Ian McKellen speaks in a wise, mellifluous baritone that contains just a hint of impish glee. Over the course of his decades-long career, he’s used that voice to command armies on stage and on screen, holding audiences rapt in an array of roles, though McKellen, 73, might be most closely associated with characters devised by an unlikely quartet of dreamers — Shakespeare, J.R.R. Tolkien and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
Of course, it’s Gandalf the Grey — rather than Kings Lear or Richard, or even Magneto, the electrifying foil to the X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier — who’s occupied McKellen’s thoughts in recent weeks. The actor has undertaken the fairly daunting work of promoting his role in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” which arrived in theaters Friday amid mixed reviews, though early criticism was hardly sufficient to quell fan enthusiasm.
The first installment in director Peter Jackson’s planned trilogy based on the 1937 Tolkien novel, “An Unexpected Journey” sees McKellen once again don the robes of the 7,000-year-old wizard. Here, he appears one day, luring unsuspecting Bilbo Baggins from the creature comforts of his hobbit hole to undertake an adventure with a band of dwarfs looking to reclaim their homeland and its accompanying treasure.
The first time he played Gandalf, in Jackson’s 2001 film “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” McKellen received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor (he was previously nominated for an Academy Award for his starring turn in 1998’s James Whale biopic “Gods and Monsters,” directed by Bill Condon). As “The Lord of the Rings” saga unfolded on screen, Gandalf underwent a spiritual transformation that saw him reborn as the near-divine Gandalf the White, his robes now the same gleaming alabaster as his beard, exemplifying his purity.
The wizard’s regressive return to a more human sort of being was among the chief attractions, McKellen said, in returning to the role when Jackson finally opted to book a return trip to Middle-earth. “The Hobbit” famously takes place roughly six decades prior to the events depicted in “Rings,” which means Gandalf is 60 years sprier and far more likely to relax and enjoy a party than he is to ride into a massive battle like a flaming angel of light.
“He likes boogeying around with the hobbits and having a smoke and a drink and a joke and fireworks and all that,” McKellen said during a recent interview, speaking by phone from London.
Yet the actor had some trepidation about picking up the staff once more.
“I think I knew I wanted to do it, but … then all the negatives flooded in,” McKellen recalled. “Do I want to go and live in New Zealand for 18 months on and off? The answer to that was yes and no. It’s a long way away from home, of course, although I enjoy it enormously when I’m there. Do I want to reprise a part that I’ve already played when I could be doing other things over an 18-month period? All those sorts of things came into play, but in the end, a friend said to me, ‘Ian, you know the fans of ‘Lord of the Rings’ are not going to be very interested that you’ve got problems. I think you’d better just do it.’
“As for going back into the character, he just seemed to have been inside me all the time,” he added. “He just popped out again.”
Even if Gandalf had been living inside McKellen all along, the practical realities surrounding his re-emergence proved alarming for the actor. The physical size of McKellen, Bilbo actor Martin Freeman and the men cast as the 13 dwarfs in “The Hobbit” had to be manipulated digitally so that the diminutive characters would seem sufficiently small, Gandalf just imposing enough in the final film.
That required not only certain sets to be built to varying scales, but also it made for an interesting first day of shooting — for the scene in which the dwarfs are feasting in Bilbo’s home, McKellen was having his own private dinner party while the actors playing the smaller roles shot their part of the sequence elsewhere (though a large-scale double, a 6-foot-8-inch New Zealand policeman, was hired to stand in for McKellen from time to time).
It was something the actor — whose fascination with performance began in childhood after his parents took him to a production of “Peter Pan” at the Manchester Opera House when he was only 3 years old — did not enjoy.
“It’s a constant fact of these films that the characters are not all the same size physically,” McKellen said. “Then I come to do these films and there are 13 dwarfs and one hobbit and they’re all smaller than me. On the first day, I rehearsed with them all and then was removed from their set into my own smaller set, which would make me look large, and two cameras recorded the scene. So while the 13 dwarfs were getting on with their scene, I was getting on with the scene in another part of the studio with their words fed into my ear by an earpiece.
“I was acting on my own and the dwarfs were represented around my little set by faces on top of photographs on top of stands which lit up according to whoever was speaking,” McKellen continued. “It wasn’t the pictures of the dwarfs, it was pictures of the actors playing the dwarfs, and I couldn’t always relate them to the people I’d just been rehearsing with. At the end of the day, I got a bit tearful and said to myself, ‘Oh dear, this isn’t why I became an actor,’ then realized that I was speaking into my microphone that was turned on and the whole studio heard me.”
That evening, McKellen related his distress to Jackson. Moving forward the filmmaker employed other techniques to gain the right perspective and make his star feel more at ease.
“Next day, he decorated my little tent with remnants of the Rivendell set,” McKellen said. “There were carpets and fresh fruit and flowers and screens and rugs and comfortable chairs, and I was made to feel very at home.”
McKellen said he enjoyed working with Freeman, well known in England for his turns on stage and for his role on Ricky Gervais’ landmark sitcom “The Office” and his portrayal of Watson opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s complicated sleuth in the BBC’s “Sherlock.” He might be more familiar to American moviegoers as Arthur Dent in 2005’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
He was also pleased to share the screen with Sylvester McCoy, the former “Doctor Who” star who played the fool to McKellen’s Lear in the acclaimed 2008 Royal Shakespeare Company touring production of the stage tragedy: “That was nice to meet up with him again, but a little bit of a challenge to have another eccentric wizard knocking around the place.”
McCoy stars in “Unexpected Journey” as Radagast the Brown, the eccentric ally to Gandalf. It was McKellen who introduced the actor to Jackson. “Peter was enchanted to meet the seventh Doctor Who,” he said.
McKellen said that he re-read “The Hobbit” to reacquaint himself with the story, as he had previously done with the “Lord of the Rings” books. And just as he had on the sets of the three earlier films, he kept the novel at hand at all times.
“Peter always had a joke that I was the guardian of Tolkien,” the actor said. “For ‘Lord of the Rings,’ I always had a copy, a very heavy copy although a paperback, of the book in my voluminous robe. It’s much easier to have a slim volume of ‘The Hobbit.'”
“All good stories deserve embellishment,” Gandalf the Grey says at one point in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and it appears the adage applies to even those tales told by J.R.R. Tolkien. The ultimate decision to make three films of the relatively slender tale was in large part because of the writers’ decision to follow Gandalf on the mysterious journey he takes in the middle of “The Hobbit.” They turned to the extensive “Lord of the Rings” appendixes to flesh out the narrative.
“In the book, Gandalf just disappears, you know — you don’t know what he does or where he goes,” said Philippa Boyens in an interview with The Times earlier this year. One of the four credited screenwriters on the movie, alongside Jackson, his life and creative partner Fran Walsh and Guillermo del Toro, who was originally set to direct “The Hobbit,” Boyens continued, “But now we know, the audience knows. It’s a wonderful story, and we have such a powerful character in Gandalf it was a no-brainer to tell it. And any day you spend working with Sir Ian is a good day.”
The move to expand what had been initially intended as a Tolkien double feature into a trilogy wasn’t announced until after Jackson had unveiled some key scenes from “The Hobbit” to a rapturous reception at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Though rumors had begun to swirl at the pop culture expo that Jackson had hatched, and won approval from New Line, Warner Bros. and MGM, for such a plan, the filmmaker broke the news with a post on Facebook just days later on July 30, citing Tolkien himself when he described the cinematic undertaking as “a tale that grew in the telling.”
“I wasn’t asked for my permission or views, I was just told it was going to happen,” McKellen said. “Peter called a few of us in and said he’d gotten so much material he didn’t want to cut it down to two films and it looked as if it would be better as three. My heart sank, ‘Am I going to have to come back for an even longer period?’ Well, I don’t. I’ve another five weeks to do next June, so there are a few extra little bits for me to film. You just learn to trust Peter’s judgment. If he says it’ll make three films, it’ll make three films.”
He echoes much the same sentiment when asked his opinion about Jackson’s choice to shoot the “Hobbit” movies at 48 frames per second, the groundbreaking technology the filmmaker employed to give the vistas and valleys of Middle-earth a striking, hyper-real look.
“Peter’s a great advocate of that and so is James Cameron,” McKellen said. “Of all directors alive they know more about these big movies than anybody else. Apparently the eye sees things at a rate of 60 frames per second so what we’ve been looking at all these years is a distortion of what we take to be real. Forty-eight is approaching the reality of actual eyesight in that everything can be in focus and with the clarity of a young person’s eyes. It takes you into the film. You go into Middle-earth. You can see round that tree. You can see behind that hedge. With this 48 frames per second, you’re going to be able to see the detail of that distant mountain.
“However,” McKellen said, drawing a breath, “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it in that, you can watch it at the normal projection. You don’t have to watch it in 3-D. That’s the beauty of these things, you can choose your cinema.”
It’s not 48 frames, though, that’s dominated the conversation around McKellen of late; it was the revelation that the actor and gay rights activist had been diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer several years ago. McKellen assured fans that his condition is being managed with regular doctors’ care and is under control, and he’s booked new jobs — he’s reportedly set for a return role as Magneto in Bryan Singer’s upcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
In addition, he’s set for a turn on an upcoming British television comedy, “Vicious,” in which he and Derek Jacobi will play a couple who have lived together in the same Covent Garden flat for nearly 50 years.
The part dovetails in some ways with McKellen’s long-time work as an outspoken gay rights activist. He publicly came out in 1988 and has argued eloquently on behalf of social equality — it’s possible he inherited his conviction from his parents, whom he described in a 2007 interview in the Guardian as “northern nonconformists” who “judged a person on how they related to society as a whole.”
It was an aspect of McKellen’s life and work that Tolkien super fan Stephen Colbert even took a moment to comment on during the actor’s recent appearance on “The Colbert Report.” The actor showcased some of his devious British wit, joking that in Middle-earth sequels, he might play “Gandalf the Gay” and teased with a raised eyebrow that audiences might learn the identity of his favorite dwarf.
But perhaps the most amusing moment came when the host played a clip from the new film in which Gandalf presents Bilbo with his Elvish blade Sting. Once the cameras returned to the actor, dappily attired in gray, McKellen, with his impeccable timing, muttered of the wizard’s performance in the scene, “He really is good, isn’t he?”
– Gina McIntyre
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