"To thine own self true"

Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen

It was entirely fitting that Sir Ian McKellen, one of the world’s finest Shakespearean actors, should reach for Hamlet when giving advice to the branders and advertisers packed into the Telling A Good Story seminar.

“To thy own self be true,” he said to The Brooklyn Brothers’ Jackie Stevenson, when asked what message he would like to share with the Cannes Lions community. “I don’t know enough about your world, but if branding is about lying or assuming something about your audience — if it’s not about genuinely trying to relate to them — then I expect it will go wrong.”

McKellen, a UK cultural icon whose acting career has spanned 55-plus years and film roles from Magneto in the X-Men series to Tolkien’s Gandalf, has certainly lived by his own advice — at least since the age of 49, when he took the decision to come out in order to campaign for gay rights. “Up until that point, like many others, I’d thought my career would suffer if everybody knew I was gay,” he said. “I was wrong. People admire honesty on the whole. When I came out, my career in films took off. Why? Because my acting became about truth and honesty, instead of make-believe. I became a better actor over night.”

Other than an ad for a Stephen King book and one for the Tower of London, McKellen has done no advertising work, despite generous offers from several brands. Coca-Cola once asked him to promote their Dasani water in the UK: “But I thought I couldn’t start advertising water. I’d be selling my soul.” He also managed to resist the temptation to conduct a wedding service for a rich Californian couple: “They said they’d pay me $3m… But I had to turn up as Gandolf.”

As to his own personal brand, McKellen said he has never wanted to have one. “I think there are two sorts of successful actors,” he added. “Stars and then the rest of us. The stars are personifications of branding in that they’re always the same — you don’t want to go and see Mick Jagger singing opera, do you? But I’m the other sort of actor. I like to be protean and different and surprising.”

This also means keeping his private life private: “Nobody knows what my favourite food is or where I live or how I vote. I like to be anonymous and stay fresh for the part I’m playing. In the end, I just want to be a good actor and I don’t want anything to limit me from achieving that.”

Harriet Palmer