IN an illustrious career spanning half a century, Sir Ian McKellen has tackled a truly amazing cast of characters.
He is one of our most distinguished actors, and his list of credits is endless.
But Ian is never happier than when close to the stage. The live hall, as opposed to the pull of the big screen, is his most favoured place.
Currently celebrating 50 years in the business, Sir Ian spoke with leisure editor Sammy Jones about his work, and his imminent return to Milton Keynes Theatre ...
“I have just been doing the first stretch of The Hobbit in New Zealand,and all the time I was there, I was thinking ‘Ooh, I’ll be back in England soon and I will be doing a play,” he says, with relish in his voice.
“Much as I enjoyed being in New Zealand, and much as I enjoyed working with people who are now old friends.
“It is more than romantic.
“ I’m very used to putting on a play, but I still love it – getting to know the other actors, solving the problems, dealing with the difficulties and hoping it all works and the audience enjoys it...it still gives me an amazing buzz.”
At 72 years old, Ian appreciates his current position, but is philosophical about the future.
“There will come a time soon, physically or mentally, when I will have to stop, but I can still learn the words and still move around, and I don’t want to look back in a few years time and think ‘Damn it, I should have done another play.’”
The play he refers to is The Syndicate, from the late, renowned Italian writer Eduardo De Filippo.
Still toured regularly in Eduardo’s homeland, this is the first time the piece is being staged in the UK.
Ian is an Eduardo devotee (“He is one of my heroes”) and always on the look out for new, challenging roles.
The Syndicate was a heady mix.
“I am playing an an inner city godfather, Don Antonio...he has a smile on his face and a gun in his hand.
“He is someone that is trying to do good, and his aim in life in to stop the violence, stop the crime...” Ian says, enthusiastically.
“It is set in Naples after the war, which was a rather lawless place, everything had broken down.
“Then while the play is in Chichester and we are looking forward to the tour, suddenly the whole of the UK erupts, there is violence on the streets and the police don’t seem to be able to keep order.
“I read about vigilante groups setting themselves up and wonder how long it is going to be before people like Don Antonio don’t knock on people’s doors and say ‘If you want to protect your property, I am the man to help you.
“So suddenly it seems to be much more relevant than it was when we started rehearsing it.”
As for the character himself?
“He has got many a failing,” Ian admits.
“He killed somebody and has never quite over that, but it is a great acting part, full of the most delightful things that I have to do,” he laughs.
When we say that people are coming from far and wide, we aren’t exaggerating – fans are travelling from South America to catch the show in Milton Keynes: “And last night there was someone from Japan...”
The last time our engaging interviewee was on the same stage was in 2009, in Waiting for Godot where he acted with Patrick Stewart.
“He had a place in the countryside too, and that’s where I stayed, so I didn’t get to see much of Milton Keynes,” he admits. This time I shall be in a hotel, and able to explore it more than I have in the past...I shall probably sleep and read a lot too!”
Despite his fame, Ian feels no need to hide himself away. Indeed, while home in London, he still takes the tube.
“I should hate to be locked up in my house behind dark windows.
I don’t need to do that” he cringes.
“If people want to say ‘hello’ they do, and I don’t mind that at all.”
Away from the stage, Ian is outspoken in his support of equal rights for gay people.
Ian came out in 1988.
Are things still as difficult now?
“Not for me,” he says, “Now all the senior politicians in all the political parties are agreed that gay people should be treated on a par with everyone else.
“I’ve been visiting a lot of schools recently, and young people don’t have a problem with gay people, it is the older generation that have a lot of old attitudes...
“ But although the laws are much fairer than they used to be, the old prejudices die hard...we are in a period of change frankly, and on the whole it is change for the better.”
As Ian readies himself for more rehearsal time, we sign off with a couple of head scratching questions: Which one role would you like to do, and which one from that vast career of yours makes you most proud?
We want to make you really think, Mr McKellen!
“Oh good lordy-lord!
“I still want to do another pantomime before I am too decrepid, I enjoyed that so much.
“There is song, dance, poetry, a good story and cross-dressing.
“It is good humoured with audience participation – many of the things Shakespeare liked to play with.
“I am very proud of the work I have done in Shakespeare,” he admits.
“Although at the moment, I can honestly say it doesn’t feel as if I have enjoyed a part as much as I have enjoyed playing Don Antonio...”
The Syndicate is at Milton Keynes Theatre from Monday, through to Saturday, September 17.
Call the box office on 0844 871 7652.