Ian McKellen has generally played it serious in the X-Men and Lord of the Rings franchises, but now the five-time Emmy nominee is laughing it upon the small-screen in Gary Janetti’s bitingly funny British import, Vicious (debuting June 29 on PBS) about septuagenarian gay partners Freddie (McKellen) and Stuart (Derek Jacobi). The 75-year-old actor spoke to EW about the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and Derek Jacobi have known each other for as long as Freddie and Stuart have, though not romantically–
Ian McKellen: Alas!
Did you have to work on your chemistry?
Over the years, Derek and I have seen each other and kept in touch. Of course I’m a huge fan, but we hadn’t – I don’t think – actually worked together as actors since we were at university as undergraduates. But we came together very easily. Derek likes a laugh as much as I do, and of course he’s an extremely accomplished comedian. We’ve done very similar work in the past, we’ve played a lot of the same parts in classical work. Derek has done lots of television – a lot more than I have – and had big successes with I, Claudius, so he’s a lot more familiar with television than I am.
Vicious jumps right into Freddie and Stuart’s lives together, but how would you describe their dynamic to someone who’s never met them?
Their mode of communication is to sound perfectly horrible to each other, hence the title Vicious. As with many couples who’ve fallen into the habit of being rude to each other, I think they love each other – they certainly still share a bed. I don’t think the audience will have any problem relating to them. Probably the most remarkable thing about them is not that they’re gay, but that they’ve been together for 50 years.
As you mentioned, Freddie is an actor, though not one who’s experienced your level of success…
Initially I was a bit doubtful as to whether I wanted to play an actor, and a gay actor at that, who is my age with my background. I know people rather like him, I must admit, so it’s more drawing on that experience rather than anything of my own. He’s as pompous as any actor can be. [Laughs] I hope I don’t sound or behave like him.
He’s certainly a more over-the-top character than you typically play.
The style of the storytelling is farcical. It’s not a documentary. It’s not reality TV. It’s more in the lines of The Golden Girls and even those older sitcoms that Americans know very well. Gary is a devotee of I Love Lucy and all those old sitcoms. It’s that sort of style that he’s brought to bear on Freddie and Stuart.
Vicious has already been renewed for a second season. Are you surprised by its success?
It was so popular [in the U.K.] that a second season seemed to be inevitable. There are some people who don’t take to it at all. Some of my friends think it’s a bit beneath my dignity, but I don’t have any dignity as an actor. I like doing a variety of things—way-out or traditional doesn’t matter to me as long as the material is good. I was attracted simply by the fun that could be had for the performers and for the audience. It, in a sense, is a little bit radical. It just takes for granted that an audience will find a couple of this age who are also gay to be as worthy of their own sitcom as any other couple might be. Certainly, you can’t compare these two to other characters in the past. Gay characters, until pretty recently in popular entertainment, have been characters of fun—you laugh at them, and often they are rather closeted about their sexuality. These two are very at ease with it, and you laugh with them rather than mock them because they’re gay. Their gayness is just taken for granted. In a sense, that’s rather modern and unusual and very welcome, I think.
What moment or scene do you think a soon-to-be Vicious fan will enjoy the most in series 1?
A favorite scene for me, which I think will become a bit of a classic [involved] the boy from upstairs [Ash Weston, played by Iwan Rheon], who is preparing me for my audition for Downton Abbey. That’s a classic scene that kept making us laugh while we were doing it. There are so many of them. It all makes me chuckle and sometimes laugh out loud. We have enormous fun doing it, and it is a problem sometimes not to laugh [while we’re filming].
Stuart isn’t the only Stewart in your life: There’s also your X-Men costar Patrick Stewart.
I hope that Stuart doesn’t get jealous of the bromance Stateside. [Laughs]
People loved the Twitter photo series of you two during your Broadway runs of Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land. Would you ever consider doing a travel show or another non-dramatic project with him?
I don’t know, it would be nice to do something similar here. I’ve been asked recently to do a number of things which are not to do with acting, particularly on television—presenting and so on. That’s not what I really do best or what I want to do. I enjoy acting. I wouldn’t want to become a TV bore, who turns up everywhere on chat shows and quiz shows and documentaries and so on. No, I think I’ll stick to being an actor.
Vicious premieres June 29 at 10:30 p.m. ET on PBS.