REGARDED as one of the finest actors, Sir Ian McKellen is popular as Magneto in the X-Men series and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. During the first stop of “Shakespeare Lives” — a global programme curated by the British Film Institute to celebrate the playwright’s works and his influence on culture, education and society — McKellen held a masterclass, moderated by actor Aamir Khan, on Monday evening at Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts. The 76-year-old icon, who has played several Shakespearean characters on stage and screen, displayed candour as well as some signature British wit as he spoke about his life and work.
McKellen’s brush with the playwright happened in the ’50s in South Lancashire. He watched several Shakespeare productions, including an all-schoolgirl one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which his older sister played Bottom. Watching the bard’s plays, says the actor, is the best way to understand Shakespeare.
Recalling the first time he learned to appreciate Shakespeare, Aamir Khan said the text had more meaning and the characters made sense when a teacher read it out beautifully in his class. In response, McKellen said: “I get into trouble for saying this but the worst way to discover Shakespeare is by reading. Shakespeare made no attempts to preserve his scripts and they were not published in his lifetime. He wanted his plays to be seen and heard.”
Learning on the Job
For McKellen, theatre is like home. “I love the fact that we refer to a ‘theatre’ as ‘house’,” he said. Before he became an actor, he was a devoted member of the audience. Having watched a lot of plays, he wanted to get on the stage and understand how a production was put together. “There are some people who hop off the cradle and know how to act. I did not know. I have learned how to act,” he said.
During his initial theatre days, McKellen left the city and performed theatre in different regions. He said, “We did a different play every two weeks. We did plays of all sorts, including musicals and Shakespearean.” Later, he worked for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, where he essayed several major Shakespearean roles such as in Macbeth and Iago. “I joined movies rather late and really had to learn and observe,” he recalled. In spite of becoming one of the most popular British movie stars, his roots always remained firmly in theatre. Even as McKellen made a tongue-in-cheek statement that he was still waiting to be discovered, he claimed that by taking up roles that others rejected, he found success.
Out of the Closet
If there is anything McKellen has found tough to play, it’s romantic roles. “Being a gay man, this is something I could not fake. I tended to avoid such parts. Whenever these kinds of situations came up, I wanted to carry on as normal and tell myself, ‘I am a gay man but I am an actor’,” he recounted. The actor, who made his sexuality public at the age of 49, said coming out changed many things for the better — his relationship with people as well as his acting. “My acting got a lot better after that. I was at ease and I no longer had to fake things,” he said.
The movie, Richard III (1995) — which features McKellen in the titular role — is set in the ’30s England. The actor, who had also adapted the screen version of this Shakespearean play, said, “I can’t remember the last time I did a Shakespearean play that was set in the original period. Shakespeare is a modern writer. There is nothing old-fashioned about the way he thinks.”
Many find Shakespeare’s language tough to understand. However, according to McKellen, the dramatist wrote in verses for the actors’ benefit as it is easier to learn.
His preparation before essaying a character created by the Bard is to understand what the dramatist is getting at, the metaphor, the pause and the rhyme. To the actors trying to find their magic formula to nail a performance, he says, “be inside the character and allow the character to be inside” them. “Feel the character, look out of the window, have a cup of tea and then speaks the lines. And, it still just happens,” he said.
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