Ian McKellen: Gay actors should put happiness above career ambition

Ian McKellen. Photo: A Katz/Shutterstock Ian McKellen. Photo: A Katz/Shutterstock
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Ian McKellen has made a passionate plea for gay actors to be open about their sexuality, even if they think it will harm their chances of being cast.

Giving a talk at Rose Bruford College, he discussed the “prevailing view” in Hollywood that audiences will not believe a gay actor as a straight romantic lead – and said the idea had trickled down to the UK acting industry.

McKellen, who is openly gay, then urged students with their eyes on Hollywood to put their personal happiness and well-being before their acting careers.

He said: “It is thought in our business that it would probably be better if you didn’t talk about your sexuality – unless you’re straight of course, in which case you can talk about it the whole time.”

Citing prejudice he had heard, McKellen went on: “‘The audience wouldn’t accept an actor if they know you’re gay’ – that’s the prevailing view in Hollywood. And I’ve heard Rupert Everett and others say it in this country.”

He continued: “I just say, if you’re gay, or if you’re different, will you just express your difference and be yourself, because without it you’re not going to enjoy your life.

“And if you find you can’t be a successful romantic actor in Hollywood movies – well, how many of those are there at any one time, three? If it’s a choice between that ambition and being open and being yourself: go for being yourself. And forget acting at that level.”

A 2012 survey revealed nearly half of gay UK actors had not come out to their agents, while more than a third had experienced homophobia in the industry.

At last year’s Olivier Awards, Michael Urie encouraged gay actors not to hide their sexuality, and claimed being open about it would in fact improve their performances.

He also praised Equity’s I Won’t Pretend campaign, in which a number of openly gay actors revealed how their working lives had improved since coming out.

Advising the Rose Bruford students further, McKellen encouraged them all to join Equity, saying it would be unfair for the union’s work in negotiating better working conditions for actors to go unrecognised.

He explained: “We have to stick together in this business, and one way of doing that is through a union of people who know what working conditions should be and how to make them better. And they have improved them over the years.

“It’s so unfair for you to go and sign a contract which has been drawn up by Equity, and not at least recompense Equity for the hard work it has done over the generations to get to that point at which you do get a holiday salary, and some overtime, and proper conditions of work. That’s the business of being a professional.”

Earlier this year, McKellen called on the National Theatre to bring back a resident company of actors, following the announcement that Liverpool Everyman would return to a repertory producing model.