Out Actor Ian McKellen Hails Gender-Neutral Awards, Rejects Idea of Gays-only for Gay Roles

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday March 4, 2022

Iconic out actor Sir Ian McKellen rejected the idea that only gay actors should play gay roles, asking, "Does that mean I can't play straight parts?"

UK newspaper The Daily Mail, reporting on the story, noted that McKellen, 82, also applauded gender-neutral awards.

"Is the argument that a straight man cannot play a gay part, and if so, does that mean I can't play straight parts and I'm not allowed to explore the fascinating subject of heterosexuality in 'Macbeth?'" the "X-Men" and "Lord of the Rings" star queried.

"Surely not. We're acting. We're pretending."

McKellen made the remarks in a March 3 interview on British television, telling host Amol Rajan that he welcomed the trend of awards ceremonies that dispense with gender categories such as "Best Actor" and "Best Actress," replacing them with the unisex "Best Performance."

"They're not all on the same track running towards the tape," McKellen said of actors. "You're playing different parts," he added. "It is ridiculous to try and compare" performances by handing out awards when the variety roles, all demanding specific kinds of performances, is so broad.

'But," the actor added, "if you're going to have the process [of making those comparisons and handing out awards], then of course, non-gender, absolutely."

Offering his take on the lack of Oscar love for gay actors, McKellen "rejected the suggestion that institutional prejudice was the reason," The Daily Mail noted, saying instead that no Best Actor statuette has yet gone to an out actor because "there aren't very many of them."

McKellen has memorably played gay roles, including that of film director James Whale in the 1998 film "Gods and Monsters." On the small screen, he appeared in the 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's "Tales of the City," and starred opposite Derek Jacoby, who is straight, in the BBC series "Vicious," about a longtime same-sex couple, which ran from 2013-2016 for two seasons, plus two specials.

The issue has excited passionate debate, with straight and cisgender actors who have played LGBTQ+ roles in the past — such as Julianne Moore, who played a lesbian mother opposite Annette Bening in the 2010 drama "The Kids Are Alright," and Eddie Redmayne, who portrayed transgender pioneer Lili Elbe in 2015's "The Danish Girl" — expressing doubt as to whether they would do so now, while straight actors who continue to play gay adopt McKellen's line of reasoning.

Critics say straight actors who take LGBTQ+ parts deprive talented LGBTQ+ actors of the opportunity to play roles that align with their sexual orientations.

Viggo Mortensen, who wrote, directed, and starred in the gay drama "Falling," memorably threaded the needle on the issue with the tart, provocative comment, "And how do you know what my life is? You're assuming that I'm completely straight."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.