Most casual moviegoers, particularly outside of the UK, were probably only vaguely aware of Ian McKellen before he scored a pop cult one-two punch second only to Hugo Weaving's. Before his roles as Magneto in X-Men and X2, and of course, as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, they might have heard of his singular 1995 Richard III, which he adapted, executive produced and starred in; and probably of his Oscar-nominated performance as James Whale in Gods and Monsters (1998). Before that, it was mostly minor movie roles here and there, so they might not have known that he was a highly respected stage actor and on British television. So much so that he was knighted in 1990.
Many might not also be aware that he's been an activist for the Gay Rights movement in the UK ever since he came out in 1988 to protest then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's efforts to make "public promotion of homosexuality" a crime in Britain. But of course, those active with him certainly were. "I've had enough of being a gay icon," he once said. "I want a quiet life. I'm going back into the closet. But I can't get back into the closet, because it's absolutely jam-packed full of other actors."
McKellen was unable to join the cast and crew for the whirlwind press tours that launched the first two Lord of the Rings movies, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but for third and final film, The Return of the King, he was on board. In Berlin, he opened the conversation - which, it should be said, leads to a few minor spoilers for those who haven't seen Return or read the books - with, "I tell you, last night I had a nightmare which went on all through the night about..."
[laughs] No. About the party. The long expected party for the European premiere. It was so ill-organized, out in the open air in a field. And people had all come in separate groups and we couldn't contact them, and oh, dear, it was dreadful.
It's like the university exams. You keep on dreaming about them.
Or actors' dreams. Actors have actors' dreams, you know. Did you know? Every theater actor, particularly. When we're in the middle of rehearsals, everybody will come in some day and say, "I had it last night." It's the dream of not being able to get to the theater or the sudden discovery in the middle of the first night that you haven't rehearsed the third act. You don't know your lines.
That comes from insecurity?
Yes. Because we're all insecure. There's nothing less natural in the world than standing up in a public place and being looked at by a lot of strangers. You wouldn't like to do it, would you? There's something about actors.
So what do you like about performing on stage?
Oh, dear. I like it for a number of reasons. There's a whole book there. I've liked it for different reasons at different periods in my life. At the moment, I like it because I know how to do it. I'm an expert. It's what I do best. It's a craft that I've practiced. But at other times, I've needed it and enjoyed it for other reasons. I think when I started out, I enjoyed it because I didn't know how to do it. I enjoyed learning. Also, I think, having been brought up in the 40s and 50s, when to make love was an imprisonable crime, something not to be talked about, when I was denied the ability to share my emotions in public, because I might be put in prison, then to find a job where it was acceptable for me to be emotionally free in public - disguised, of course, because I'd be playing a character - was a release, and perhaps a necessary one.
Which is probably why so many actors are gay, actually. Or rather, a lot of gays are actors. And what could be more natural? Not standing up on the stage, but what could be more natural than telling a story? What could be more necessary for the human race than storytelling? And what could be more necessary than telling a story in a public place? That seems to be a need that human beings have. They don't need the cinema; they need theater. And it doesn't matter whether it's the theater of the procession through the street or a marching band or a football match or a pop concert; it's all theater to me. So I like being involved in it. I just feel very, very lucky that I've chanced upon something which is necessary. It gives my life a point, really.
Are you saying that if you'd been up for Gandalf 20 or 30 years ago, you would have turned it down?
Well, I wouldn't have been offered it. That's really the answer. But have I got better at my job? Absolutely. I felt that when I decided I wanted to try and film Richard III after I'd written the screenplay, because I knew the play very, very well, having toured it around the world, I ought to put myself through an intensive course of film acting. Because I was - even having done a film a year, I think, since I started - I was not confident about being in a studio. When I looked on everyone behind the camera, and there were often 40 or 50 people, I saw them as the enemy, as critics, as judges. It was only after I'd done a couple of days with Governor Schwarzenegger, that I'd made a small western in Montana [The Ballad of Little Jo], played a little part in a John Schlesinger movie, Cold Comfort Farm, a day on a James L. Brooks movie [I'll Do Anything] and had done some other parts that friends had thought that I was crazy for accepting that I started seeing those people behind the camera as my friends. They're there to help. If I hadn't done that, I don't think I'd be able to play Richard III.
Do you remember when you first heard of The Lord of the Rings?
As a book?
As a book, yes.
It didn't impinge on me. So, I can't remember, no. I read The Hobbit and enjoyed that, and I think I was just rather vague as to what Lord of the Rings was. But I mean, Lord of the Rings wasn't a hit when it was published in the UK. Not at first. It was the campuses of North America that made it a hit. It was an important story for young people over there. I've never read a lot of novels. I'd much rather go to the cinema or go and see plays.
A simple question, then. What interested you in playing the role of Gandalf?
I read the scripts, not having known the novels, and thought, "Oh, what an exciting story. I think I would like to see that in the cinema." And if I'd thought, "What a boring story, I don't want to see that movie," I wouldn't have pursued it. I saw Gandalf as clearly a wonderful character - two characters! I'm very lucky, aren't I? And then, getting to know Peter a little bit at the first meeting. He came to my house in London. Directors don't normally come to your house to meet for the first time. The reverse, maybe. So everything seemed to be favorable. But it wasn't as it must have been for some people in the cast, like a dream come true, to be involved in The Lord of the Rings.
Now, in the first one, we think you're killed...
Oh, I was killed.
Yes, and then, in the second one, you come back. Now, in the third one, you're really one of the great heroes for us. But that wasn't so much the case with the original script. Was there a greater audience demand for more Gandalf?
You are right in that Gandalf the White in the third film has changed a little bit and increased maybe. It was this year that I went back to do some extra shooting because Peter wanted to strengthen the emotional tie between Gandalf and Frodo, which was in the book but wasn't really in the screenplay. He's always been looking in this last film to touch the audience as well as excite them. That was a strand - I don't think it was because someone had told Peter that they liked Gandalf and that they should put more of him in the movie.
You say that it wasn't like a dream come true for you when you accepted the role, but looking back now, how do you see it?
Oh, it's probably the best job of my life. Really. Not the best part.
What was the best part?
Well, you know, Macbeth. I mean, Gandalf isn't really very complicated compared with Iago or those sort of parts. But the job... As everybody will tell you, the work was wonderful, making this sort of home movie, really, in Peter Jackson's back yard, at home with his friends. That's what it felt like. A family. Everyone just accepted you as an outsider in a country that is just a magical place to visit, let alone work in.
And then the friends that I made outside the film. I'll be able to go back each year. New Zealand is now a part of my life. Plus the fact that the films have been such an enormous success and have given me an experience of that side of acting that has to do with being famous, which I'm really happy for. I mean, I'd been known by some people, my work was known, but now I'm known for this. It's a fame that I quite enjoy because it's absolutely related to the work. I'm not famous as myself; I'm famous as the man who plays Gandalf. I'm like the St. Nicholas at this time of year in the shops. I'm not the real Santa Claus, I'm his representative.
Tolkien is not Shakespeare, then.
He's not, no. But he is a novelist and he's written an epic, a mythic epic. On the whole, I mean, to be crude about it, Tolkien wrote a story, and it's the plot which is the interesting thing about Lord of the Rings. And in Shakespeare, well, he borrowed all his plots. The most interesting thing about him is the characters. So, when it comes to acting, you can see which of the two one would prefer if given a choice.
If you don't consider your age...
I don't. [laughs]
What other role in this film might you have been interested in?
Oh, I had the best part. No doubt about it. Well, I got to play two parts, as I say. Gandalf is loveable. Do you love the other characters? You might fall in love with them, that sort of thing. No, I was very lucky.
Christopher Lee has said he'd prefer to take your role; if Peter Jackson had offered you his, would you have taken it?
I don't know. I wasn't offered it, so I don't know. On this occasion, I was the lucky one, I think. I do rather envy what Andy Serkis has done. He's made a bit of cinema history, hasn't he? With his creation of Gollum. And it's very satisfying for audiences to see his work, particularly in the third film. Well, you actually get to see Andy Serkis as Smeagol. So that is a rattling good part and really hard work done well. It would have been intriguing to have done that.
But I was on The Simpsons last week. There are all sorts of things actors do that are fun, and I can't really disassociate Gandalf from the rest of my work. It's all a part of it. At this time in my life, this came my way, and I happen to say yes. I actually said no, because it conflicted with the dates for X-Men and I had to withdraw from the project because the X-Men dates shifted. By chance that night in a restaurant, I met Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, who said, when he heard that I wasn't able to make the film, said, "Leave it to me. I'll make it happen." So, a series of chances. I'm very, very, very, very, very, very, very pleased with how it all came about.
Do you like the beard and the costume and all that or is this a part of your job you'd rather not go through?
Like Laurence Olivier - and I wouldn't make any other comparison between my talent and his; he was a heroic figure to me - when I began acting, like him, I thought acting was about disguise. Not lying, but disguise. Putting on false noses. He was always putting on wigs and stuff. And somewhere around the time I came out as being gay, I realized that acting wasn't about disguise, but that it was about being yourself and being truthful, through the character. And of late, I've eschewed disguise. But Gandalf has to look like that, hasn't he? Which is rather convenient for me because now people can accept me as whatever character I'm playing and not always asking, "What's Gandalf doing in this Strindberg play?"
Going back to the difference between this and tragedy, how do you feel about the lack of nuances in Tolkien, with evil on one side and good on the other?
Epic storytelling is a simplification. Tolkien was a Catholic. He believed in evil. He believed in a source of evil. I don't. However, he was not really interested in that source. Sauron, notably, does not appear in the film, is not a character. All the concentration is on the good people. People or creatures with good intentions, trying to have good relationships, trying to do good by the world and the community they come from. And I suppose the simple moral of the story is that if people behave like that, much good in the world will survive. I don't think tragedy comes into it, does it. Nobody dies in this film. Well, Boromir dies. Frodo doesn't die; he goes to the Gray Havens, whatever that is. In very, very good company, actually. He's with Galadriel, Celeborn and Gandalf, Bilbo. I think they're going to have a wonderful time, wherever they're going.
Do you think that this sort of simplification could be part of the films' success?
Yes, and I think it's heartening. Perhaps the film and the novel's success is that the emphasis is on the good people. It's a bit of a change, isn't it. And they're people or creatures we can relate to because they're doing their best. The strengths they have are not superhuman. Gandalf is superhuman, but actually, when it comes down it in this film, I like the fact that he may zap here or there, but when it actually comes down to it, it's up with the staff and the sword and he's fighting. It's his inner strength and powers that he's going to win through, not magic. Gandalf isn't Magneto.
When all is said and done, and God knows, everybody probably says that to you as if you were about to die tomorrow, but when you look back one day, is it the trip to the palace that's going to stand out as the big one, or an Oscar for this or...
No, neither of those. I mean, I would be very happy to win an Oscar and I was very happy to receive a knighthood, but no, the reward is work well done. You're measured by the approval of your peers, the people you work with, the director. And the audience. What's so disappointing about filming is that you don't usually meet the audience, but in this film, we're always meeting the audience. They call out across the street. "Gandalf!" It's wonderful. I'd rather they said that than "Ian," you know. My sense of success and achievement has been a continuing one and it's been at various gradations, and at the moment, it's at a particularly high spot. I know life doesn't go on like this. I'll be perfectly happy working a theater with a hundred people. As long as they enjoy themselves.
Is there a particular peer where, if that person phoned you up and says, "Bloody good movie," you think, "Well, that's good enough for me." You mentioned Laurence Olivier, for example.
Funny you should say that. Sort of relevant to what you're saying, when I'd done a film with Stephen Frears in 1981 called Loving Walter - which has just been released on DVD and I certainly recommend it; it's vintage early Frears, and I play a mentally handicapped man - and it went out live on Channel 4 television in the UK. It was the first "Film on Four." The phone rang immediately after broadcasting and it was my sister. Who rang up to say... that she'd hated it, she'd only watched 15 minutes of it and she couldn't bear to see me playing a mentally handicapped person and play these dreadful parts.
And I felt very depressed. I put the phone down and it rang again. I picked it up and a voice said, "This is Larry Olivier. I'd like to say that that is the finest performance I have ever seen on television."