Peter Marks with Ian McKellen, who's in Washington to pick up the Will Award

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By Peter Marks
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The professional reviews were already in, but the notice that seemed to strike Sir Ian McKellen most meaningfully came from a 10-year-old who had just seen him as King Lear.

"He said it was the best play he had ever seen in his entire life," the actor recalls, and chortles at the irony. McKellen is sitting on a terrace overlooking a sunny garden at the British Embassy, one cream-colored pant leg folded over the other, as he reflects on the extraordinary global exposure that resulted from his recurring roles in two astoundingly lucrative movie franchises: the wizard Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" and Magneto, the twisted mutant of "X-Men."

The boy might have been bribed to go to Shakespeare with the carrot of Gandalf, but why should McKellen care whether an audience finds him through iambic pentameter or movie, er, magnetism? He says he is gratified by his new-found visibility, his unlikely box office invincibility: Lines wrapped around the block in London's West End recently for his run in the absurdist "Waiting for Godot" with Patrick Stewart. And he's pleased that there may be many more converts where that awestruck 10-year-old came from.

"People recognize me now, people who never go to the theater," McKellen says. "That's been the loveliest thing for me, that people want to meet me. And 'Lord of the Rings' is a very big part of it."

Not, of course, the whole part. The 70-year-old McKellen is one of the most gifted classical actors of his generation, one of a select few who has all but defined Shakespearean performance for our time. His Macbeth, his Richard III -- the latter enshrined in a 1995 movie version that he adapted and produced -- set contemporary standards for these timeless roles.

Which is the reason he is staying in a corner suite at the embassy and affably discussing the state of his career: The Shakespeare Theatre Company honored him with its annual Will Award, which he picked up at the company's gala benefit Sunday night. And this Thursday evening, he will take the stage at Sidney Harman Hall with "A Knight in Harman Hall," a 90-minute solo show in which he'll do some acting, some talking, some playful give-and-take with the audience.

McKellen thought that while he was being feted, why not try to raise some extra cash for the company with a benefit performance? So he offered his services. Previous winners of the Will (as in Shakespeare) Award, including such stage luminaries as Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Jeremy Irons, have not done anything quite like this. He's at a point in his life, he says, when he likes to take off half the year; such is his definition of recreation, though, that doing a one-man show counts as downtime.

He's also one of those actors -- like Stewart -- who has been able to maintain his highbrow stage presence while making regular forays into popular culture. His latest along those commercial lines starts up in mid-November on basic cable's AMC channel, when he appears as the enigmatic No. 2 in a remake of the mind-bending '60s British series, "The Prisoner," filmed in South Africa and Namibia with Jim Caviezel in the title role.

It was the film of "Richard III," he says, and on the heels of that, his Oscar-nominated performance as the lonely hearts film director James Whale in the 1998 "Gods and Monsters," that propelled him to his appearances in blockbusters and, to this very comfortable juncture of his life; one of his projects next year is to buy the house next to the one he's lived in for decades in the once shabby and now chichi Docklands section of London.

But he also credits the uptick in his show business profile with the growth of his comfort level with himself, a peace of mind that developed after revealing that he was gay in 1988 during a BBC radio program examining the Thatcher government's policies toward homosexuality. "It all happened since I came out, ironically," McKellen says of the Hollywood phase of his professional life.

The belief among some in his field that opportunities automatically get narrower after such candor is to him mythology. "I'm living proof the opposite is true. You get more self-confidence. You don't have that bit of dishonesty," he says, adding that acting "is about disguise. But it's not about lying."

Acting and gayness, in fact, are the two topics on which he feels qualified to speak out about. He doesn't talk much about his private life, although some mention of his romantic past -- a long relationship with the British stage director Sean Mathias, for instance -- is included on his Web site, He remains a vocal advocate for gay rights, and at the moment, about the abolition of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Asked recently in Britain to name his top three gay icons, McKellen says that his list included Harvey Milk, the assassinated San Francisco supervisor; the poet Walt Whitman -- and Marguerite Cammermeyer, who as a colonel in the early 1990s was the highest-ranking woman in the armed forces to disclose her homosexuality.

McKellen attended President Obama's inauguration earlier this year, and he professes some impatience with the progress of Obama's recently articulated aim to end the practice of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He says the British Army has taken a more progressive stance on the issue, to the point of participating in a diversity program supported by Stonewall, a gay rights organization in the United Kingdom that he helped to found.

The actor recalls asking a top military official in London why the army there had had a change of heart. "He said, 'We need recruits,' " McKellen says, and he predicts the barriers that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" represents will soon come down in this country. "And you know why it will happen? They need recruits!"

McKellen takes a drag on a Marlboro Light and smiles. After firming up arrangements for his one-man show here, he decided that he would invite Cammermeyer to attend. He knew she lived in Washington and thought it would be nice to have her.

Well, turned out he had the wrong Washington. "She lives in Washington state!" he says, laughing but happy he made the offer. Because, the actor adds, "She's coming."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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