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INT: Ian McKellen

This Wednesday, acclaimed British thespian Ian McKellen returns to Middle Earth for the third and final time in Lord of the Rings: THE RETURN OF THE KING. A fixture of the British stage for decades, McKellen only recently rose to prominence on the other side of the Atlantic with his involvement in two blockbuster film franchises: LORD OF THE RING and X-MEN.

When he took on the roles of Gandalf and Magneto, McKellen faced judgment from a group far more difficult to please than London theater critics – comic-book geeks. And while they still can’t agree on Michael Keaton as BATMAN, they’re virtually unanimous in their praise of McKellen. Last week McKellen, having just arrived from New Zealand (where ROTK world premiered), joined us to talk about reprising his role as that wily old wizard, Gandalf.

IAN MCKELLEN

How does it feel to known most for playing Gandalf when you’ve spent so much of your career doing Shakespeare?  Does that bother you?

It depends who you talk to. Some people, like my sister, can’t stand Lord of The Rings. She remembers me as Macbeth. But yes, I know what you mean. There’s nothing wrong with being associated with Gandalf. I mean, he’s one of the great, great characters of my lifetime. And Magneto, too, is an iconic figure. And I’m always aware that I’m riding in their chariots, you know. It’s not me. It’s the character. And that’s fine, that’s what I enjoy about acting.

Technically speaking, you play two Gandalfs.

There you go, yes. I always thought I was lucky to be playing two parts. Gimli and Treebeard are two parts. And Gollum plays two parts.

How different are the two Gandalfs?

Well, they’re the same spirit, but it’s different aspects of the spirit which are on display. There’s no doubt about it, you’d want to spend the evening with Gandalf the Grey, wouldn’t you? But, if you’re in a fix, you might rather be with Gandalf the White.

You obviously enjoyed the books. What, if anything, would you have done differently to bring it closer to what you know Tolkien wrote?

Oh dear. I don’t have any real regrets of that sort, because I met the books through the script. So I went to the books to back up what script said. Then what you discover is that Gandalf never stops talking in the books. Page and pages he talks. And you go in to Peter and say, “Hey, look here...” (laughter). So, I would have liked a bit more talking, because I think that’s a characteristic of Gandalf, that he does talk. He’s a teacher; he lectures people and he reminds them about the past. But I guess Peter thought that that aspect of the character had to be curtailed somewhat. That would be my one regret, but I think there is room for...and maybe it will all turn up on the DVD. Because there were some longer talking scenes. And I quite like talkies. I think talkies were an advance in science fiction.

How much of your own personality came through in your portrayal of Gandalf?

I don’t think you can really act the part convincingly unless...It’s a two-part process in that the character inhabits you and then you inhabit the character. You have to find where you meet. But, imagination is involved. That’s the nature of acting, that you’re using your imagination. I think where I most like Gandalf, so perhaps where I feel the strongest connection, is in his sense of humor and the fact that, as Gandalf the Grey, he likes not working. He likes a smoke and a drink and a chat. And a few party tricks, you know.

Is it hard to let go of a character sometimes? Do you ever get nostalgic for characters you’ve played, that you might want to revisit?

I don’t think you get nostalgic for the character, but you get nostalgic for the circumstances in which you were working. There’s not a day that I don’t think about New Zealand, but I think there are days I don’t think about Gandalf. Jobs I’ve really enjoyed doing, say, the 1976 season at Strattford, when I did Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet and The Alchemist. It was a golden summer. But I don’t actually miss the characters.

New Zealand garnered a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for being a little backward.  What was your experience of New Zealand?

The truth about New Zealand is that they are remarkably progressive in terms of social attitudes. They just made prostitution legal – for both genders. There are seven openly gay members of parliament.  There’s a transsexual member of parliament. There’s a Rastafarian pot-smoking member of parliament. And practically every major position in New Zealand is held by a woman. It ain’t backward. They’re right there in advance. We should all be looking – at what New Zealand’s doing.

And three percent of the entire population of New Zealand was on the streets in Wellington the other night. So that’s how we all got involved. I mean we all fell in love and were loved back. Now that’s apart from the work, which in itself was extremely satisfying – and fascinating to be in close quarters with this mighty enterprise. I’m generally modest about my contribution. It was one of thousands of contributions, all held together by Peter. So in all – the job itself was rewarding, the experience was rewarding. And then, on top of that (was) the overwhelming reaction in the theater, the popularity. I felt a little bit of it with X-Men I suppose, but, it’s to crude to say, “Oh I’m famous now.” But I’m famous as the actor who played Gandalf. And that’s the nice way, isn’t it. People don’t come knocking on my door, wanting to know things about my private life. If they meet me, they want to talk about Gandalf.

What attracted you to your latest project, Asylum?

It’s a British movie. Hooray! And I have slightly berated the British Film Ministry for not having made Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.  Great British books, and who makes them? The Yanks! Makes sense. Financially, I’m talking about. But here is a British movie, meaning I can live at home or easily travel to work. It’s written by David Mackenzie, who I really like. And a rattling good part. A really, really, really good story.

Did you know the McGrath books?

No, I didn’t. But I knew him slightly, because I know his wife, who was in the film with us, briefly. The screenplay is by David Marber, a very good playwright. I’d asked him at one point – on bended knee, “Please write me a play.” Anyway, they put me into it. All in all, it was the people. It always is. Who’s involved, who’s directing, who’s written it. Long before you get around to things which other people think are important, like how much you’re being paid. 

How surprised were you, if at all, that X-2 was even bigger than the first film? Is it a better film?

Yeah. I thought on paper it was not as good as the first. But when I saw it – much more recently than I should confess, on DVD – I didn’t see it in the theater, because I wasn’t looking forward to it. And I thought it was a wonderful film. And another friend said to me he thought it was one of the best films of last year. I mean, I can imagine someone thinking that. It gets to the heart of the mutant matter. I love the scene when the boy comes out to his parents as being a mutant. “Have you always known you were a mutant?”  (laughter) That’s why Marvel thinks that X-Men is the most important, socially, of its titles. Young gays, young blacks, young jews. That’s the demographic. So, I immediately called up Brian Singer and said, “What can I do to make sure that I’m in the third film and are you going to direct it?” He said, “Get me a ticket for the premiere of Lord of the Rings.” So, I’ll see him tonight. (laughs)

There’s a rumor going around town that, because of some gay rumors about Elijah and Dom (Monaghan), that New Line didn’t want them to be photographed together, and that you were angry at the studio for it. Is there any truth to that?

That’s the first I’ve heard of it ever. No, there was a sad lack of gay men working on this movie. And I confidently can tell you I’m the only gay member of the cast.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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