Ian McKellen’s life and career ‘changed for the better’ after he came out as gay

Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen has said that every aspect of his life “changed for the better” after he came out as gay.

The Lord of the Rings star bravely decided to come out in 1988 in protest of then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s proposed laws that criminalised the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.

Speaking on a national radio broadcast on 27 January 1988, McKellen had said of the law: “I think it’s offensive to anyone who is, like myself, homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can or cannot be taught to children.”

Reflecting on the monumental public admission, and the aftermath, McKellen told Variety: “Almost overnight everything in my life changed for the better — my relationships with people and my whole attitude toward acting changed.”

Ian McKellen (right) and Michael Cashman (centre) protesting against Section 28 in Manchester in 1988
Ian McKellen (right) and Michael Cashman (centre) protesting against Section 28 in Manchester in 1988. (Reid/Mirrorpix/Getty)

In particular, the two-time Oscar winner noticed a significant improvement in his acting abilities.

Before he came out as gay, McKellen says, “The kind of acting that I had been good at was all about disguise – adopting funny voices and odd walks. It was about lying to the world.”

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But, after going public with his sexuality, he found it so much easier to be emotionally available for his characters. If he needed to cry onstage, he says, he could suddenly turn on the waterworks at the drop of a hat. 

In fact, McKellen is certain that, had that change not happened, he might never have broken into film acting, where the high-definition cameras pick up on every hint of emotion on an actor’s face. 

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“People who are not gay just simply don’t know how it damages you to be lying about what you are and ashamed of yourself,” he said. 

“I was brought up at a time when it was illegal for me to have sex with a man. And that was not that long ago.”

In McKellen’s upcoming film The Critic, he plays a closeted theatre critic in 1930s London, who is trying desperately to keep his job after police pick him up for soliciting sex.

Ian McKellen is heading to the West End to star in new comedy play Frank and Percy.
Ian McKellen has said his life ‘changed for the better’ after he came out as gay. (Tristan Fewings – WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Speaking on McKellen’s performance in the film, director Anand Tucker said: “I don’t subscribe to the idea that you need to be gay to play a gay part.

“But in Ian’s case, there’s something about his own lived experience that allowed him to bring a kind of urgent truth to the role. He had a deep understanding of what it means to be an outsider who is shunned for the truth of who they are.”

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