entertainment

Bridgerton's Jonathan Bailey talks being an out gay actor with Sir Ian McKellen

Bridgerton's leading man speaks to stage and screen legend Sir Ian McKellen about coming out, playing straight roles, getting naked together (on stage), and love in a pre-DMs age.

2022-03-28

Words: Cliff Joannou; Photography: Claire Harrison; Styling: Joseph Kocharian

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 331, February 2021.

Jonathan Bailey bounds onto set for his Attitude photoshoot with more energy than an atomic bomb going off in a broom cupboard. Effusing charm and contagious cheer, he runs through the clothes we’ve assembled for his cover shoot, and is fully hands-on, sharing ideas
with the photographer and leaping behind the camera to look at the snaps after each picture to see how he can push himself one step further to snare that perfect shot. It’s the kind of infectious approach we at Attitude Towers welcome, and it makes a COVID-minded socially distanced shoot that much more fun to deliver.

Jonny closed 2019 on a monumental high as he added a prestigious Olivier award to his mantelpiece following a rousing role as Jamie in Marianne Elliott’s revival and contemporary update of the musical, Company. He can currently be seen on screen as the philandering Anthony in Bridgerton, the huge, new, modern-day take on a classic period drama from TV genius Shonda Rhimes and Netflix. If 2020 was a quiet year for many actors, 2021 is ready to make Jonny a household name, and a worthy lead for the Arts & Entertainment category in our
inaugural Attitude 101 list.

Attitude first featured Jonny back in 2018 as he warmed his impressive vocals in preparation for hitting the stage in London’s West End. For his return to the magazine’s pages — this time gracing the cover (look how far our Jonny’s come!) – he wanted a different take on the interview format, suggesting being ‘in conversation’ with Sir Ian McKellen. We were totally game.

The legend more recently lauded for his roles as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films and Magneto in X-Men, Sir Ian is a supernova star of the stage and screen, and as readers will know, one of the earliest and most high-profile actors to come out publicly, doing so in the late ’80s when the declaration could have scuppered a less well-known actor’s career. Ian lent his voice to help found queer rights group Stonewall in the UK, and has since been an advocate for LGBTQ visibility as a patron of numerous charities.

Having first met when they starred in King Lear together, Jonny visited his friend and mentor Ian to muse on what it means to be an openly gay man and actor today. Now sharing another thing in common, both are recent Attitude magazine cover stars, Jonny opened their chat by scrolling through the shoot photos on his phone with Ian…

Jonathan wears top by Versace

 

Jonathan: There was a tank-top moment during the shoot.

Ian: Oh yes, very good. I like that. Hope you’ve kept that. Have you?

J: What the top? It was Versace.

I: Mm-hmm. [Affirmative]

J: Unfortunately not. Versace wanted it back himself. I know. Gone are the days when you get free stuff, Ian.

I: Is it?

J: Did you used to get…?

I: I just steal it. They go, “Well, sir, I think by mistake you might’ve taken…?” And I say, “Oh, yes. And the thing is, I put it on yesterday and it stretched ever so slightly.”

J: Have you got to the sexy pics yet?

I: Well, they’re all a bit sexy.

Jonathan wears jacket and trousers by BOSS, top by Dior, trainers by Kurt Geiger

J: Let’s have a look. What have you got? Oh no, did you just swipe too far? Ian, that’s quite a personal collection.

I: Am I not allowed to go that way?

J: Maybe go back the other way. Ian, you’re so naughty.

I: Oh, I say.

J: I know. Here we go, more like that.

I: Very good. Yes, lovely. [Passes phone back to Johnny.] You’re in good shape. You’ll get lots of letters.

J: Letters. We call them DMs now, Ian.

I: What do you call them?

J: Well, presumably a letter is the equivalent of sliding into your DMs?

I: What’s a DM?

J: A DM is a direct message on Instagram. You must get DMs, you’re on Instagram.

I: I’ve never been able to get into Instagram. I mean, literally. It wants my name, my parents’ names.

J: What are your passwords?

I: I have no idea.

J: Well, DM is the equivalent of a letter.

I: Well, in a letter, you had to pick up a pencil and write. And touch this paper which your beloved was going to eventually touch. And smell.

J: The sensuality of it.

Jonathan wears tank top, by BOSS, trousers by Dior

I: When I was in love and writing love letters before all this, you just had to wait for the reply. And the agony. The bliss. The post arrives, it’s not come. But never mind, it may come second post. And if not, then tomorrow. And then when it arrived…

J: But the doubt before that, that that letter may never have been received. Because we, in our direct message, we get a double tick and it’s been seen. So, you know when someone’s… And God forbid that they…

I: Well, it was different, but it was actual. And I’ve got these letters somewhere.

J: There’s something so brilliant about that.

I: Can’t bear to read them. I would just cry. But I think it’s a pity people now aren’t going to have that thrill. But it’s all better, at least you can meet people. I mean, you can get hold of it, if you want to.

J: Yeah. At any point.

I: I missed out on that.

J: I know. Does that feel [like] something that is regretful?

I: Yes. Well, I’ve never been, what’s the word, promiscuous, if I’d been in a relationship. Not really promiscuous. Well, had I done, I might have got Aids and be dead.

J: Of course. And there was obviously a very real set of friends that you presumably lost in the ’80s?

I: Not as many as a lot of people, but yes, very much. My first boyfriend died of that virus.

____________________

J: I guess the obvious thing to talk about first is that when you do say, “I’m a gay actor,” and you start talking about it, does that not become the question that you get asked for the rest of your career?

I: Yes. Well, when I came out, I think there was only one other actor in this country who was out, it was Simon Callow. Simon was out at university, and so when he started acting he was an out gay man. And in every interview he talked about it, and nobody would publish it because of that. They thought they were protecting him because it was the worst thing you could possibly say about anybody, or yourself, that you were gay. So the press…

J: Censored him.

I: And that’s where ‘outing’ came from. It was devised by a man called William… I could look him up, I suppose. He was the drama critic for an American paper, I think Time magazine or something. And he invented this phrase ‘outing’, which was the dilemma that a publication had when they knew someone to be gay but they hadn’t said so themselves. Should they, or should they not reveal that they knew? And that was outing. It was a dilemma for the press. But as I say, for Simon, the press was not a dilemma; they just simply wouldn’t do it. So he had to come out by writing a book saying he was gay.

J: Was that Being an Actor?

I: Yes. Oh, it’s a wonderful book. Anyway, so when I came out, there was no one really to go and, apart from Simon, to judge what you should do. Derek Jarman, who had been, of course, very vocal about being gay, and about that affecting your work, or being reflected in your work, he assumed that when I came out I would become a queer artist. And that all my work would be now…

J: Devoted to the queer experience. Through choice or because?

I: Yes, that’s all you would want to do. What would that mean? You would play only gay parts? I don’t know what it really meant. And I said to him I thought heterosexuality was far too interesting a phenomenon for me to avoid. Because otherwise I wouldn’t be allowed to play Hamlet, or Macbeth, or King Lear. It didn’t make sense to me. His response was that I was a straight man in gay clothing.

J: Which was an offence.

I: Yes. Anyway, it was quite funny because he did ask me to be in his film of Edward II. And I was able to tell him he was 20 years too late; I had already played the part on stage. So, I wasn’t quite the straight actor he thought I was.

J: Yeah. But that seems to highlight something that I think is really interesting even now, which is queer experience being owned by someone. If someone comes out first… It seems to be something that you pickaxe your way towards, what the real queer experience is. And one person’s queer experience can threaten someone else’s.

I: Yes. Well, we’re all different.

Jonathan wears tank top by BOSS, trousers by Dior

J: The most conservative conversations I’ve had about me being honest about my sexuality in this day and age have come from gay men in the industry, “Oh, no, you can’t come out. You shouldn’t really do that. If you do that, you’re going to have to…” They’re either people who work in publicity, or there’s also been casting directors who have put the call into my agent to say, “Just so that you know, the way that this is going to be sold is that it’s a gay story written by gay writers for gay actors. So by just taking the role…” This was at a stage where perhaps I was coming to terms with my own sexuality, I hadn’t necessarily hidden it… But I’ve never been not honest about it. It’s just there had never been a need to talk about it.

There’s a sense of shame, I think, that’s palpable throughout gay men within the industry. But then there’s also this heteronormative, heterosexual understanding of sexuality. So, in my generation, the out gay actors are now being poached. And you get a script sent through and they’ll say, “Must be comfortable with talking about sexuality”. So that is in one way a brilliant thing, because it’s saying we’re not encouraging anyone not to talk about sexuality, but it’s also showing that sexuality is becoming a commodity. That actually there needs to be this sense that studios are hiring gay actors to play either gay actors or straight.

I: Well, I know someone who has decided that it should be a gay actor playing a specific part. But they’re not, of course, allowed to say in a casting, “Are you gay?”. It would be discriminatory. But they want you to be gay.

J: They want you to be gay, but not too gay.

I: It used to be that if you were gay, if you came out, then you would jeopardize the whole project — particularly if it’s a television show. American television series would find that people in the Bible Belt objected, or that the advertisers did not want it to be sullied by your sexuality.

J: In this year, where we’ve talked about minority and privilege, what I’ve realised is that, of course, as a white male, we have complete privilege. But as a queer existence, we are on the fringes of that privilege. And that we’ve had that experience of being othered possibly at various different points, which increases our empathy and understanding of character and of people. And I wonder if that ties into acting? I’ve got a question for you, which I’m fascinated with. Do you think this is the reason why gay men have found theatre? Do you think people go there because it’s a liberal pocket? Or because, actually, it’s also a place where you can not be yourself and play any other part?

Jonathan wears tank top by Hemen at Matches Fashion

I: Well, for me, I think my secret of being gay — which, of course, I shared with my friends because it was their secret, too — might be the reason why it was rather congenial to spend one’s career and all the time that needed, in disguise and pretending, acting. And people of my generation got rather good at acting in every situation.

J: Yeah. And dissembling.

I: And dissembling. Well, the difference is that when you come out, disguise is not what you want to do. You want to be open. And my acting, having begun to be about disguise and pretence and makeup and being different every time, became chained to an
idea that acting was about telling the truth rather than disguise. One of the first plays I did having come out was Uncle Vanya at the National. And I found in Act three, when Vanya is at his peak of his misery, that I started crying. I’ve never been able to cry, but I could now,
because it was more me, the real me. And that was my contribution to the play and to the character.

When you come out, everything in your life gets better. Not necessarily in terms of some relationships, which might deteriorate with family for some poor people. It’s possible you lose friends. I lost an agent — my agent didn’t want me to come out. But, yes, everything gets better because you get self-confidence. But how can you be confident if a big part of your life is lying? So you get better in terms of relationships, friends of all sorts, family, if you’re lucky. And in my case, I think in every case, your acting is bound to change and improve.

Now, I remember [Juno star] Elliot Page, in one of the X-Men, sat as close as we are now. And I had to speak when they’d finished, and I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Nobody could hear what they were saying. So, I said, “Look, if you can’t speak up, would you mind when you’re finished speaking, just dropping your hand so I know when you’ve finished speaking?” And then they came out years later and suddenly you couldn’t stop them talking. You heard everything. And now… they’re Elliot. And I’m so happy for Elliot. And so disappointed in myself that I didn’t detect what their difficulty was with communicating.

J: It is exactly like that. And this sense of suspension and light that you feel. I remember sitting in my bedroom with my best friend with whom there’s complete transparency between us emotionally. And I sat there. I got to a point in my life, in my twenties, where I couldn’t explain how I was feeling. I couldn’t explain it. I couldn’t put any word on it, but it was like a Tupperware box that had been locked down. I couldn’t voice what I was feeling. It was affecting relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, because I felt like I was withdrawing.

Jonathan wears jacket and trousers by BOSS, top by Dior, trainers by Kurt Geiger

That was something that I felt intrinsically, and also as an actor. Playing Othello at The National Theatre, I remember was the first time I spoke about my sexuality in a rehearsal room, which felt to me [like] a huge step, making that decision before you go in. But I remember vocally, I found it hard. I was working with the amazing voice department at The National, trying to get my voice into my stomach and to feel a sense of support. But I don’t think my body trusted my ability to connect. But slowly and surely, over the past few years, I’ve managed to find that, although I’m still struggling with it. And it’s just funny because what you described about a connectivity and now being able to cry in front of my friends. It takes work, but to be able to identify emotion seems to me completely parallel to being honest and authentic.

Can I ask as well, earlier you were saying how the assumption, because you came out, was that you would then be a queer artist. But were there gay roles to even play?

I: Not many, but that would be the point. That’s the thing. When people talk about the gay community — well, I don’t know where the gay community was. There are many communities of gay people. Many sorts of gays. And you can be… The political spectrum goes right the way through to a right-wing core, it can have strong views on libertarianism, [where] everyone should do whatever they want, to the other end of the spectrum, where people say it is our right as a citizen to be ourselves. But it doesn’t mean to say we all go about it in the same way.

J: It’s interesting because actually those arguments are now being fitted and retro-fitted into what is now a law, it creates a structure by which people then can really start authentically talking about their queer experience and how that is different between types and how LGBTQ+ intersect — every different way in which people can ‘label’ themselves. It’s interesting, from a heterosexual perspective, you’re either gay or not. There’s a binary sense of it. If there is a queer community, it’s one that is all-embracing and understanding.

I: Yes, but what I’m saying is that because you’ve got access to the pulpit, it’s only for you to express your feelings and questions. You’re not speaking on anybody else’s behalf. And I found that a bit difficult when I became the poster boy, and the demand was that I would only say what everybody agreed on. Well, that’s very difficult to do, because you don’t know.

J: Because you were one of the first. You really were.

I: I was the one that was already in the public eye, so attention was drawn to me, and Stonewall used me for that. I was the one who was sent off to talk to the Prime Minister.

J: You were the first lady of the queer movement.

Jonathan wears tank top by BOSS, zipped top by Versace, trousers by Thom Browne at MR PORTER

 

I: Actors can get into the public arenas and share conversations and ideas that might otherwise be ignored. To go, as I have done, to China and places where to be gay is almost forbidden, and say from one’s privileged position, “I’m gay. And I’m with all the other gay people in your wonderful country.” We were in China, and I met a gay activist. I said, “Where do you all meet?” He said, “We’re not allowed to. We can’t have a gathering of more than six people. It’s not legal.” I said, “No bars?” “Oh yeah, there’s a club.” I went to it in Beijing. I said, “So what are you doing for the rest of the day?” He said, “Oh, I’ll probably go down to a cafe, a bar where gay people go.” I said, “Could I come along?” Well, an hour later, we went to this bar. It was absolutely empty. Perfectly ordinary bar. Very friendly gay owner. Sat me down, gave me a drink. In the next half hour I sat there with people coming in, coming in, coming in. The word had gone around. And an hour later the place was packed. And they’d all come to have a look at this… [points to himself]

J: To see you. Gandalf.

I: Openly gay Gandy. And you know they must’ve gone home feeling a little bit better about themselves.

J: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because we’re saying about when you come out, that’s the beginning of a new chapter in growth, right? But for me, I don’t think I’ll ever know where I fit in, in terms of society, because it’s ever-changing. So, for me, I don’t want to talk about my versatility in the bedroom. I’ll talk about my versatility on stage. For me, it’s about visibility. That’s it. Why is there this common assumption that because we’ve decided to gift people with the knowledge that we’re gay, it means that we’re actually then prepared to basically squat over a mirror and show them our inner workings?

What do you hope for someone like me starting out on my career now? Playing straight characters, wanting to be visible, but also knowing that there are lots of things about my life that are personal, and I don’t want to cross that line. But visibility is key. What do you hope for someone like me going forward, and what are your worries?

I: For the work, well, I just hope whatever you want from your work, the fact that you’re gay doesn’t impede it in any way. Honesty is the best policy for you. If people can’t cope with it…

J: Then move on.

I: But what I would hope for you is that your honesty about being gay, not having that secret, continues to bring you joy. But you place that, as far as your career is concerned, wherever you want it to be placed. You bring to the table, you bring to the workshop, you bring to the project, your life experience. And actually if you are gay, even now, you have experienced something about society which most people don’t have to bother about. Now, the fact that you’re white and sort of middleclass is that you’re already privileged, so whether you could claim to understand what it’s like to be in another minority, I’m not sure. But it is a specific problem. A black child bullied at school can go back to black parents who will take up the cudgels.

Jonathan wears suit by Dior, tank top by BOSS

J: What was your earliest memory of allowing someone to know you?

I: Oh, I think holding hands with another boy under a blanket as we crossed the Channel, going on a school trip at 14 or 15.

J: God, you have a way of making everything seem like the original love story.

I: There was also a boy at school ahead of me called… his surname was Allen; Brian, I think. And he was effeminate and had a lot of curly hair and was apparently a wonderful actor. And his nickname was ‘Girly’. And one day the headmaster came in front of the entire school and said, “I’m very pleased to say that our scholarship at Oxford has been achieved by Girly Allen.” I used to carry his satchel for him, through the park to the bus station. I’ve met him since. He’s a very happy gay man. The only sex lesson we got at school was the day we left and a few of us were called into the headmaster’s study and he said, “Now, before you leave here, there’s something I must tell you. When you leave here, you’re going to meet a certain sort of woman. Be careful. That’s all I say.” That was the extent of my sex education.

____________________

J: Do you remember when we met?

I: No, not really.

J: We met on day one of rehearsals of King Lear, in which we were both going to appear nude on stage.

I: Yes.

J: And do you remember what you said to me?

I: No.

J: The first thing you ever said to me was, “Are we going to get naked together?”.

I: Oh.

J: [Laughs.] But do you know what the interesting thing is? Because obviously that wasn’t the first time we met, because we met when I was in Trafalgar Square as a young, wee lad and you were doing a speech on Pride, and you were on stage and you said, “Now’s the time to come out.”

I: Oh, yes. Best day of the year to come out.

Jonathan wears tank top by Hemen at Matches Fashion

J: Of course. And I stood there and I wasn’t ready. I was doing a play, I took over from Andrew Garfield in Beautiful Thing, and I was in rehearsals, and they took me to Pride to understand the community. And I remember that moment. But it wasn’t my time. Final question. So, you find yourself in my position now, right? I’m 32. What do you think your queer visibility would be now? Would you have chosen to be vocal? Or would you have thought, in the same way that you said earlier today, that actually you don’t have to do that?

I: Well, I think I would hope to be myself.

J: And would you have wanted to talk about that?

I: See, poor old Nigel Hawthorne, very successful actor. Do you know who he was? He was knighted in the end. When he went up for his Oscar for George III, someone asked him about being gay. And he was horrified that his moment of glory, possibility of winning an Oscar, was pretty sullied by this reference to something he’d spent his whole life not talking about. He wasn’t ready to. He couldn’t. He didn’t know how to do it. And when I asked him to come out, he said, “I can’t, Ian. You see, my boyfriend and I, we open the village fête every year. If the vicar knew that we were gay…” I went, “Nigel, Nigel. How long has he been asking these two men to open his fête? He probably knows. And if he probably knows, he probably doesn’t give a fuck.”

But we’re always worried about somebody else coming out. Oh, my father would have a heart attack. So, I hope for you, what I would hope for myself at your age, is that I could be myself. And if your talent, or your taste or your political fervour, leads you to join with other people who are doing things in public, terrific. And if it doesn’t, that’s also perfectly all right.