Ian McKellen is still adjusting to the fact that he turned 70 this year.
“You always think that 70 is the end of the road: ‘Somebody died when they were 73; good life,’ ” he mused on a recent bright fall afternoon, looking wistfully out a hotel window at the flame-tipped trees of Central Park below. “You’re closer to death, and you better make sure you don’t waste too much of your time doing things you don’t want to do. No point in saying things you don’t believe in.”
The renowned Shakespearean was in town to promote his latest project, “The Prisoner,” a remake of the cult 1960s British drama about a Big Brother society, which begins Sunday on AMC. It was the day after the New York premiere, and a round of morning interviews seemed to have sapped his energy. Wearing glasses that magnified his famously blue eyes, McKellen leaned back against a couch, yawning as he fiddled with an empty Tic Tac box. When the topics turned personal, however -- such as Hollywood’s attitude toward gays and his disillusionment with religion -- he appeared to take his own admonition about candor to heart.
“I increasingly see organized religion as actually my enemy. They treat me as their enemy,” said the British actor, who came out 20 years ago. “Not all Christians, of course. Not all Jews, not all Muslims. But the leaders. . . . Why should I take the judgment of a declared celibate about my sexual needs? He’s basing his judgment on laws that would fit life in the Bronze Age. So if I’m lost to God, organized religion is to blame.”
McKellen’s blunt speaking wouldn’t go over well in the Village, the setting of “The Prisoner,” where his character, known simply as Two, rules over a mysterious desert outpost. When the miniseries begins, a man (Jim Caviezel) suddenly finds himself in the Village, with just fragmentary memories of another life. Called Six, he struggles to convince those he encounters that there’s a world beyond the desert, a notion that alarms the villagers, who have learned not to question the status quo. Every time Six believes he’s found a way out, he’s thwarted by the calculating and charming Two.
The original series, which aired on the BBC from 1967 to 1968, and in the United States after that, was informed by anxieties about the Cold War. Its depiction of a contained society in which the members are monitored and manipulated is echoed in shows like “Lost” and films like “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix.” The updated version uses a similar setting to explore questions about the conflict between individualism and community and how freedoms are relinquished in the name of security.
In the first “Prisoner” series, Two was played by a different actor in each episode. With his reinterpretation, Bill Gallagher, who wrote the miniseries, made Two a more prominent character, with his own family and moral struggles.
“I didn’t want him to be a kind of ogre who only resorts to violence and terror,” Gallagher said. “I wanted him to have shades.”
After McKellen had accepted the part, Gallagher went back and expanded the role even further.
“There’s a kind of effervescence to Ian that is wonderful, and I found the possibility of that even more menacing for this character,” he said. “So I went through it to give him even more of that wit and cheek and lightness, and let his menace come through in his relish of it all.”
“The Prisoner” may be one of the last chances for audiences to catch McKellen for a while, aside from a few more weeks he plans to perform in a London revival of “Waiting for Godot” after the new year. If all goes right, next year he will begin shooting two movies based on “The Hobbit,” the long-awaited prequels to “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. McKellen confirmed that he’s in talks to reprise the role of Gandalf the wizard, a part he’s eager to return to, under certain conditions.
“I don’t want it to take five years, for example,” he said. (For the “Rings” trilogy, he spent a year shooting in New Zealand.)
After a storied stage career, McKellen is at ease with the fact that his name is forever wedded to the J.R.R. Tolkien character.
“I should be so lucky to be in a film that’s been seen by more people than any other film,” he said. “Of course, it’s likely that more people would know me for that than for playing Macbeth. I might be worried if I didn’t think ‘Lord of the Rings’ was a wonderful film and Gandalf wasn’t one that I was proud of.”
In fact, “when I’ve been asked what should be on my gravestone,” he noted, “I’ve said: ‘Here lies Gandalf. He came out.’ Two big achievements.”
McKellen revealed his sexuality at age 49 on a British radio show during a debate about anti-gay legislation. He says it’s the most important thing he’s ever done, and when he’s not acting, he spends much of his time lobbying for gay rights. He visits schools in England as part of a program to prevent gay bullying. When he finds a Bible in a hotel room, he rips out the passage in Leviticus that condemns homosexuality.
In his view, Hollywood still hasn’t come that far in its attitude toward gays.
“The conventional wisdom is that if you are gay, you cannot play the romantic straight lead in a movie,” he said. “They’d rather have ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ The proposition from Mephistopheles as you sign the agreement that you will become a Hollywood star is that you will lie about yourself. That’s selling your soul. This business may involve disguise, but it’s about telling the truth. And I don’t think a closeted actor in this day and age can act as well as an actor who is out.”
Shy but confident
Despite his strong sentiments, McKellen insists that he’s “a very shy person.”
Coming out gave him more confidence, but “it is not easy being something that society for generations has taught everybody is beyond the pale.” To this day, he sometimes ducks questions from cabbies about whether he is married, exhausted by the notion of explaining himself to a stranger.
“There are still times in my life where I pull back from being totally honest,” he said quietly, “and I can’t imagine a single straight person who would understand that.”
Once frustrated that Hollywood wasn’t throwing more big film roles his way, McKellen now appears to be content with what he has achieved. He can’t imagine formally retiring -- “Going to live in the country? No.” -- but is no longer yearning for parts that have yet to come his way.
“If I didn’t actually act again, I don’t think I would be any less happy, because I would always assume I was going to work. But let’s say I lost a leg and couldn’t work. Well, there’s an awful lot I would enjoy doing. I might get down to some reading.”