Ian McKellen bites back at Damian Lewis's 'fruity actor' dig

(Image credit: Patrick Redmond +353872600976)

Sir Ian McKellen has hit back after Homeland actor Damian Lewis said that he didn't want to end up a 'fruity actor' who is known for playing wizards.

The Lord Of The Rings star, 74, admitted that his performance in this year's critically panned ITV sitcom Vicious was 'over the top'.

But he said that 'no one needs to feel sorry for me' after Homeland star Damian, 42, described one of the reasons why he wanted to break out of the theatre.

While not naming names, British actor Damian, who shot to fame as Brody in US show Homeland, said that in his 20s he worried that if he didn't get out of the theatre in time 'I would be one of these slightly over-the-top, fruity actors who would have an illustrious career on stage, but wouldn't start getting any kind of film work until I was 50 and then start playing wizards.'

Sir Ian, who plays the wizard Gandalf in the Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit films, responded in the Radio Times: "So he feels sorry for me, does he? Well I'm very happy, he needn't worry about me."

The X-Men star, whose screen success came relatively late, said the remark was 'a fair comment'.

But he added: "To rebut it: I wouldn't like to have been one of those actors who hit stardom quite early on and expected it to continue and was stuck doing scripts that I didn't particularly like just to keep the income up.

"I've always wanted to get better as an actor. And I have got better. You've only got to see my early work to see that.

"As for a fruity voice? Well, it may be a voice that is trained like an opera singer's voice: to fill a large space. It is unnatural. Actors have to be heard and their voice may therefore develop a sonorous quality that they can't quite get rid of, so you think actors are as pompous as their voice is large. I suppose Damian was thinking of that a little bit, too."

He told the magazine: "To be allowed for the first time in your later career to play leading parts in extremely popular movies is not a situation to worry about. No one needs to feel sorry for me or Michael Gambon (who played Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies) or anyone else who has fallen victim to success."

Sir Ian said that he was not happy with his performance in this year's ITV drama Vicious, where he starred alongside Sir Derek Jacobi as a sharp-tongued gay couple, but it is returning for a second instalment despite the negative reviews.

"If people thought it was a rather over-the-top performance, they were right," he said, adding that he was acting too much for the live studio audience, and that things would be different in series two.

He told the magazine: "If I look at my early films, I'm using what seems to me now to be a ridiculous voice. Over the years, I've relaxed and let my own accent come back in."

Sir Ian, who came out as gay at the age of 49, also told the magazine that he had sympathy for gay, A-list stars who decide to keep their sexuality a secret.

"It's true of A-lists all over the world - A-list priests, A-list politicians. What will other people think? Will people still vote for me? Will people come and see me act?

"They're warned by the people who surround them - agents and managers, who have a living to make and are worried that the actor will get pigeonholed."

But he added: "I don't think the audience gives a damn...You don't have to be straight to play Gandalf. Anyway, who says that Gandalf isn't gay? I loved it when JK Rowling said that Dumbledore was gay."

Sir Ian said that he had been advised by the Foreign Office not to go to Russia because of the country's laws on homosexuality: "That's why I can't go to Russia... They couldn't protect me from those laws. Two and a half hours from London! In the land of Tchaikovsky, Diaghilev, Rudolf Nureyev - gay artists whose sexuality informed their work."


Patrick McLennan

Patrick McLennan is a London-based journalist and documentary maker who has worked as a writer, sub-editor, digital editor and TV producer in the UK and New Zealand. His CV includes spells as a news producer at the BBC and TVNZ, as well as web editor for Time Inc UK. He has produced TV news and entertainment features on personalities as diverse as Nick Cave, Tom Hardy, Clive James, Jodie Marsh and Kevin Bacon and he co-produced and directed The Ponds, which has screened in UK cinemas, BBC Four and is currently available on Netflix. 

An entertainment writer with a diverse taste in TV and film, he lists Seinfeld, The Sopranos, The Chase, The Thick of It and Detectorists among his favourite shows, but steers well clear of most sci-fi.