“Shakespeare knew us all,” said Sir Ian McKellen, to the rapt audience at Istanbul’s Zorlu Performance Centre, telling the crowd what particularly he likes about the playwright. The small theatre felt intimate as the great stage and film actor filled the stage with his presence. Across from him, director Serdar Bilis sat, occasionally asking McKellen a question that set the sprightly, white-haired gent off on another reminiscence.
Younger generations know him as Gandalf from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or Magneto in X-Men. But the actor’s been on stage and on the big screen for much longer than that. He was in Istanbul to share his stories, thanks to the joint efforts of British Council and the Istanbul Foundation of Culture and Arts (IKSV), which presented him with a Cinema Honorary Award.
Shakespeare’s characters, McKellen pointed out, remain “pertinent and accurate” centuries later. The 77-year old said the playwright could write from, say, the perspective of a soldier, a child, an old woman, an agonised lover, a king, a queen, and it would all ring true: “They’re all absolutely believable.”
“[Shakespeare’s] not reverential,” McKellen said. “He loves everybody. He’s very rarely critical, you know.” He mused on Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature. “I don’t think there are any villains in Shakespeare,” McKellen said.
McKellen said Shakespeare’s insights into psychology may help shed light on why a character is acting the way he is. “[Iago, the antagonist in Othello] wasn’t born like that, he wasn’t born evil,” McKellen pointed out. “He started acting badly because he was treated badly. So once you know that, then you can look at Hitler in a different light.”
Shakespeare has a special place in McKellen’s life. McKellen said he wrote the screenplay for his film adaptation of Richard III after playing the title role in a theatre production, setting the play in the 1930s.
On the subject of finding Richard Loncraine to direct the film, McKellen quipped: “He knew nothing about Shakespeare and I knew nothing about cinema. We were a good match.” McKellen was a guest of honour at both screenings of Richard III at the Istanbul Film Festival.
The grizzled actor, stylish and charming throughout the evening, mentioned another Shakespeare play that played a major role in his career. “I couldn’t become a screen actor,” McKellen said, “until I’d done Macbeth and come out.”
McKellen is a co-founder of Stonewall, the biggest LGBT charity in the UK and in Europe.
He believes coming out has positively impacted his career. “My acting was no longer about disguise,” he explained. McKellen assured those afraid of coming out that everything will be fine.
“Come out!” he beckoned, “Your life will be better!”