Ian McKellen at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Sunday night, I attended the Sir Ian Mckellen tribute at the Rafael–all part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. The event started 20 minutes late; no explanation was given.

Executive Director Mark Fishkin started out with a brief summary of McKellen’s many awards, nominations, and honors. He has received six Olivier awards, two Oscar nominations, and, of course, a knighthood. He’s also been named a Freedman of the City of London. Unsure exactly of what that meant, Fishkin conjectured that may give him “permission to drive cattle over certain bridges.”

(All of the quotes in this article are from my typed notes. They may not be 100-percent accurate, but they’ll be close.)

Photo from Mill Valley Film Festival

After a clip reel of his work from Gods and Monsters through X-Men: The Last Stand, Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin came on stage to announce McKellen and present an award from the Festival. “I’m here because he’s one of my oldest and dearest friends,” Maupin explained. He mentioned a time when McKellen was an overnight guest in his house. In the morning, he found a note on the actor’s pillow: “Gandalf and Magneto slept here…together.”

Maupin told us that McKellen is “as charming in private as you’d expect. When he got his last award from the queen, she said ‘You’ve been doing this for a long time.’ He responded ‘Not as long as you.'”

With Armistead Maupin, MVFF_10_10_15_12 ©AdamClay

When McKellen finally came onstage, he talked of his love for the Bay Area. “It was in san Francisco that I learnt that if I was going to be a happy man I had to come out as a gay man.”

After the honors, the evening settled down for the main event, a talk with the Festival’s Director of Programming, Zoe Elton. The talk was broken up with clips from various films.

Some highlights:

  • About falling in love with theater and becoming an actor: “I wanted to know how it was done…I didn’t expect fame. I didn’t expect money. I didn’t intend to be in the movies. But my friends said ‘You always wanted to be in movies.'”
  • “The hero of my youth was Lawrence Olivier. We [he and other now-famous actors] were all there, all learning how to act. I think his legacy is the achievement of these actors he trained. “
  • “I’m interested in contacting the audience on stage. You can’t do that on film. Actors like me love an audience that you can see.”
  • Brian Singer saw McKellen’s Richard III film, and wanted him for Apt Pupil. But when he met the actor, he thought he was too young for the part. Then he found out that McKellen had played a much older character in Cold Comfort Farm. “‘Oh, you can play old people?” McKellen replied “Yes, I’m an actor.”

Richard III

  • The clip from Richard III (one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare films) was too short, cutting off the opening speech in mid-sentence. But McKellen recalled that “that movie was made for almost no money at all. It was made by friends who just came in because they approved of what we were doing…The director, who was not familiar with Shakespeare, kept saying there were too many words in it. I said we were making a talkie.”
  • After a Lord of the Rings clip where Gandalf faces the Balrog and falls to his seeming death: “That scene did not really have anything to do with me. Often in Lord of the Rings, we really were where we were supposed to be–up on a mountain and so forth. But you’d probably guess not this scene. The bridge was just a yellow strip on the studio floor.”

Lord of the Rings

  • On playing to an audience: “When I began, I was often required to play in very large theaters. My performance had to be big enough to reach the people in the back. When I’d been acting for 30 years, I landed in a production of Macbeth in a theater with only 100 people. I loved it. From then on, I never wanted to work in a big theater. That got me ready for the closest audience of all, the camera.”
  • On playing Sherlock Holmes, a character played by many different actors: “If you’ve played Hamlet, you don’t worry about other actors playing Sherlock Holmes.”

The audience Q&A was brief. Two highlights:

  • On whether straight actors should be allowed to play gay characters: “I don’t object to Tom Hanks playing a gay man because if I did, I couldn’t play a straight one. Heterosexuality is such a strange phenomenon that it should be explored.”
  • When asked about the TV show Vicious with Derek Jacobi: “We had the time of our lives. The trouble was we had a studio audience. The moment we see an audience we start acting for them and forgetting we should act for the camera. In the first series we were very broad. We were having fun.”

They weren’t the only ones. As near as I could tell, everyone in the auditorium were enjoying the show. I certainly was.

Note: I have altered this article since I first posted it, correcting several misspelled versions of the name McKellen.