're told – but what you think you should do.

What role taught you the most about yourself?
I wouldn't say one in particular, but I've played a lot of villains, particularly in Shakespeare's plays, and they're absolutely fascinating people, like Iago, for example. The man who is so jealous that he breaks up a marriage and commits murder. Macbeth [is] another man who commits murder and never gets over it. It taught me that ordinary men are all capable of these dreadful, dreadful things. They're banal, often in their ambition. They get obsessed and make the wrong decisions and we're all capable of doing that. Which is very useful to remember when you're looking at the world and seeing villains in politics or elsewhere. Remember to treat people as human beings. Yes, they're flawed, but we're all flawed.

What's the best cure for heartache?
Probably sleep. There's nothing worse than heartache, is there? It's a wonderful phrase – it does feel as if your heart is aching, doesn't it? Time and sleep and talking about it, not forgetting it, dealing with it – and don't blame anybody.

What role does religion play in a man's life?
In mine: none. I don't understand religion. I don't get it at all. I understand why people need it, but I think they're wrong. They don't. I do see that on a crude-ish level, when someone dies, it's nice and comforting to think that they're going to heaven and that they're going to be wrapped up warm for eternity. But they're not. Heaven doesn't exist. If you just think about it for a minute, the person is dead, they're gone, they're not coming back, and you'll never see them again. And when you go, you'll never see anybody again. Just face it. I feel stronger because of it. Knowing that I can't lean on religion to get through life. If you are leaning on it, you won't be living your life to the fullest.

What do you think your legacy will be?
I'm not looking for that. People are forgotten quite quickly. I'm glad that some people have remembered some of my work, and I'm glad that the films survived me. I guess my life has been of the times I've lived in.