Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen was born on 25 May 1939 in Wigan, UK. A highly acclaimed British stage and screen actor whose work has spanned genres from serious Shakespearean and modern theatre to popular fantasy and science fiction movies. In recent year's he has found fame with a younger generation of movie goers with his roles as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy and as Magneto in the X-Men series. In 2005 he also appeared in British soap opera Coronation Street. More recently he appeared in the Da Vinci Code movie based on Dan Browns best selling novel. We caught up with McKellen as X-Men: The Last Stand was due to open in UK cinemas...

Sci-Fi-Online: What initially appealed to you about the role of Magneto?

Ian McKellen: I hadn't read the X-Men comic before, but it was explained to me that it was an outsider story, and I was instantly drawn to that. Also, how could I not be attracted by the idea of a great big cloak, huge boots and the ability to fly where I want?

In this latest film, I do one of the most spectacular stunts ever seen in the cinema. I can't reveal what it is, but rest assured, it will take your breath away!

Also, while you don't expect great long speeches in X-Men, all the films are very, very stylish. They have a great look

SFO: Why has the character of Magneto struck such a chord with audiences?

IM: The demographic of our audience is young. It also contains a high proportion of black, Jewish and gay people, who have all been encouraged by society to think of themselves as oddities or mutants. I hope that's why X-Men chimes with them - it's certainly why I was attracted to the idea in the first place.

SFO: So the film supports the idea that "different is good"?

IM: Absolutely. There is a famous scene in X2, where the character of Bobby comes out to his parents as a mutant. His mother says to him: "Have you always known?"

Similarly, in X-Men: The Last Stand, a cure for mutancy is discovered - mutants are encouraged to have an injection that will make them "normal". Magneto is dead against the idea, just as I'm dead against the idea that you should try to "cure" people of being gay.

SFO: What effect has X-Men had on your career?

IM: It's given me an immense amount of street cred. On the day after 9/11, I walking through the smoke and the smells of New York. There were knots of policemen everywhere. As I went past one officer, he called out: "Hi, Magneto". That's an indication of X-Men's extraordinary reach.

Rather gratifyingly, Magneto in the X-Men comic now has a look of Ian McKellen about him!

SFO: What was it like filming X-Men: The Last Stand?

IM: I had an absolute ball. I was in Vancouver for fifteen weeks and spent most of my time outdoors. The actual filming was an occasional interruption to our sybaritic life in the open air. We all had such a brilliant time that if the third X-Men does well, there is no reason why we shouldn't make another one.

It was lovely to hang out with the cast again - we've all become close friends. Hugh Jackman and I are great chums - it was wonderful to see him again.

Vinnie Jones is in this film, too, and you've got to get on with him! He's unfailingly jolly, the life and soul of the party. To have cred with him is quite something!

SFO: How did you get on with Patrick Stewart?

IM: Patrick and I completely bonded. It's odd - although we're both English and have done a lot of theatre, we've only ever worked together in Vancouver. When we first met, he was still feeling an exile in LA. He loved to hear my stories about London, just as I loved to hear his stories about Hollywood. We're so close, we're the same person really!

I'm hoping to work on his long-planned film version of The Merchant of Venice, set in Las Vegas. I'm really interested in playing Antonio, the only gay character in Shakespeare. And it would be a marvellous chance to play opposite Patrick's Shylock.

SFO: Have you found your global fame hard to handle?

IM: No. A few years ago, a friend said to me: "You do realise, Ian, when X-Men and Lord of the Rings come out, your life will totally change?" I didn't know what he was talking about, but he was right. My life has totally changed - but in a good way. Unbeknownst to me, it's given me a lot more confidence.

For instance, people said to me: "You can't possibly appear in [the long-running British TV soap opera] Coronation Street - what a ridiculous idea!" But they were wrong. Viewers' reactions to my role in Coronation Street last year were entirely complimentary. I discovered I could slip into the special form of acting required for that show. I don't know if I would have had that confidence a few years ago.

Success in the movies has pushed me to places I didn't know I was allowed to go.

SFO: Does the public attention ever get out of hand?

IM: No, I really like the fact that people are interested. I'm rather a shy person, but I love the fact that there are very few places now where I don't get a really friendly welcome. Whether it's a classroom, a Quaker meeting hall, a nursing home or a restaurant, people are always very warm towards me.

I've got used to it happening now, although it is still a very odd thing because most people don't have it. But it's still a very nice experience because it makes me feel a bit more secure - "Oh, I'm going to be all right."

But I don't have it anything like Tom Hanks does. He has to go around disguised. He doesn't even go in taxis anymore because he can't stand in the street and hail them without being pestered. Who'd want that, having to live in a fortified castle in Hollywood? That sort of fame is really troublesome. It's never been at that level for me. It's much more manageable for me, and really quite pleasant.

SFO: So how do you stop all the adulation becoming oppressive?

IM: I know Magneto and Gandalf are the superstars, not me. They're icons. It's on those characters' backs that I ride. They're mighty inventions and whoever had the luck to play them first would have been the beneficiary of people's respect. I feel like I'm their representative on earth.

People keep coming up to me and saying: "Hey, Magneto" or "Hello, Gandalf." They're not my fans, they're the characters' fans. Which is fine by me because it stops me getting a swollen head!

SFO: You're one of the finest theatre actors of your generation. Do you ever get the slightest bit peeved that you're being upstaged by a comic-book character and a 7000-year-old wizard?

IM: Not at all. Journalists often ask me: "Aren't you sorry that after all the work you've done, you're best known as Magneto and Gandalf?" But that's what I've always wanted - not to be known as myself.

I want to draw attention to the characters. JRR Tolkein and Shakespeare are the really great guys. Actors are merely the medium through which a story happens.

SFO: That said, these roles have boosted your worldwide profile immeasurably, haven't they?

IM: Oh yes. Prospective employers can now place me in a way that they couldn't before. The trouble is, a lot of them think I'm as old as Gandalf - 7000 years old. I get offered a lot of old parts, which I'm not interested in. The other day, I was offered God - you don't get any older than that!

SFO: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Emma Carter at New Media Maze

X-Men: The Last Stand is released in UK cinemas from 25 May 2006.

Click here to view the trailer

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