Ian McKellen defends straight actors playing gay roles

Ian McKellen defends straight actors playing gay roles at 25th anniversary of harrowing queer Holocaust drama Bent

Sir Ian McKellen has defended straight actors playing gay roles at the 25th anniversary of harrowing Holocaust film Bent at the BFI Southbank in London.

The story, originally a play starring McKellen in the lead role, follows a group of gay men attempting to escape persecution in Nazi Germany before being sent to the Dachau concentration camp.

Marking the anniversary of the 1997 drama, director Sean Mathias, playwright Martin Sherman, and McKellen – who played Uncle Freddie in the film – took part in a Q&A discussing the adaptation of the play to the screen, as well as the story’s relevance in 2022.

“Nothing wrong with that performance,” McKellen addressed the audience, referring to Clive Owen’s (a straight actor) tear-jerking performance in the lead role of Max.

“For those of you who think only gay people should be allowed to play gay parts.”

McKellen added that he originated the role of Max on London’s West End in 1979 while he himself was still in the closet – though he was in a relationship with Mathias at the time – and the play and subsequent film adaptation has “educated the world”.

“The story is so important to me and to so many people in my generation and people who saw it,” he said.

Simon McCallum, Martin Sherman, Sean Mathias and Sir Ian McKellen attend the “Bent” 25th anniversary screening at the BFI Southbank (Nicky J Sims/Getty Images)

Speaking about Bent‘s relevance to today’s LGBTQ+ cultural landscape, Mathias spoke about the importance of queer youth having a knowledge of the history that came before them.

He stressed that before the play and its film adaptation, many audience members at the time did not believe gay people had been persecuted in Nazi Germany, and it took until the queer liberation movement in the 1960s and ’70s to uncover that horrific part of history.

“It was such an overwhelming responsibility making the movie,” Mathias added.

“It’s a piece of fiction but it’s based on something that happened in our lifetimes, in our parents and grandparents’ lifetimes, it’s a horrific burden.

“It was a piece of history that was literally blown over.”

Bent is available to watch on Amazon Prime and Roku.