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Ian McKellen Takes On 'Lear' Role


He's played a Nazi war criminal, a super mutant with a magnetic personality and a wizard with a fate of Middle Earth on his shoulders. But Sir Ian McKellen never would have done Gandalf hath were it not for one man - William Shakespeare.

McKellen spent much of his early years performing the works of the bard. And next month, the Royal Shakespeare Company will perform "King Lear" in Los Angeles with McKellen in the title role. The series is part of UCLA Live Sixth International Theater Festival. And McKellen says he loves Lear in part because he grew up watching some of the world's greatest actors bring him to life.

Sir IAN McKELLEN (Actor): John Gielgud, actually, when I was in my teens, and then they try Sir Charles Laughton play the part in Stratford-upon-Avon, and Laurence Olivier on television, and so it goes. And I think when you see the play really achieved on the stage, then that captures your imagination. But I wouldn't say it was a favorite play for stuff of mine, but this is my third time in the play, so it's a play that I've got to know over the years.

CHIDEYA: Well, what I love about it is the interaction with Cordelia, his daughter, because, to me, it says so much about family and how we misunderstand each other.

Sir McKELLEN: There isn't a scene in Shakespeare, however remote the time of the setting, you know, that doesn't reverberate down the time to us today. And the scene of the upset(ph) of King Lear where just as King Lear is about to give away his daughter's hand in marriage to one of her two suitors, he asks her and her sisters to have a little challenge and tell them how much they love him.

I think that's probably the scene that is played in every limousine as every father takes his daughter to be married, and he says, do you still love me? And she says, yes, I do, but, you know, I'm now getting married, and there's another man in my life.

And I think that's why the bride's father is often more tearful than the bride herself because he is losing a daughter in the sense, and that's what Lear cannot stand it. But that seems to me a terribly, terribly normal situation, or however extreme of King Lear because he's an extreme person who takes it.

CHIDEYA: I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. I love your majesty according to my bond, no more, no less.

Sir McKELLEN: Yes. Well, she's probably a bit stubborn and a bit too honest, you know. There are ways of putting these things and she gets it wrong, and she's aware of that. But he gets it even more wrong, of course. There's nothing in Shakespeare that isn't so cosset to the vast human nature that it doesn't apply to our own lives, and that's what keeps the plays ever modern and ever fresh, and which allow - and allows each new group of actors who tackle the play to make it their own even whilst they're trying to be true to Shakespeare.

CHIDEYA: So what got you out on the road? I'm sure that it's not always pleasant. You're hopping, scotching hotel to hotel…

Sir McKELLEN: You mustn't feel too sorry for me because I'm speaking from an apartment in China Town, which is in an old loft, and I'm looking out of a whole of Manhattan and I'm very, very lucky this week but - this month rather. But in Australia and New Zealand and Singapore, things weren't quite as comfortable.

Now, it isn't easy being on the road, and long journeys take ages out of you, which you feel you ought to be presenting on stage. So you have to keep reminding yourselves we're not on holiday, you know, on vacation. This is work even though we're in strange and wonderful places. But the reason I got on the road is - because when I was a kid in the north of England, the great place that I saw were often done by actors who were touring.

CHIDEYA: Now, a lot of Americans may know you from your movie roles, I'm thinking specifically of "Lord of Rings" Gandalf. Is that a good thing, a bad thing or just a thing?

Sir McKELLEN: It's just a thing. Look, I like actors who do all sorts of different parts, and on the whole, I think, there are two sorts of successful actors. Some who always play themselves and wouldn't want it any different, you know. When you see Hugh Grant, you want to see Hugh Grant, don't you? You don't see Hugh Grant pretending to be somebody else. But then there are other actors more pretty and who like to play a range of parts in a range of styles in a range of media, and I'm one of those.

And if someone comes to see me as King Lear because they know Gandalf, that's absolutely fine. And there was a 7-year-old kid who came to Stratford-upon-Avon where this production began earlier in the year, and he came with his parents to see Gandalf. He was 7 years old and he was waiting for me at the stage, thereafter and told me that "King Lear" was his favorite play ever.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: Oh, that's so fantastic.

Sir McKELLEN: So there we go. I mean, that's, I think, how it works at best at least.

CHIDEYA: So it's your secret plan to use Gandalf to get little kids to…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sir McKELLEN: No, that's not the plan…

CHIDEYA: …watch Shakespeare.

Sir McKELLEN: …but if it works out that way, it's fine with me.

CHIDEYA: Now, I believe you told BBC that your Desert Island record would be Lena Horne's "Stormy Weather." Is that true? And if so, why?

Sir McKELLEN: Absolutely. Well, once when I was in New York on Broadway, I think this was 1980, I was doing Peter Shaffer's play, "Amadeus," for a year and Lena Horne was in town. I get just to see her in person and she has beautifully on song and with her whole range of sexiness and indignation and power was amazing.

And what was special about that song was not that she's made it her own over the years, but she sang it surprisingly in the first half of the show. And normally, stars keep their signature tune and as an encore, but she sang it half way through the show, and I was very surprised.

What was very moving and telling and clever of her was that when she got to the end of the second half of the show, she said, and now I'm going to sing a song, which I think I've been the right to sing over the years, and she sang it all over again in a delicate way quite differently, and it's very moving because of that.

And when I was subsequently in New York, I did meet her backstage. And when I was back here about six years later on the first - my first night - there was a large bunch of white lilies just saying Love Lena. Perhaps, I can even call her my friend in that sense.

CHIDEYA: Well, that is absolutely delicious. Sir Ian, thank you so much.

Sir McKELLEN: Well, a great pleasure to talk to you.

CHIDEYA: Sir Ian McKellen will play King Lear next month in Los Angeles as part of UCLA Live Sixth International Theater Festival. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.