Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sir Ian McKellen on Coming Out and Cannabis

Sir Ian McKellen, star of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the X-Men series, and Gods and Monsters, among other movies, is appearing on stage in Los Angeles in productions of King Lear and The Seagull.

Sir Ian (who is openly gay) appeared on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson on CBS Wednesday night (or was that Thursday morning?) to promote the two plays and to talk about his career. During the course of the interview, he endorsed -- perhaps inadvertently but clearly not insincerely -- the importance of coming out for gay people and, in the process, suggested that it would be best if marijuana were decriminalized.

Here is a partial transcript that I made from the interview. (There was some cross-chatter, so this transcription may not be completely accurate.)

Craig Ferguson: You've been touring a lot with this play, you're going around everywhere, right?

Sir Ian McKellen: We started in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and where the Royal Shakespeare Company has its home. Then we went up to Newcastle in England, then we went to Singapore.

CF: Singapore! How lovely!

IM: Do you think so?

CF: I've never been, no.

IM: I was really looking forward to Singapore. I'd heard you couldn't chew chewing gum ---

CF: No, there's no chewing gum in Singapore.

IM: -- and there's a very, very strict regime that organizes the country. Of course, it's only a city on an island, a bit like Manhattan, but the rules are very strict, and I didn't realize as a gay man that I would be a criminal once I arrived because it's illegal for a man to make love to another man --

CF: Really?

IM: -- in Singapore. And I was rather naughty because I was on an early morning show. You know, the sort of show that happens all over the world on TV where you get a couple who are clearly not married or related in any way but flirt all the time --

CF: Yes, yes, that's right.

IM: -- usually an elder man with a younger woman. And at the end of the interview they said, what was I looking forward to doing whilst I was in Singapore, so I looked at the man who was clearly straight and I said, well, can you recommend any decent gay bars?

(audience laughter)

IM: -- which of course would be an illegal thing in every possible way. I looked at a playback of the programme afterwards and I've never seen the credits come up so quickly.

CF: You've been quite outspoken about gay rights, haven't you? Do you feel --

IM: Well, you have to be, if you go to places that are going to point at you and say, because of the way you've been born you should be illegal, it's like pointing at cannabis (pause) Don't you love it --

CF: Cannabis?

IM: -- when politicians pointed at a little weed in the road and said, "That is illegal." Isn't that rather up to God, and not the politicians?

(audience applause)

CF: Yes. I'm beginning to feel like a breakfast television presenter in Singapore. I've been put on the spot a little bit. But ... but you are quite outspoken about that. You've been outspoken about gay rights in the UK and in the U.S., as well. Do you think that it ever has worked against you as an actor? Do you feel you've ever lost work because of --

IM: It did before I came out and was honest and said I was gay. I certainly lost a couple of jobs, I know. But since (thoughtful pause), no. Everything's taken off --

CF: Well, not in Singapore --

IM: -- no, not in Singapore, no.

CF: I have to ask, by the way --

IM: So you say.

CF: -- did you break the law when you were in Singapore? I don't know why I have to ask, but I feel I do.

IM: Let's say I tried.

CF: Right, ok. I think that's fair enough.

(audience laughter, applause)
This interview -- along with another he did with Michael Caine a couple of nights ago -- solidifies in my mind the notion that Craig Ferguson is the most intelligent of the late-night chat show hosts on the major networks. His monologues are well-written and actorly (not just a series of jokes from a stand-up comedian, but playlets with a beginning, middle, and end), he asks serious questions of his guests even while maintaining a light and convivial atmosphere, and he clearly engages his guests in conversation rather than merely asking them questions culled from a pre-interview by producers.

A recent poll on AOL asked readers to rate their favorite late-night hosts, and Ferguson only scored about 14 percent. He deserves far better than that.

Seeing Sir Ian on television reminds me of something I observed five summers ago, during the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center.

It was the opening performance of Company, and Lynn Redgrave was playing Joanne ("The Ladies Who Lunch"). As you might recall, Redgrave co-starred with Sir Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters, and received an Academy Award nomination for her role.

During the interval -- intermission for you Americans -- I strolled out onto the Kennedy Center terrace along with much of the rest of the audience. The terrace overlooks the Potomac River and has several fountains, as well as long marble planters with flowers and shrubbery, which serve as benches for people who wish to sit.

I was seated on one of these marble benches when I noticed, to my right, a young male couple -- probably 18 or 19 years old -- in a rather intimate composition. (I think one was sitting with the other laying his head in his partner's lap.) Both young men were, by anyone's account, attractive.

As I turned my head in the other direction, I saw an older gentleman exiting the lobby through to the terrace, and his eyes were fixed on the young couple I had just seen. He was walking toward me, but his head was turned in their direction; his body moved forward while his head held steady. He was about to trip over me when I thought, "This man looks just like Ian McKellen."

At that very moment, before he tumbled over me and the others seated nearby, his attention was shifted when someone called out, "Sir Ian! How are you?" He regained his bearing and began to chat with his acquaintance.

I had to smile to myself.

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