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INT: Ian McKellen


Sir Ian McKellen is a consummate performer, an actor’s actor. Having been into acting from a very young age, he is one of the few thespians left who is classically trained. And while stage might be his first love, he is showing up on the big screen more and more, starring in two big summer films this year alone. And you might think that being in two high profile movies may weather this seasoned gentleman, but quite the contrary, he’s still all about the craft of acting.

I sat down with the man who has become a household name with such loved characters as Gandalf and Magneto (not to mention my favorite role, that of the wicked ex-Nazi in Bryan Singer’s APT PUPIL!), to talk about his upcoming films THE DA VINCI CODE and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, working with new to X-Men director Brett Ratner and his return to the stage.

Ian McKellen

Had you read The Da Vinci Code prior to making the film?

No, I hadn’t.

Have you read it since?

I have.

How close does your portrayal of Sir Leigh Teabing mirror the book?

The book is a bit short on character.  The plot is what keeps you turning the page.  It’s that you get to know more about the characters, as it would happen in some novels, but you get more of what they’re interested in, the code, everything to do with Leonardo and Jesus and Mary.  And actually, the description of Leigh Teabing makes me an inappropriate casting; he’s small and round and rubicund and white hair, I think balding and a jolly man, while I’m rather gaunt and narrow.

But Ron Howard didn’t care and I don’t think Dan Brown (the author of the novel) did, because the only description you get of Leigh Teabing is when you first meet him and thereafter his size is forgotten, of course he is on crutches, or sticks in our case, not crutches.  So that was of interest, but I thought he was a really interesting man and there was lots for me to delve about in.  How did he get his polio for example?  What was his relationship with his wife?  And we’ve filled in a whole back story and if you’re looking, you can see it because the house is full of different clues as to his past life and has nothing to do with the plot really.

Your character has been described as the sphinx of the story and a puppet master, can you tell us more?

Well, you see, I’m in a bit of a bind here, because am I to reveal what my character actually is, because if I do that, then one of the excitements of the film is gone.  He just seems to be someone who is hugely enthusiastic about the business of Jesus and Mary.  And he is indeed, but his interest is so intense that it encourages him to do things that perhaps he shouldn’t do and I wouldn’t want to go any further then that.

What is it like to be apart of a film that has so much speculation, news stories, and all the overall fascination with the book?  Have you ever experienced anything like it before?

Yes I have Lord of the Rings, fifty times, a hundred times bigger then Da Vinci Code.  Millions around the world, over all the generations, they were much, much more…and a book which for them was central to their lives.  It wasn’t just an exciting read; it was a book that they read twenty times in some cases.  They were very, very interested in the movie, very disturbed, was it going to be the movie of their book or was it going to be Peter Jackson’s book.  I think with Da Vinci Code, I doubt if people have read it more then once.  It’s not that sort of book, you understand, it as you go along and having understood it it’s like a crossword; after you’ve done a crossword, you don’t rub it out and do it all over again, do you?  (Smiles)  I don’t know.  You go to another one.  But of course there’s immense interest, but it’s not the same sort of interest as you got with Tolkien, where it was almost like filming the bible to some people.

What do you think of the reaction by the Catholic Church to the actual film, as opposed to the book which had already sold millions of copies?

I noticed that.  Probably a bit of snobbery in there somewhere, that the people who go and see movies, there minds aren’t quite as finely attuned as people who actually read the book, is that what the Vatican’s thinking?  Therefore they have to be protected?  Well, I don’t approve of censorship, I don’t approve of having lists of things that you can’t see.  The only good thing about it is of course, once you publish a list of things you can’t look at or can’t read, it makes people want to do exactly what you don’t want them to do.  So I think on the whole those elements in the Catholic Church that are kept quiet, like doing the right thing, just accept this is a fictional thriller.

But Dan Brown may claim more of it, I think the facts in Da Vinci Code may well be challengeable, but maybe the truths are not, maybe he’s onto something about the nature of institutions which has been as grounded and as powerful as long as the Catholic Church has, maybe it isn’t quite the organization it seems to be from the outside.  Maybe there are secrets and that would be a truth about an organization like the Catholic Church that’s probably incontrovertible. But the facts, the details of his criticism, I am happy to believe have all been made up.

Do you think that the book, which is a work of fiction, has been somewhat misunderstood by it’s detractors?

Well, while I was reading it, I was nodding away thinking, yeah, that’s right, I bet, umm, I bet that’s right.  (Laughs)  I can understand why people are exercised by the effect that the book might have, but I think most people who have read the book just praise it for being a rattling good yarn.  And that’s what the movie will be.

Can you talk a little bit about working with Ron Howard on this film?

Well you know better then I do, I mean you’ve been watching him for years, he’s like that, he’s absolutely like that.  He’s as enthusiastic as a kid about it all, he’s nervous, he can’t quite believe I think his luck, that he’s allowed to play with the grown ups, I mean I get that feeling from it.  And he is super efficient, so when he tells you, when he first talks to you I want you to film on this day and you will end on that day, that’s the way it works out.  He’s brilliant and having been an actor himself of course, he’s very sympathetic to the problems of acting and can often see things another director wouldn’t, cause as an actor he can see what’s going on.

He and Tom got on extremely well and that was important, you felt there was sort of twin leaders.  And Akiva Goldsman (the screenwriter), very unusual being there the whole time.  He and Ron, you felt at times, were directing it together; I mean they were puzzling over problems together.  Everything was shared, it was all very open and I hadn’t expected that and we rehearsed for about two weeks in Paris and which is a wonder where getting, you know, a bit unnerving to suddenly find your working with Tom Hanks.  And actually around the table with him like we did for four, five weeks and heard what he’s got to say and have him listen to what you’ve got to say, then things relax.  And Ron was very good in that way.

Was Director Bryan Singer a major influence in doing the original X-Men and what was it like doing the third film without him?

Well he had, no more than I, known about X-Men until a friend showed him and introduced him to X-Men and he got, as I did, very excited about the idea of the story.  So we were all not alarmed, but interested in what new direction Brett Ratner’s arrival would take the films.  And there was no worry, because Brett was so in love with the first two films that he wanted to make a third that looked as though it had been directed by Bryan Singer.  His own words, so we’ll see whether he’s achieved that or not.  I think the plot is a lot more interesting then the previous two, so it’s sure to be at least as exciting and Magneto gets to do an awful lot in this film, which he didn’t in the second one, so I very happy about it.  So it’s not going to be a change of direction, it’s not like Tim Burton is suddenly coming in and doing his stuff.  Brett Ratner is doing basically what Bryan did.

But with Bryan having already directed you previously in Apt Pupil, was the fact that he was directing a major influence for you even taking the role in the X-Men films?

Yes, well it always is with me, I mean it’s never just the part, it’s who’s going to direct it and how well is the part written and all sorts of things.  But I had to take this on trust, cause I didn’t know Brett and I didn’t know much of his work either, but I was pretty well committed to doing the film before hand.  He arrived very late in the day, eight weeks before we started shooting and very, very, very difficult job and I felt very sorry for him really, cause you need eight months to prepare a movie like this.  I only finished doing - I did the last bit of voicing of Magneto two days ago.

The thing that always comes up about Brett is his enthusiasm, how does that manifest itself on set and set the tone?

Well, you can’t be a good director unless you can hold a good party, is what I think.  Because at good party, you’ve got a group of people who you’ve specifically brought together because you think they’ll get on, and your job is to make them get on.  Your job is not to have a good time, it’s to make sure they have a good time.  You treat each of them differently, you make sure they’ve got the right drink in their hand, you say the right words of encouragement, you introduce people, you’re the facilitator.  And that’s what Brett is brilliant at, absolutely.

Bryan’s not very good at that, I’ve never been to a party at Bryan’s, I dread to think what it would be like.  Bryan is much more internal and self obsessed and neurotic and that comes out doesn’t it, in the films he makes.  It’s part of what he does.  Brett’s a party animal; Brett wants everyone to have a good time.  But that’s a very, very good atmosphere for a movie of this sort, where there are long , long waits, you know, like things are being set up, where the scenes aren’t that intense, you can’t get really lost in the dialogue of an X-Men movie.  So it’s very good to have the leader keeping everyone’s spirit’s up and that’s what he does.

Would you say it was a happier shoot then the last two?

Well, it’s just different.  Who knows what it would have been like with Bryan this time because we all know what we’re doing, we’ve done it now for three films, it wasn’t new territory, it was plain sailing really and it probably would have been if Bryan had been directing this time.

With the X-Men being considered a metaphor for any persecuted minorities, what kind of reaction have you gotten from places like the gay community?

Well less then I would have hoped actually.  I mean certainly Marvel says that the demographic for the comics is young blacks, young Jews, and young gays, they respond most to the idea of mutantcy.  They, more then most teenagers, feel that, are taught to believe that they are mutants.  So when you get a story like this one, in which a cure is found, a cure for being black, a cure for being gay, a cure for being a mutant, it comes right home.  But actually in the circles I move in, the gays have never heard of X-Men, I think it’s more an American phenomenon then British and maybe younger then the crowd that I mix with.  It’s not just an adventure story, to a lot of people who see it.

There is a scene in the film where Magneto is throwing cars off the Golden Gate Bridge…

Is that what I was doing, I never quite knew. (Laughs)

How much are you able to get into a major scene like that one?

They just have to tell you what it’s going to be like, what it is you’re doing.  There is a lot of the filming which is of that sort; you have to take it on trust.

What do you think about Fox developing a Magneto prequel?

Well, I’m not surprised, that’s of course what the comics have been doing for years, they been having prequels and sequels and changing the plot.  Going back to the past and it would be an obvious thing to do, to have a young Magneto story.

Who would you like to see play you?

Well, I will be playing the part. (Smiles)  The first time that Patrick Stewart and I appear in this film, we appear to be twenty-five years younger then we are and that’s been done by a technology never used in filming before, which involves no make-up, no special effects whatsoever, we just go into the studio and do the scene as is.  And then they morph our faces onto photographs of ourselves twenty-five years ago and they we are.  It can take any shaped person and they can slim you down, they can build you up, you can bring out your shoulders, change the color or style of your hair.

And they removed so many wrinkles from my face, I looked so young, that Brett Ratner said go put a few wrinkles back, it’s looking ridiculous.  So it would mean that I could play myself at twenty-five easily, as long as I could keep myself sounding young.  That’s the big story of this movie; that stars realize that they don’t have to have face lifts anymore, at least as far as their work is concerned.  It’s astonishing; it’s like airbrushing, but for the moving picture.

So is it true that the stage production of King Lear your next project?

Lear? (Correcting my pronunciation) Lear. (Smiles)  There’s a wonderful actor Ralph Richardson, who is no longer with us, who played many parts in his life, both stage and film and he said to a friend of mine “you know one day walking along, the sun is in the sky and not a cloud to be seen and the birds are tweet, tweet tweeting.  I’m feeling well, there’s nothing wrong, I’m…oh, you found you’ve got your foot caught in a Lear.”  And that’s what I’ve done, I’ve got my foot caught in a Lear and I don’t know what I’m gonna do, I think I’m gonna have to play him.  So I’m taking a year off now to get ready, it’s a big part, it’s like climbing Everest, I’ve got to get into training.  Learn the lines and find out what it’s all about.

And where will this be?

In Stratford in the UK, where they’re doing the whole of Shakespeare’s plays this year. Seven plays will be done, some will be visiting companies, F. Murray Abraham is doing The Merchant of Venice for example, but some will be done by the company itself and ours is the last play to be done.  And then we’ll tour, we’ll come to the States and Australia and India, I hope.  And then you can all come to my funeral.  (Smiles)

Thank you Sir.

Thank you.




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