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.
And yet, the leader Sir Ian McKellen portrays in this garb is a 15th century British monarch -- Richard III, as seen through the eyes of William Shakespeare.
"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."