“Do call me Ian,” Sir Ian McKellan said to a standing-room-only crowd at the Collaborative Learning Center, Nov. 3, for an intimate Q&A session.
This Knight to the British Empire for services to drama, Tony Award winner, two-time Oscar Nominee, recipient of about 40 international awards and legend of stage and screen was clad in argyle socks and blue suede shoes, setting the tone for a creative and inspirational afternoon.
The conversation pendulum swung from personal to professional as McKellen detailed thrilling stories from his early life and career, doled out meaningful advice on performance, discussed the film industry from different viewpoints and commanded the hushed and captive audience with his lovely, indescribable voice. His manner of speaking hushed the room; it felt as if he were speaking to you and only you.
“Everyone in London talks like this,” he said, smiling, offering such gems:
Take jobs that challenge and inspire you to be better than you were yesterday.
Of his 300 or so acting jobs, McKellen only regrets two, which he respectfully neglected to name. He takes jobs that are challenging, with like-minded people that he admires in the hopes that certain roles have the power to change the lives of the audience members.
McKellan readily admitted his favorite roles have been the disreputable ones. “Othello should have been called ‘Iago,’” he said about one of his more memorable, scene-stealing roles.
While his age now limits being cast in certain roles, he thinks some traditional Shakespearean roles could be rewritten or bent. “I haven’t given up on playing Mercutio!” he said.
“I don’t think theater will ever die.”
When asked about the future of theater, McKellen puffed his cheeks and blew the air out.
“I don’t think theater will ever die. It’s storytelling at a very, very human level.”
“There was already a well-established theater in London when Georgia was founded, you know,” he added.
Wise and good-natured, McKellen went on to describe the historical requirements of both stage and screen acting in America and abroad, pausing to rag on Margaret Thatcher—but only a little, and politely—for breaking up the actors’ union in the United Kingdom.
“It would be wonderful if theater could reach as many people as possible,” he said.
And when McKellen spoke about the physical processes of voice projection, every person in the room held their collective breaths.
Film and Character: “Your audience is the camera.”
The audience hung on every word as McKellen addressed specific performance pointers and the differences between theater and film: projection, shrinking and expanding performance, and adjusting levels of intensity in acting to fit those of cast mates.
He paused often, the epitome of articulate modesty. “Is it heretical to say there are as many methods as there are actors?” he asked the room.
McKellen recommended that directors should also act, and vice versa in order to better understand the issues inherent in each profession.
“Directing is the most difficult job with the most responsibility,” he said.
Recounting what it felt like to be his characters, McKellen proved he holds that knowledge to this day, saying, “Do you get inside the character? Does the character get inside you?”
Co-founder of Stonewall UK, McKellan has been a humanitarian and gay rights activist since his coming out 1988. He models living honestly. “There’s nothing more important than recognizing who you are and telling everyone about it.”
When dealing with discrimination, he advises simply to try to change the situation. He said, “If you can’t, walk away.”
At the conclusion of his master class, the Sir offered this gift: a thrilling delivery of a Shakespearean collaboration speech centered on concepts of civility, human connection and strangers in our midst from Sir Thomas More.
The audience left, knowing how lucky they were to experience it firsthand.By Jacob Menache