The Knight's Crusade: Playing the Wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings May Make Sir Ian McKellen the World's Best-Known Gay Man. and He's Armed and Ready to Carry the Fight for Equality along with Him. (Cover Story)

By Steele, Bruce C. | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), December 25, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Knight's Crusade: Playing the Wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings May Make Sir Ian McKellen the World's Best-Known Gay Man. and He's Armed and Ready to Carry the Fight for Equality along with Him. (Cover Story)


Steele, Bruce C., The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Where do you go to find an actor bold enough, bewitching enough to play the most powerful hero in The Lord of the Rings? What mere mortal can wield the magical staff of Gandalf the Grey, J.R.R. Tolkien's ageless wizard? As millions of fans now know, the answer is simple. For the Rings movie trilogy that launches December 21 with The Fellowship of the Ring, Sir Ian McKellen--bold gay activist, bewitching star of stage and screen--is Gandalf.

Say you can't tell an Elf from a Hobbit, Middle-earth from middle ground? So think of McKellen's casting coup this way: An openly gay man has been invited to play the lead role in the fantasy lives of the world's children, for decades to come. What's more heroic than that?

"He's got a job to do, and he's been sent down to do it," McKellen says, downplaying Gandalf's valor in favor of his sense of duty. "And he does get into a bit of a tizz when he thinks perhaps he hasn't been doing his job properly."

There more than a hint of McKellen's own long quest in that remark. Gandalfs mission is to battle an evil immortal darkness named Sauron and to destroy the One Ring that is the basis of Sauron's power. The crusade of Sir Ian is to battle the evil of Homophobia and to destroy the Great Ignorance that is its basis.

McKellen demurs at the comparison: "I don't have any of Gandalfs wisdom or insights or powers. I'm a foot soldier."

But his friends see the potential impact of McKellen's Gandalf in more Middle-earth-shaking terms. Says Armistead Maupin, the author of the Tales of the City novels and McKellen's confidant for 20 years: "I think the fact that an openly gay actor is going to have his face all over Burger King cups in a matter of months is really quite significant."

For McKellen, doing the film was in part a great adventure. "He was very excited about it from the start," says Sean Mathias, who directed McKellen in the current Broadway production of Dance of Death and was his partner for nine years in the 1980s. "I think he thought it was kind of a crazy, wild project and that with the right kind of artistry it could be very thrilling."

And for years to come, when Rings fans surf the Internet to learn more about the actors behind their heroes, "they'll learn that Ian is not just a gay man but a gay activist," Mathias adds.

Fourteen years after coming out publicly, 11 years after being named a knight of the British Empire, and three years after his Oscar-nominated triumph playing James Whale in Gods and Monsters, McKellen's career and his prominence as a gay rights spokesman have reached new heights. No gay person is likely to grace more magazine covers, movie marquees, and Web sites this month than McKellen, in the guise of Gandalf.

Not that the actor encourages any blurring between himself and Iris role--quite the opposite. He politely declines requests to be photographed with props from the movie. No magical staffs, no wizard hats, no rings. Fans, he believes, flown on actors who betray their fantasy for the sake of serf-promotion. Yet one also gets the impression that McKellen doesn't need Gandalfs hand-me-downs to cast his own spell over a room, a photo, or an interview.

For this conversation, McKellen is settled in a tattered armchair in his basement dressing room at New York's Broadhurst Theatre. He's recuperating after a Saturday matinee of August Strindberg's fiendish play Dance of Death, eating vegetarian food from Zen Palate out of take-out dishes. He is veddy British and dignified yet simultaneously charming and playful: a very proper Gandaft in street clothes.

He is also, at first, quite exhausted. Dance of Death is a taxing show--"savage and brutal and dark," as director Mathias notes. For 2 1/2 hours, McKellen and Helen Mirren play a married couple attempting to destroy one another verbally and emotionally. McKellen, 62, dances, slides down a banister, flies into rages, contrives cruel punishments, and nearly dies. …

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