‘Hobbit’: Sylvester McCoy’s twin loves, Radagast, ‘Doctor Who’

Dec. 03, 2012 | 1:52 p.m.

Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Todd Eyre / Warner Bros. / MGM)

Radagast actor Sylvester McCoy arrives at the premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in Wellington, New Zealand, on Nov. 28. (Ross Setford / Associated Press)

Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Sylvester McCoy, left, and director Peter Jackson on the set of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

Radagast actor Sylvester McCoy arrives at the premiere of "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" in Wellington, New Zealand, on Nov. 28. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

Cast members of the film "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" arrive for the film's Wellington premiere. Sylvester McCoy is front left. (Marty Melville / AFP / Getty Images)

One of the most anticipated performances in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” is Sylvester McCoy’s turn as the wizard Radagast the Brown. Though the character did not appear in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Radagast is a key player in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. McCoy, who has been acting on the stage and screen for more than 45 years, joined “The Hobbit” after finishing a Royal Shakespeare Company tour of “King Lear,” acting opposite Gandalf actor Ian McKellen. McCoy is perhaps best known for his role in “Doctor Who.” Hero Complex chatted with McCoy about wizards and Timelords.

HC: Were you a Tolkien fan before being cast in “The Hobbit” films?

SM: Yeah, I read them in the ’60s. It came out in the ’50s, and then it started catching on. You know, they were the books to read, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” A rite of passage going through life. I reread “The Hobbit” again recently.

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HC: I understand you originally auditioned for the role of Bilbo for “The Lord of the Rings” a decade ago?

Radagast actor Sylvester McCoy arrives at the premiere of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in Wellington, New Zealand on Nov. 28. (Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images)

SM: Yes, it got down to two actors eventually from quite a few, and I was one of them. Of course the other was the great and glorious Ian Holm. I was a bit disappointed, but I was also quite pleased to be in such great company. So they knew me from that, and so as luck would have it, I was touring with Ian McKellen in “King Lear,” playing the fool to his king, and we went to New Zealand. And they knew me before, but they were reminded of me again, and they saw Ian and I working on the stage together. I think they must have quite liked that.

HC: Radagast is someone we didn’t get to meet in “The Lord of the Rings” films. Can you tell us a bit about your character?

SM: He’s a wizard, for starts. He lives in the forest. He’s more of a hermit, really, and he communicates with animals, and he kind of cares for the forest and the flora and the fauna, and he discovers something — that the forest is in danger, and he has to act quickly and come out of his quiet, lonely yet happy existence and try and do something about it. His closeness to the animals is very helpful to himself and others. It was exciting, really. At first, Peter was doing these logs from the studio and putting them out on YouTube, and they kept keeping me a secret. He said, “You’re our little secret.” So that was quite fun to be the little secret, the little surprise, maybe.

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HC: Did the relationship you developed with McKellen during “King Lear” inform your “Hobbit” performance?

SM: Yes, because we knew each other. We worked together for a year and a half, quite close, really. It always makes life easier for everyone concerned. New people, it takes a little time maybe to get to know each other. And also, they can see instantly what the chemical mix is between the two of us and how it works, so that made it easier.

HC: So what is the relationship like between the two wizards — Gandalf and Radagast?

SM: Well, Saruman the White dislikes Radagast and thinks him a fool, but Gandalf the Grey, he has an admiration for Radagast. He knows that although he’s a bit of a bumbling, sweet little old fool, that he has steel inside of him when push comes to shove. I think they’re cousins, if I remember rightly. So we’ve got kind of blood connection.

Ian McKellen as Gandalf, left, and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: Where did you look for inspiration for the character?

SM: I just kind of took it from the writing, from the scripts that Peter and Fran [Walsh] and Philippa [Boyens] came up with, really. They needed Gandalf to play off someone. Anyway, I do things instinctively. When you’ve got the costume on, and the look, and then you’re on the set, hopefully the character has arrived.

HC: Costume designer Ann Maskrey said that Radagast’s costume was her favorite. Did you enjoy working in it?

SM: It was great, it really was great fun. She’s a great costume designer. I’d worked with her on a film many years ago, so it was great to see her again. And she is terrific. They made it with great detail and intricacy, sewing and hems specially done, and the fabric was beautiful, and they created this amazingly beautiful costume, and then they broke it down, and kind of ripped it and dirtied it and aged it. Heartbreaking, really. But the result is something pretty interesting.

HC: And you get to carry a staff…

SM: If you know your “Lord of the Rings,” you might recognize it. You’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next three years. You’ll find out about that staff. It’s quite important eventually. It’s a mystery. I don’t want to give it all away.

HC: What about the set? That little cottage we see in the trailer?

SM: The cottage, it was just so beautiful, I mean so wonderful. I fell in love with it immediately. It was just this higgledy-piggledy home, and it appealed to the child in me. And the child in me all the time, and it was just the kind of home that as a child I dreamed of. And there it was. It was mine!

HC: You mentioned Radagast’s relationship with animals. Did you work with real animals on the set?

SM: No, that’s the amazing WETA studios. They had no real ones in because they make ones that are even better than real ones. I did work with a hedgehog, and it was a stuffed hedgehog called Simon. It was really prickly and sticking to me and all that. But look at the trailer carefully, and they have brought that hedgehog to life. It’s astonishing. They are complete magicians.

HC: Was it difficult to act to things that weren’t there in front of you?

SM: It is in a way. You have to use your imagination, which is quite fun, and for an actor, even more so. And I spent a lot of time working on — we had blue-screen in the early days of television here, but we call it green-screen now. But yeah, you kind of get used to it. I’ve always had an ability to kind of work with imaginary creatures, so I think it works. And there’s another beautiful bit in it when these birds are flying around my head, and they weren’t there when I was doing the scene. But I’ve seen the scene with these birds, and their wings are flapping, and the air from the wings are making my hair blow up. Which is a tiny, tiny detail, but just watching, I was just so glad. These guys at WETA are just so brilliant.

Sylvester McCoy, left, and director Peter Jackson on the set of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” (Todd Eyre / New Line Cinema / MGM / Warner Bros.)

HC: What was it like working with Peter Jackson?

SM: Aw, great. He’s a lovely man. It’s terrific working with him. He’s not frightening, he doesn’t play games, he’s just honest and open and, as I understand, completely in charge. He knows exactly what he wants. You just feel you’re in safe hands.

HC: And Andy Serkis?

SM: I did a lot with Andy. And we got along really well, we’re great mates. I knew Andy from before from over here in England, so it was terrific to work with him. I’ve seen him as Gollum in this, and he is astonishing, absolutely astonishing.

HC: Is there a role in your past that has prepared you for this one?

SM: In some ways, a lot of it comes from having played the fool in “King Lear” with Ian. My character is a fool, but “King Lear” is a tragedy, and this one has got something added, which is a certain kind of unexpected heroism maybe. Everything you do all through your life is in there somewhere. You carry all that baggage. I think that this character is very much a new one. Brand new for Sylvester McCoy.

Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor in “Doctor Who.” (BBC)

HC: I have to bring up “Doctor Who.” You were the last Doctor before the show went off the air for a long spell, and you were one of the most popular Doctors in the show’s history. What’s it been like to see the series resurrected?

SM: Well, it’s terrific. It’s absolutely joyful that it’s come back. I knew they were wrong when they took it off, and lots of others said it would never come back. But I knew, because having gone ’round the world and met fans, the bubble kept bubbling, the fan clubs kept going, and people wouldn’t give up. And fans then started to make their own versions of “Doctor Who,” and they’ve slowly developed. One of them is called “Big Finish,” and they do the audio “Doctor Whos.” They kept it alive, and then you know, suddenly someone with a bit of an imagination came along and said, “Yes, I’ve been listening to these ‘Doctor Whos,’ and they work. We should have these back on television.”

HC: Do you watch it?

SM: I watch it, yes. Not all the time, because I’ve been busy making “The Hobbit.” I’m still doing Doctor Who as well; I’ve been around the world five times, and each time I’ve gone around, I’ve lost a day. I’m now five days younger than I was when I started “The Hobbit”! That’s called time travel. Next January, I’ll be doing a lot of these “Doctor Who” radio plays, and they’re brand new, and it’s the same kind of actors that work in the television as well, some of the top actors of Britain.

HC: You’ve been able to play two very iconic characters. Which do you like better? The Doctor or Radagast?

SM: I love playing Radagast. He’s my new love, you know what I mean? I’m not divorcing “Doctor Who.” I’m just going to be married to a few people. There’s a couple of loves I’ve got. I’ve got two sons whom I love to death, and I love them differently. It’s the same with “Doctor Who” and Radagast.

– Noelene Clark


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7 Responses to ‘Hobbit’: Sylvester McCoy’s twin loves, Radagast, ‘Doctor Who’

  1. jim sheridan says:

    Kent aka sylvester and i are full cousins and we grew up together in Dunoon Scotland he was always a comedian and actor and often got us in trouble as kids.
    I am looking forward to seeing him in the hobbit movie.

  2. This is an awesome interview. When I heard Sylvester is going to be in The Hobbit I was thrilled.

  3. Steven says:

    I'm so happy for Sylv. He was always my favorite Doctor!

  4. Ace says:

    He really stole the show. Great stuff!

  5. trojanmoose says:

    Just saw it today. Sylvester Mccoy was great – really loved Radagast – best thing in the movie which
    is saying something!

  6. Doctor Who's Who says:

    Doctor Radagast!! His staff is his sonic screwdriver. His Tardis is a tree. It's bigger in the inside.

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