The Mr. Holmes star says his career didn't really begin to soar until he came out in 1988

By Patrick Gomez
Updated July 16, 2015 02:40 PM
Credit: Dennis Van Tine/UPI/Landov

It was love at first sight.

After just one trip to the theater with his parents, a young Ian McKellen was hooked.

“I enjoyed what I was watching so much that I wanted to see how it was done,” the actor, 76, tells PEOPLE in the magazine’s latest issue.

And even though he still gets “excited” every time he walks backstage, there was another aspect of performing that the young man from Lancashire, England, found intriguing.

Feeling he “wasn’t truly allowed” to be himself because of his sexual orientation, McKellen says acting allowed him the opportunity to “run away from real life.”

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Though he found early success on the stage and on British television and film, it wasn’t until McKellen came out to his family and the press in 1988 that he feels his career truly started to soar.

“I was finally allowed to be in touch with my own emotions,” says the actor, who won a Golden Globe in 1996 and has been nominated for two Oscars and five Emmys. “So acting became about telling the truth. It was a huge change.”

And McKellan – who cemented his place in pop culture history in the early 2000s by playing both Magneto in X-Men and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings films – believes that it was not just a huge change in his professional life.

“My life got better in every way [after coming out,]” says McKellen, who stars as a retired Sherlock Holmes in Mr. Holmes (in theaters Friday). “I don’t say I became a better cook, but I became a better son, a better brother, a better uncle, and a better actor – a different actor, anyway.”

For more of McKellen’s emotional interview, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday