NEW YORK (Reuters) - Venerable English stage actor Ian McKellen has played all the great parts from Hamlet to Richard III, but in the twilight of his career, he is finding new roles in mainstream film and TV -- and as a gay icon.
Once known for his theater work, McKellen has enjoyed recent box office success in movies like the “X-Men” series, and he found a younger fan base playing the wizard Gandalf in film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and the upcoming “The Hobbit.”
Speaking before his new role in a remake of the late 1960s TV series “The Prisoner,” which debuts on U.S. cable TV network AMC on Sunday, McKellen said that people who associated him more with Shakespeare than Hollywood were dismissive of his latest film and TV ventures, but that didn’t bother him.
“What somebody else chooses to think about it doesn’t really worry me,” he told Reuters. “In my life I have done many jobs that other actors wouldn’t have done, because they were in odd places for no money.”
At 70, McKellen said, his acting choices are governed by a variety of reasons, including with whom he gets to work and that he no longer has a full lifetime ahead of him.
“I am running out of time and you always think you have got 20 years left when I don’t know that I have. I hope I have got ten, but it might be three,” he said.
In his latest co-starring role in the six-part miniseries “The Prisoner,” McKellen portrays “No. 2,” the main adversary of a man trapped in a village and stripped of his identity.
While revamping the original cult British series into a modern day story, “The Prisoner” explores familiar themes to McKellen of confronting society’s expectations and exploring personal freedoms.
McKellen was in the vanguard of A-list actors to openly discuss being gay, and he has become an increasingly outspoken proponent of gay rights.
“The minute I came out and said that I was gay, suddenly my film career took off,” he joked recently to U.S. TV talk show “The View,” about revealing his sexuality in 1988 after spending the two previous decades in theater.
Several films and 10 years later, he landed an Academy Award nomination for “Gods and Monsters” playing a gay film director.
But his real-life role becoming a spokesperson for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups on issues such as gay marriage was one that surprised him, he said.
“I didn’t decide I wanted to be a role model, but once you come out, you make connections,” he said. “It made various Prime Ministers care to talk to me on specific gay issues, because I was an actor they trusted I suppose.”
He advises other gay actors, including those in Hollywood, who may worry they are risking their careers by saying to the public that they are gay or lesbian.
“When I act, some people fancy me and some of them are women. There we are! What’s the problem? They don’t believe me when I say I am in love with a woman?...They don’t believe me when I say I am a wizard? They believe me even though they know I am not. It’s all nonsense. Everyone knows we are acting,” he said.
Coming up he is scheduled to start shooting the film adaptation of “The Hobbit,” which will be released as a two-part series.
After that, McKellen said he is still looking for other roles in theater or on screen, because it doesn’t matter to him whether he is known for playing Macbeth or Gandalf.
“He’s the great wizard, he’s the heart of one of the great stories of all time in literature,” he said, “So I don’t say, ‘Ooh, hey, ho, did you not see my Macbeth?”
editing by Bob Tourtellotte