While not every professional actor is a good source of advice (just trust me on that), an actor as respected as Ian McKellen ought to have at least one or two pieces of good advice to pass along to aspiring actors. During a rare break from acting in his current double bill of Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land on Broadway and taking goofy photos all over New York City with co-star and dear friend Patrick Stewart, McKellen spoke to Men’s Journal Magazine and shared some advice on acting, handling fame and criticism, and what Shakespeare plays he thinks everyone should be familiar with.
When asked what advice he would give to a younger version of himself, McKellen says, “Work isn’t everything. I think that has been my fault and my virtue at the same time.”
He also reflects on his current fame, which really didn’t come to him until after he starred in 2000’s X-Men, when he was already past sixty. He explains, “Fame creeps up on you. When I was on my very first job in a regional theater in the U.K., there was a little group of fans that I knew locally, and that was a sort of fame; walking around the city, people would recognize me and say hello. Really what I’ve got now is only an extension of that. I can go into places I’ve never been before and there are people who know my face. I find that very reassuring actually. Basically, I’m a shy person and it’s very helpful to me to be in a group of strangers, some of whom know a bit about me; it eases my way through. I would never have wanted to be excessively famous, where one’s fame rules one’s life. I’m on the subway all the time in New York and the Underground in London. People are friendly enough. It’s not an inconvenience. I’m not someone who wears shades all the time and ducks into a darkened car in case I’m recognized – that would be absolute misery.”
McKellen also has advice on how actors should deal with critics. He says, “An actor spends all of his life being criticized – that’s what [actors] do in rehearsal. There’s a man sitting there and a woman sitting there and they’re paid to criticize you. If you get criticized, good, I don’t think people get criticized enough. People talk behind your back and they criticize you, but they don’t often come up and say it to you. And the older you get, the less likely you are to get advice, and that’s why it can be a shock for parents when they suddenly get the truth from their kids. I don’t think that you should ever resent someone who gives you advice, whatever their motive. They may not mean you well if they’re giving you advice, but you never know, there may be something worth listening to. We could all do with improvement.”
Being that McKellen has a long history of with playing Shakespeare, when asked what Shakespeare play every person should experience in their lifetime, he has a definite answer. Two, in fact. He says, “You’re missing out in life if you haven’t seen a good production of Macbeth and seen the depths to which human beings can sink. And I would regret any friend not going and seeing a good production of Twelfth Night. There are many others, too, but those are the two plays I think audiences as a whole most easily respond to and they both use exquisite language of course.”
So, what are you waiting for? Go see a production of Macbeth or Twelfth Night, be sure to listen to your kids when you get older, and lastly, keep your eyes open on the subway — you might just run into Ian McKellen himself.