Sir Ian McKellen reflects on his life under the spotlight, from a youth spent in Wigan to coming out, treading the boards on the West End and yelling 'you shall not pass'.

Sir Ian McKellen turns 79 on 25th May. For a soon-t0-be 80 year old, he’s one of the more familiar wizened faces seen on the screen in Hollywood. From characters ranging from his most recently famous roles as Gandalf the Grey (or White) from the Lord of the Rings saga and X-Men‘s Magneto, McKellen first appeared on screen in 1964, when he played Plowmen in Rudyard Kipling’s The Tomb of his Ancestors. He was just 25 at the time, and had taken the TV role despite his dedication to the stage.

This his friends deny, remembering McKellen’s secret jealousy of screen actors, so he says. Growing up in Wigan, McKellen ditched his northern accent on taking up a place at Cambridge, where he gained a scholarship known as an ‘Exhibition’ after performing a Shakespearian monologue from Henry V (he failed the entrance exams). It was whilst at St Catharine’s College that he found himself both falling in with a group of actors, and falling in love. Although McKellen kept his homosexuality hidden until later in his life, when he became a prolific campaigner for gay rights and equality, he reminisces about his time in theatrical circles at university when secrets needn’t be kept so quiet.

With numerous unseen photographs and archive images, McKellen: Playing The Part is revealing of the now iconic actor and his early days. After leaving Cambridge, McKellen set his sights on East London and touring plays, considered too ‘rough’ for the West End, and preferring himself to be amongst the people. Indeed, Mckellen remembers with sorrow a day on the set of The Hobbit in which he was reduced to tears after filming alone with a green screen, to be later populated with multiple dwarves and one hobbit.

Based on a 14 hour-long interview with the actor and presented in the first person, Playing the Part is full of stories. From treading the boards with fellow screen legend, Judi Dench, and being recommended to the Old Vic by Maggie Smith, to meeting former Prime Minister, John Major and co-founding Stonewall, McKellen’s fond memories are reflected through a somewhat bittersweet remembrance that he’s never been able to really be ‘himself’ when it comes to interviews. That certainly doesn’t feel true here, and director Joe Stephenson has done remarkably well to coax from him such a touching and heard-warming outpouring from McKellen’s treasury of fond memories.


McKellen: Playing The Part will premiere at 3pm on Sunday 27 May, followed by a Q&A with Ian McKellen, hosted by Graham Norton and broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Scandinavia from London’s BFI Southbank. Find tickets here.