Ian McKellen: 'I've never downloaded an app in my life'
This year marks the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death aged 52, leaving behind a collection of the most influential plays ever written, and a legacy no other playwright has managed to replicate.
Sir Ian McKellen is a life-long supporter of The Bard, once comparing the latter's enduring popularity to the millennia-old appreciation of flowers. "Even if all other plays become old-fashioned, even if the theatres are burnt down, there will still be people who are talking about, writing about, wanting to do Shakespeare," he told the Shakespeare Quarterly.
“I’ve never downloaded an app in my life. Oh God, I haven’t time," McKellen says, sitting backstage on a squashy sofa at the BFI Southbank. "There isn’t time, I’ve got a pile of books I want to read - why do I want to get an app?
"I’d quite like to play these games, I think they’re rather intriguing. But I know I would get terribly absorbed in them, so I just stop myself. Well, that and my big fingers, which make them difficult to use."
McKellen's voice is simultaneously sonorous and comforting, and it's surreal to hear the man endearingly known to millions as Gandalf speaking with such candour. His honesty (or PR nightmare, depending on your perspective), isn't so much a disregard of the app, which he's clearly extremely pleased to be a part of, as a slight weariness with the technology behind it.
On one hand, McKellen was among the first thespians to begin using the internet in a meaningful way. He has had a website since 1997, and during the filming of The Lord of the Rings in 2000 began keeping what he calls an online diary - blogging before it had a name.
“That’s because I like to contact the audience, and one way of doing it in this day and age is to do it directly. So I’m a big fan of all this new stuff, but I don’t live by it."
McKellen's Instagram account, coupled with his best friend and fellow Sir Patrick Stewart's, has become something of an online phenomenon.
Cheeky snaps of the pair rampaging across New York in bowler hats (during the promotion of their performance of Waiting for Godot), cheering in the new year wearing novelty sunglasses and photobooth shots with the legend 'Homies Forever' resonate deeply with an audience desperate to crown them the ultimate #friendshipgoals.
One of the most amusing Instagrams is of McKellen in full Gandalf garb during the filming of The Hobbit, placidly tapping away on a MacBook.
While he enjoys using social media to connect with fans, the modern obsession with smartphones is one that both perplexes and vexes him.
"I can’t understand, and I feel sorry for people who go out and they’re doing this [mimes typing on a phone], walking along the street. And I say to kids, "You know while you’ve just sent that message, which didn’t matter? The love of your life walked past, and you missed it." I have met people in the street, and lived with them for five years. And what’s so exciting about communicating with people back home? You’re out, look!" He waves his arms in exasperation.
Perhaps he also dislikes phones because he will forever associate incoming calls with bad news, thanks to his stepmother's longstanding hatred of them.
“When I was a kid we got a phone, and we had to share it with a neighbour that we knew. We always had the phone in the hall, which was the draughtiest place in the house, and my stepmother, to her dying day would always jump - "bad news". It was not a part of her life, and it’s not really a part of mine. My phone, I can’t send the number and it very rarely rings, and that suits me down to the ground."
Modern technology cannot replace being in someone’s company, or as he puts it, "looking them in the eye and judging what’s behind the expression". There is a danger, he muses, that when maintaining social media profiles, you become a bit of a commodity that you're not entirely in control of.
McKellen is currently preparing to tour the UK in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land with partner-in-crime Patrick Stewart from September.
No Man's Land, which he has previously performed on Broadway, is the epitome of an English play, he says. “I like the idea of being an English actor who works a lot in England and if he tours abroad, is taking a little bit of England with him."
He loved fellow English actor Tom Hardy as both Reggie and Ronnie Kray in last year's Legend ("I thought that was the performance of the year, it was fantastic,") but not The Revenant ("That I didn't like,"). He also says he enjoyed Jack O'Connell in The Nap, a play written by Richard Bean, best known for One Man, Two Guvnors, and staged at the home of snooker, Sheffield's Crucible Theatre.
He'd like the chance to watch more television like The Bridge, he says, but just doesn't have the time. “In Shakespeare, everyone’s always busy carrying messages around," he muses. "Maybe that’s a problem for people, they’ve no sympathy with a world without technology."