Sir Ian McKellen: Coming Out Changed Everything... for the Better
Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 3 MIN.
Even now, many closeted people fear that coming out will derail their lives professionally as well as personally. Sir Ian McKellen came out more than 35 years ago, in 1988. In an interview to promote his new film "The Critic," the 84-year-old actor said the impact of that choice was drastic, immediate – and completely beneficial.
"Almost overnight everything in my life changed for the better," People Magazine quoted McKellen telling Variety, adding that "my relationships with people and my whole attitude toward acting changed."
At the time, People Mag noted, there were "proposed laws in England that would have made it illegal for local authorities to 'promote homosexuality.'"
In fact, such laws were passed under an amendment known as Section 28, and they served, in part, as England's version of the "Don't Say Gay" laws that GOP-state legislatures are now imposing on American schools under the guise of protecting students. England repealed the law in 2003, and six years later then-Prime Minister David Cameron apologized on behalf of the government for its passage.
McKellen's admission did not cause his career to implode; rather, after coming out, his work improved, and the parts just kept coming.
"He was more emotionally available, more present," Variety said.
McKellen told the magazine, "People who are not gay just simply don't know how it damages you to be lying about what you are and ashamed of yourself."
His coming out was a spontaneous act, People Mag said. The actor was on a radio show when he made his revelation. "On air, we debated the new law and, riled by the bland pomposity of [the lawmakers'] homophobia, and, honestly, without thinking, I mentioned to those few thousands who tune into Radio 3, that I opposed Section 28 because I was gay," McKellen described in a 1988 essay.
"That I had actually come out probably surprised me more than my being gay can have shocked any listener who knew my work," McKellen added.
Not only did friends, family, and colleagues not care; most of them had known already and it didn't matter to them.
"And if that change hadn't taken place, he doubts he could have made the move to film," Variety detailed, "with the camera exposing and magnifying any wrong note."
The already-esteemed stage actor went on to international success as a film star in movies like "Gods and Monsters," "Apt Pupil," and the "X-Men" and "Lord of the Rings" franchises.
In his new film, McKellen plays a theater critic who is the nemesis to a young actor (played by Gemma Arterton). McKellen relished the role, telling Variety, "Often the devil has the best tunes and the best lines, and it's fun to play an outrageous man who clearly has some emotional problems."
He's also, perhaps not coincidentally, a man with problems that have been forced onto him by a homophobic society. Variety thumbnailed that "The Critic" is set in the 1930s, a time when being gay was illegal in Britain, and McKellen's character, "who is gay, finds himself on the brink of being fired after the police pick him up for soliciting sex. To keep his job, he resorts to blackmail."
The director of "The Critic," Anand Tucker, praised McKellen's performance in the upcoming film and attributed some of its power to McKellen's authentic life experience.
"I don't subscribe to the idea that you need to be gay to play a gay part," the director told Variety. "But in Ian's case, there's something about his own lived experience that allowed him to bring a kind of urgent truth to the role."
"He had a deep understanding of what it means to be an outsider who is shunned for the truth of who they are."
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.