Sir Ian McKellen made the seemingly impossible transition in his early 60s from genius-level stage actor to beloved super villain and wizard of the silver screen. Now 73, McKellen is reprising the role of Gandalf for his third tent-pole trilogy, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey."
"The Hobbit," which opens Friday, finds Gandalf enlisting Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to join him and a band of 13 dwarves on a journey to slay the dragon Smaug and reclaim the treasure and mountain home of the dwarves.
McKellen held court at a recent New York City press conference, along with co-stars Elijah Wood, Richard Armitage, Freeman and Andy Serkis, to discuss the film.
In response to Armitage discussing what it's like to join an established franchise:
"It's not a franchise. They're films—this isn't 'X-men.'"
On putting a character behind you after shooting a film:
If you're acting away for film, it will be with a certain intensity… what you might have difficulty shaking off when you remove the costume and the make up is not the character, but the effort you put into it. The fact that it was difficult today or it was joyfully easy, or there was something you didn’t quite get right or were struggling over, and that effort, that's what you'll be thinking of. Rather than having been lost in the world of Middle Earth.
On who he prefers playing, Gandalf the White or the Grey:
Well, Gandalf the White in the second of the "Lord of the Rings" movies is on a mission and he has to save the world, or help save the world. And so he's cut his beard down to size and he's gone white in the process and he doesn’t have any jokes, no time for jokes. That's the story where the hero doesn’t make it back home. Bilbo gets back home because he's on an adventure, it's different. So he doesn’t need Gandalf the White to look after him, he needs the old, the grey, a man he can have a smoke with and a drink with and tick him off maybe, but they’ve learned to like each other's company and to trust each other. It's much more humane as befits the quality of the adventure they're going on. So there's a bit more range for the actor in Gandalf the Grey, and it's selfishly why I prefer doing him.
On how he played Gandalf differently this time:
Young Gandalf is younger, 60 years younger. I don't know, I just played him the same, didn’t I? I don't know, I'm trying to think… both of these films, these six films as there are going to be, in future will be viewed in the order not that they were filmed but in the order of the story, and it is going to be a little bit alarming for them to see, as it were, everyone getting younger. The technology… do you remember Gollum in the first movie? He looked like a glove puppet, and that's going to be a real shock when they go from "The Hobbit," with all this wonderful technology…
On J.R.R. Tolkien's world view:
I think there are limitations in Tolkien's view of the world. I mean, where is sex? Where are women? But, in other aspects, he is absolutely bang up to date. He takes old people very seriously, and gives them full weight and due. Young people, he's very keen on... And I think the message that has resonated with everyone who's read the books or seen the film is that, yes, the world is organized by people who are extremely powerful and… they are entirely dependent on the little guy. And for someone to be through two world wars to accept that, it's not the great people we build statues to change the world, it's the foot soldiers who measure up to the moment.
On claims that Peter Jackson's decision to turn a 320-page book into a trilogy was financially driven:
Anyone who thinks peter Jackson would fall for market forces rather than the artistic imperative, doesn’t know the guy... If we'd just made one movie of "The Hobbit," the fact is that all the fans, and I'm thinking now of the 8, 9 10-year-old boys and girls, they would watch it a thousand times. Well, they’ve now got three films they can watch a thousand times—it isn’t enough. And if you don’t quite plug into that, I sympathize with you, but these movies are not for you. Talk to any 9-year-old, they haven't just seen "Lord of the Rings" once, they've seen it twice, maybe three times--in a day. And how much better they should be seeing that, I mean a great film, I must say, with huge artistic endeavor and achievement, rather than other things they could be watching.
On working with Cate Blanchett, who plays Galadriel, the Elf Queen:
We had appeared in the same scene at the end of the final "Lord of the Rings" movie, but we hadn’t met. We met at a party... they photographed us separately. But for these two weeks, there she was in person. We have such a congenial relationship, because she's running practically the National Theater of Australia in Sydney, we had so much to talk about plays and everything else, as well as the fun of making a movie. And we got extremely close and affectionate with each other—her husband wasn't around—there was a moment when she adjusted my hair, but I think it was Cate rather than Galadriel, and I think it's made it into the movie, and I'm still rather shaken...
On what he learned about himself while shooting "The Hobbit":
I learned what I already knew, that I still have got a long way to go in terms of acting. I'm single, and Steve Thompson, a person that we all know because he's a wonderful cook, was looking me after in Wellington. He's also a masseur…and my whole life was living with this man—not having sex, he's straight—but I discovered that I got very, very, very used to the idea of being totally cossetted and looked after by somebody. He drove me everywhere, he got on my nerves an awful lot, but – Oh Steve I miss you…