He wears a severely tailored military uniform with an equally severe expression on his face. Even the way he smokes a cigarette suggests the very model of a modern major dictator.
"When we did the play in Romania recently, the audience thought it was all about Ceausescu. When we did it in Hamburg, they thought it was the Third Reich, and people say, have I based my performance on Saddam Hussein? I haven't, but if that's what it looks like, that's fine. It proves we have gotten to the heart of a dictator," McKellen recently explained over the phone from New York, the first stop on the 16-week American tour of the Royal National Theatre's "Richard III," which arrives at Washington's Kennedy Center Tuesday.
Though less well-known in this country than British actors with more extensive movie credits, McKellen, 53, is often described as the leading Shakespearean actor of his generation and the rightful successor to the late Laurence Olivier.
In 1991, during the London run of "Richard III," he was honored with a knighthood. It was almost exactly three years after he openly acknowledged his homosexuality on a BBC radio program -- a move that prompted him to assume a high profile as a gay rights activist.
Personally no longer a stranger in British political circles, the actor acknowledges the allure of performing one of Shakespeare's most political dramas in our nation's capital during an election year. "Richard III, on the surface, is a very pious man and very convincing liar, and underneath it, the ruthlessness of his ambition is revealed only to the audience," he says. "I suppose that is always relevant when trying to understand politicians."
But just as audiences around the world have drawn parallels between Shakespeare's protagonist and various modern tyrants, will Washington audiences to identify McKellen's Richard III with anyone on the current American scene? "I certainly hope not!" he says with a broad laugh.
The production, whose design is updated to the 1930s, is not intended to reflect any specific figure from contemporary history, he insists. Instead, it is director Richard Eyre's attempt to relate the play to a time "when it was possible a leader like Richard III could take over a country," McKellen explains.
Then, in a statement that says as much about his approach as an actor as it does about contemporary politics, he adds, "I think it's extremely unhelpful and naive when the president refers to Saddam Hussein as the devil and being evil. The minute you see a tyrant and dictator as sub-human or super-human, not like the rest of us, then you usurp your hand and can't deal with him.
"You have to see Hussein as a human being. The same is true of Richard III. That's what I have to do as an actor. Richard III is a real man with real problems and a real psyche."
That may largely explain why McKellen downplays Richard III's physical deformities -- in contrast to most of his predecessors in the role. Or, as he claims, "I don't downplay them. Richard III downplays them, like many people with physical defects."
If his Richard III seems like a new man, it may be, in part, because, ever since declaring his homosexuality in 1988, McKellen himself feels like a new man. Going public on a radio show may have seemed spontaneous, but, he says now, "It took me an awful long time to work up for it, so in a sense, I'd been preparing for it all my life."
His on-air announcement came about, he explains, during a debate on "a change in the law which I really disapproved of because I thought it was just adding to the considerable anti-gay legislation we have in the United Kingdom, and, expressing my indignation, I thought it was just more proper if I explained why I took it more personally."
McKellen's only major regret is that he didn't come out of the closet sooner, but at the same time, he points out that "It was only the completion of the process because everyone in the theater knew I was gay."
His public disclosure, or at least his choice of words, made news again last year when he gave his introductory lecture as the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Drama
at Oxford University. In his opening remarks he reportedly said he became an actor in part because he hoped to meet queers.
He subsequently told an interviewer from the Sunday Times of London, "I was quoting myself: In those days, we were called queer and referred to ourselves as queer. It is coming back now, as a statement of defiance."
Defiance -- or rather, its more restrained form, activism -- has become an important part of McKellen's life. He co-founded a British gay rights lobby called the Stonewall Group, named for a 1969 New York uprising, and he helped start the London Lighthouse, an AIDS hospice. Looking ahead on the British political scene, he says, "I'm optimistic that in the next few years, even with this government, that we'll see some change in the laws."
On a professional level, McKellen also feels coming out has had a positive effect on his acting. "Coming out has been followed up by me by a general raking over of sterile ground," he says. "I feel like I'm a field that has been plowed and had manure put in it and now things are growing. I'd laid fallow too long. I'm much more in touch with my emotions than I used to be. I don't have to fake it anymore."
The son of a civil engineer and the grandson of two ministers, McKellen was born in the industrial north of England. Although he has described himself as an avid theatergoer in his youth, he didn't consider acting as a profession until his undergraduate days at Cambridge University, where he performed in 21 plays in three years.
After receiving his degree in 1961, he launched his career in provincial repertory companies. He made his debut with the National Theatre in 1966, and beginning in 1974, he spent four years as a leading man with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His credits include a number of modern plays, most notably Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," which brought him a Tony Award in 1981 for his portrayal of Salieri. But he is best known for his interpretations of Shakespeare, a reputation he reinforced with his one-man show, "Acting Shakespeare," which he toured internationally over a 10-year period, playing two engagements in this area in 1987, first at Washington's National Theatre and then at Olney Theatre.
Far from being burned out after such extensive touring, McKellen insists he loves it. And, at least at the start of "Richard III's" American tour, he claimed he was looking forward to his most intensive stint yet in a role he has played on and off for two years, a role that is easily one of the greatest tyrants in English literature.
Of course, McKellen has had more than a passing acquaintance with villains in recent years. When the opportunity to portray Richard III came along, he recalls, "I had recently played Hitler on [British] TV. I played Dracula in a Pet Shop Boys' video, then I played Iago in 'Othello.' "
Then this gentle-sounding knight pauses and adds, "I don't know why. I'm such a nice guy really."
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 5 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m., through July 19.
Where: Kennedy Center, Washington.
# Call:(800) 444-1324