Behind the Mask: Sir Ian McKellen
By Ian Wilson
21 May 2008 — In Hollywood, the films that sell are the ones where All-American heroes take on baddies — primarily foreign ones — and win convincingly against a backdrop of explosions and hot women waiting to lay the lead guy. So whilst the heroes are mainly homegrown, America often looks to Britain to provide an actor that will willingly play the villain. Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), Darth Vader (David Prowse), Hannibal Lecter (Sir Anthony Hopkins) — all were played by British actors. So what happens when you put a classically trained Knight of the Realm slash Shakespearean actor in a "dorky helmet" for three films? Greatness, that's what.
Sir Ian McKellen is suitably not the marquee name of the X-Men franchise. Hugh Jackman is billed above him because he plays the most marketable of the mutant troupe. Patrick Stewart is billed above him as he has more mainstream appeal, and is probably the most obvious actor to portray Charles Xavier. And, often, McKellen has to jostle with Halle Berry for billing in listings magazines because she's won an Oscar and looks attractive. But don't think for a second that this makes a jot of difference. Anyone who watches any of the X-Men films will have to hand the acting awards to McKellen's Magneto because he stole the show every time. Like Stewart, McKellen has had the benefit of a long and full career to ply his trade, yet oddly, 10 years ago, few people on the street knew who the man was. The past decade has been a joy to behold as a man called Ian has ascended into the conscious of the mainstream entertainment media, and into popular culture as both an evil mutant and a wizard.
It is important to preface McKellen's film career in two areas, as both have been central to his journey. Firstly, it is essential to note his theatrical grounding, as it was his rise as a performer that first got McKellen noticed. Debuting on stage in the 1960s, the actor took on a lot of repertory work, which involves an in-house group of actors performing a new play every other week or so. It's an intensive process which still goes on today, although it's much harder to seek out. From that hothouse, McKellen moved into bigger productions, and over the course of the 1970s he took leading roles with England's most distinguished theatrical group of all: the Royal Shakespeare Company. This is the big leagues of theatre, cementing McKellen in the national consciousness at a time when theatre was still rivaling television for big name stars. This translated into Broadway success as McKellen entered his 40s, including a Tony award for his role as Salieri in Amadeus and the culturally significant play Bent — in which a gay man in Nazi Germany is sent off to a concentration camp. The parallels with the life of a young Erik Lensherr are there, but the film's sexual element is more true to the actor than the role that he would later play. And this is the other important factor in McKellen's background.
Despite being aware of his sexuality since his teenage years, and making it known in professional circles, McKellen didn't out himself to the general public until 1988. When he was younger, homosexuality (phrased as "homosexual acts" in the eyes of the law) was still illegal in Britain, and even though this law would be repealed in 1967, McKellen always feared the possibility that coming out publicly would be detrimental to his career and that of his then-partner Sean Mathias — who was already in McKellen's professional shadow. Even though it had been Mathias who had to persuade him to accept the lead role in Bent, McKellen didn't make his sexuality known until after their relationship had ended, at a time when a controversial gay rights bill (Section 28) was being debated. The article in question prevented the "promotion" of homosexuality in education as an alternative lifestyle, and McKellen thought that adding his voice to the opposition might help the bill get repealed. As it happened, this would not occur until 2003, but it gave McKellen a cause to be active in and he co-founded a GLBT lobby group named Stonewall, as well as becoming a patron of several causes of the GLBT community. McKellen therefore was championing a cause that wasn't entirely popular in the mainstream conscious. Perhaps not as proactively as Magneto, but as much as the X-Men were created to represent the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the plight of the GLBT community to receive similar acceptance is quite similar and still very relevant today — particularly in America.
By now, McKellen's career was flourishing. His contribution to theatre was recognized with a Knighthood in 1991, whilst his film appearances were growing rapidly. With minor roles in films such as Last Action Hero and Six Degrees of Separation, his breakthrough came in the adaptation of his role as Richard III, which had originally been performed at the Royal National Theatre in London — which McKellen co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay of in addition to playing the famed hunchback king. After this, McKellen collaborated with Bryan Singer for the first time in Apt Pupil, playing a former Nazi-in-hiding opposite the late Brad Renfro. An Oscar nomination followed for his portrayal of gay 1930s director James Whale in the film Gods and Monsters. But he didn't quite have worldwide recognition until he was cast in two famous roles: Gandalf, Tolkein's heroic wizard in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Magneto.
I hope the above biography hasn't been too tedious, because it really does drive home why Sir Ian McKellen is one of the most perfectly cast characters in a comic book movie to date. It is almost directly down to the fact that so much of the history of Magneto is in McKellen; a man that has been different from an early age, one who not only came to terms with his difference, but actively promoted it. Of course, Ian McKellen doesn't have a death wish for all the heterosexuals of the world — not to my knowledge, at least — but it is a concept that both he and franchise visionary Singer (who is also gay) can easily understand. There is a specific part of X2 in Iceman's house where Bobby's horrified family asks him whether he could possibly "not be a mutant," which perfectly sums up the attitudes that McKellen taps into when he becomes Magneto. When you watch the films, you root for Xavier's team of X-Men, but at the same time you can sympathize with Magneto's Brotherhood — even when he's trying to kill all the humans.
That's not even mentioning how McKellen almost transcends the role. Unlike Gandalf, where he's playing a character that has to groan and scowl every time a Hobbit gets under his feet, the man looks like he's having a ball playing Magneto, which is one of the reasons that X2 is such a joy to watch. Whether he's ripping all the iron out of a guard's body, mocking Rogue for what he did to her hair or recruiting Pyro in as patronizing a manner as possible, McKellen steals the thunder of everyone in that film. Whilst he's a powerhouse in The Last Stand and suitably menacing in the original film, it is perhaps fitting that McKellen's performance in X2 is one of the reasons that film is still arguably the best CBM in existence, even five years on. And whilst I'm biased in my love for him as a British guy called Ian, worldwide audiences also love McKellen's Magneto; too popular to kill off (despite the franchise's somewhat absurd death tally by the end of the trilogy), even in his de-powerment, it is Magneto who gets the last tease before the end credits roll. Besides, in an age where British guys are called upon to play almost all film villains — in the CBM genre alone, think of Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus, Brian Cox as William Stryker, Terence Stamp as General Zod and all three of Batman Begins villains, if you extend "British" to include the Irish — McKellen puts to use all the theatrical range, depth and preparation that leaves everyone who isn't Patrick Stewart miles behind him. Somehow, in an environment of optic blasts, telepathy and retractable metal claws, McKellen makes arch-mutant Magneto a believable, human character.
Despite the fact that McKellen's performance basically ensured the creation of the spin-off X-Men Origins: Magneto film, a recent interview has heard McKellen state that he doesn't expect to have much to do with the picture. This may be due to his age, the forthcoming Hobbit films clashing with the film's production or a general unwillingness to return to the role. Personally, I fear that without McKellen's involvement, the film will be the equivalent of Hannibal Rising, and without the promise of a McKellen cameo to introduce his past or even basic narration, my interest in the film goes down. X-Men: The Last Stand proved that McKellen can carry badly developed films, whilst making good films great. Whatever happens with the spin-off, comic book fans everywhere should recognize that this man probably helped usher in the current Golden Age of CBMs. And whilst it is odd to think of Sir Ian McKellen and Wesley Snipes on the same platform, it's comforting to know that comic characters don't just appeal to flavor of the month Hollywood stars or violent tax evaders, they appeal to hardened, yet playful thespians who see the inherent art of the genre. It's merely a question of picking the right role, and after watching the X-Men trilogy, I really don't know who could possibly have done a better job than Sir Ian McKellen.