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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Knight Brings 'Monsters' to Moscow

Sir Ian McKellen has played both Tsar Nicholas II and Richard III, but it's the role of a forgotten Hollywood great that brought him to the Moscow Film Festival for the first time.

Hailed as the finest stage actor of his generation in England, McKellen has been heaped with praise and awards in the film world for his Oscar-nominated performance in "Gods and Monsters" as James Whale, the gay filmmaker who directed Boris Karloff in "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein."

Although McKellen lost out to Roberto Benigni for the Best Actor award, the publicity that his nomination generated helped promote a film otherwise unlikely to be on the shopping list of mainstream distributors and definitely unlikely to make it to Russian theaters.

Whale was an English actor who became one of the most successful directors of the 1930s with the Karloff Monster films and "Showboat," and then suddenly quit the business to live in reclusive exile.

"This is the story just right at the end of his life when he's had a stroke and for the first time he's not in charge of his own life any longer," McKellen said in an interview Tuesday at the film festival.

"It's about him getting to grips with the loss of his powers and his faculties."

It's also the story of the odd friendship that developed between the aging director and his young gardener, played by Brendan Fraser. Suspicious of the director's motives, Fraser's character shies away at first, but eventually becomes the director's friend.

McKellen commands the film together with Lynn Redgrave, who was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

"It's intriguing as a little bit of film history about a real man who directed some mighty classics," said McKellen. "The character's gay, which intrigued me because I am, too. Openly gay, oddly enough, in the thirties, was a very unusual thing to be ?. It was an absolutely verboten subject."

"Whale was quite eccentric, and people might think it brave to say: 'I don't care what people think, I'm just going to live with my friend,'" he said.

McKellen, who came out live on radio in a debate about a government clause designed to restrict teaching about homosexuality in British schools, is the first openly gay knight in Britain, and has long been an active campaigner for gay rights.

His next film, "X-Men," a multi-million dollar movie about the comic characters has something to contribute to the topic of equality.

"It's a nice morality story, not about good and evil, but about whether people who have extraordinary powers like the X-Men should integrate with society," said McKellen, who plays the character of Magneto.

"The argument about integration is one that all minorities, whether they're gay or black or Jewish, always have. Do we become like everybody else, or say: 'No, we are different'? That's at the heart of the X-Men story."

Evidently very proud of "Gods and Monsters," McKellen was eager to come to Moscow to promote the film.

"As a result of the festival it may get distribution here," McKellen said. "A festival like this is very helpful and important as it can nurture the kind of films that otherwise can get lost."

McKellen played Tsar Nicholas II in the HBO movie "Rasputin," which was filmed in St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg three years ago.

"We got inside and I was all dolled up as the tsar," he said. "Of course, the tsar had been in that cathedral ? and one or two old ladies were coming up to me ? and crossing themselves. So it was an odd feeling."

Twenty years ago, while acting in "Wild Honey," Michael Frayn's adaptation of Chekhov's untitled first play, McKellen came to Moscow to "try and breathe in the genuine Chekhov atmosphere."

"There's a strong kinship between theater actors in Russia and England. We're big admirers of each other," he said.

"As with Shakespeare, Chekhov seems to be as interested in the maid as the mistress, the servant as in the master; it's a very humane, democratic way to life."

"You won't find many English actors who don't really relish Chekhov," said McKellen, who was planning to fit in a visit to Chekhov's house, Lenin's Mausoleum and a gay club before he left Thursday.