Sir Ian McKellen opens up about growing up gay in emotional video
Sir Ian McKellen has opened up about growing up gay in Britain before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality.
The short film was produced for Tate Britain’s Queer British Art exhibition, which it says is the first ever display of its kind.
Tate Britain, which will launch the Pride in London festival in June with a free day of music, performances and films, has commissioned six films to provide glimpses into LGBT lives.
Sir Ian’s film, directed by LGBT filmmaker Joe Stephenson, sees the legendary actor admit in a voiceover that life as a gay person in the 40s and 50s was “a terrible oppression.”
With his thoughts represented on screen by actor Scott Chambers, Sir Ian begins: “There’s an awful lot about the British character that I think is weasely and half-hearted”.
He added that “not trusting your own emotions, not being able to risk people’s disapproval by being yourself and expressing your point of view” were British characteristics he had absorbed.
“There was no question of being out of the closet in the sense of being honest about one’s sexuality on all occasions, because you would invite the police to arrest you.”
As Chambers begins crying, Sir Ian asks the viewer: “Do you want to go to prison?
“No, you don’t. Keep quiet. Keep quiet.”
When he was growing up, he said “the word ‘homosexuality’ had hardly been invented, and certainly wasn’t ever used.
“You couldn’t read about it anywhere; you couldn’t see images of it anywhere.
“Homosexuals conducted their lives as secretly as possible. There was nobody who was out. Nobody that one knew or had heard of.”
He explained that when he started to feel sexually attracted to other boys, “it seemed very natural to me and it wasn’t something I wanted to resist.
“But,” he said, “I was aware that it didn’t really fit in with what everyone else would be doing.”
The twice-Oscar-nominated actor, who has won a Tony Award and a Golden Globe, said his sexuality was a major factor in his choice of career.
“I think one of the reasons I was happy to become a professional actor was I suspected I might meet some gay people – it was an easy way to do that,” he said.
But Sir Ian, who came out publically in 1988, said he regretted not standing up for gay rights earlier – which has influenced the way he approaches the issue now.
“It wasn’t a big part of my life at all. Of course it ought to have been.
“One of the reasons I proselytise, talk about being gay, is because I don’t want today’s children not to enjoy their sexuality, be aware of it, think about it, puzzle about it, discuss it and have it out in the open.
“Because of course, it’s central to what you are.”
This week, Sir Ian revealed that he turned down the role of gay wizard Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.
The veteran actor has appeared in a number of blockbuster franchises in massive roles, appearing in Lord of the Rings as Gandalf – a role he refused $1.5m to reprise to officiate at tech billionaire Sean Parker’s wedding – and the X-Men franchise as Magneto.
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But he turned down the iconic role of Dumbledore because Richard Harris, who played the wizard before dying in 2002, had previously described McKellen as “technically brilliant but passionless”.
Sir Ian also said earlier this year that he was “far too selfish” to have children, adding that he measures his worth in other ways to fatherhood.
“I don’t look to my legacy, I suppose that’s what makes me different from a lot of people. My contribution has been of another sort,” he said.
Activism has been a large part of his legacy, and last month he condemned the censorship of Beauty and the Beast – a film in which he played Cogsworth – over its gay character, Le Fou, as “absolute rubbish”.
Watch the full video here: