As Gandalf and Magneto, he’s faced off fire-breathing monsters and superheroes, but actor Ian McKellen says he picks his battles when it comes to celebrity causes.
The Oscar-nominated thespian stepped into a brewing debate in Singapore about decriminalising homosexual acts just hours after arriving in the city state this week as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s touring production of William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”.
McKellen, 68, was quoted in Singapore’s pro-government media urging the state to repeal its laws that make sexual acts between men a crime.
The UK-based actor, who shot to global stardom with “The Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” trilogies, called Singapore’s prohibition – a remnant of British colonial rule – “personally offensive” and said it would put off people from moving to the country.
“I would not come to Singapore and comment on any aspect of its society but as a gay man invited here with the full cognisance of the government, how can they not notice that my right to have sex are inhibited by the country?” he told Reuters.
Q: You seemed to have stepped into a local debate about decriminalising homosexuality. Why did you do it?
A: “It would be impertinent of me to comment on Singapore society but this happens to be a law that I find personally offensive and I don’t think it should be on the statute books because it inhibits my free behaviour as an openly gay man.
“I feel free to comment on behalf of people who do have to suffer laws which the British empire invented and left behind.
“It’s easier for a foreigner to come in and speak to truth as he sees it.”
Q: Were you aware that Singapore senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew has said it would be difficult to repeal the law on sexual acts between men because of popular opposition from the country’s conservative majority.
A: “Yes. Then he must expect gay people not to come here, he must expect gay people to emigrate, he must expect no company to have their gay employees work here. Under that pressure he will change the law, I guarantee you. I’ll take a bet.”
Q: Do you think the public pays too much attention to what celebrities think?
A: “The press like to talk to actors. They mustn’t be surprised when actors talk back to them. We are privileged that we have access to the media and our opinions sometimes are reported and I appreciate that. But I only speak on things that I am an expert on…You won’t hear me talk about my politics, you won’t hear me talk about my vegetarianism, you won’t hear me comment on the Iraq war. You’ll only hear me talk about being gay and being an actor. I am just public on those two issues.”
Q: A film version of Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” has been stalled because of a dispute between “The Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson and film company New Line Cinema which holds the film rights to the book. Has there been any movement on the film development?
A: “I detect that there is movement and it’s movement in the right direction. I’ll be seeing Peter (Jackson) when we tour (New Zealand) next month. I hope it will happen.