Ian McKellen’s Life Advice

Ian McKellen poses in the press room at the EE British Academy Film Awards
Stuart C. Wilson / Stringer / Getty Images

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.

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.

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