WELLINGTON, NZ – After almost a year and a half of shooting two, er, now three “Hobbit” films, no one would fault Sir Ian McKellen for being a tad bored. That”s a long time to work on any movie or spend away from home (granted there were two long breaks). The 73-year-old acting icon has ventured to the set of “The Hobbit” this May day to spend what was supposed to just be 20 minutes talking to visiting press, but it soon became clear McKellen was excited to have a live audience again. 20 minutes soon turned into something closer to 40.
First, some background. McKellen is, of course, is once again playing Gandalf the Grey, a role he originated in Peter Jackson”s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001. And, as any Middle Earth fan will tell you, the Gandalf he reappeared as in 2002″s “The Two Towers” and 2003″s “The Return of the King” was Gandalf the White – quite a differently temperament. His performance in “Fellowship” was critically acclaimed earning him his second Academy Award nomination (he was previously nominated for “Gods and Monsters”) and he ended up winning the SAG Award for best supporting actor that season. Combined with playing Magneto in “X-Men” and “X2” during the same period, in the early ’00s McKellen went from being a legendary British stage actor to one of the most recognizable people in the world. Now, he”s reuniting with Jackson to bring J.R.R. Tolkien”s precursor to “The Lord of the Rings” to the big screen.
Sitting down, McKellen looks like he hasn”t aged at all over the past decade. But, it turns out his first scene back in the sorcerer”s cloak wasn”t as easy as he”d hoped it would be. Jackson has taken great technical pains to make the perspective between what should be much smaller hobbits, significantly smaller dwarves and a towering Gandalf. Unfortunately, it hasn”t always been to his actors benefit.
As McKellen explains, “After we had rehearsed the scene I was doing with thirteen dwarves and a hobbit, because I, a wizard is taller than them, I had to then move out away from them, into my own green screen set, so that my figure could be transposed onto their picture for it to be off by two enslaved cameras working in exactly the same way, at the same point. So the thirteen dwarves are over there in their set, and I’m over in my set, which is a little green screen cutout to make me look tall. With nobody else, ’cause my camera’s enslaved to the other one, there isn’t an operator. I can’t see the people I’m talking to, so they’re represented by pictures on top of poles, which light up when they’re talking, and I hear them through a sound piece in my ear. I didn’t feel like being back, I wanted to go away. I was very, very unhappy, miserable. But fortunately, I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter has managed to cut down the number of times we’ve done that since.”
Don”t think that McKellen isn”t happy to return to Middle Earth and Hobbiton, however. Perhaps he just needed to remind himself how anticipated the new films are to fans across the globe.
“In the more general sense, it was the sort of feeling we had by the time we were making ‘The Return of The King,” that there had already been two films gone out, which had been much enjoyed,” McKellen says. “So, we felt, which you don’t often feel when you’re doing a job. This is a job that the audience wants me to do. But most of the time when you do a job, a play or a film, you’re wondering, ‘Will there be an audience?” We know with ‘The Hobbit,” there’s going to be an audience. Millions of people are going to want to see it. We fear we’re not on our own. The audience’s expectations are ever-present. It’s a more comfortable job than most. There’s not that worry at the back, ‘Are we all wasting our time?” Which you can feel even when you’re doing King Lear.”
The difference from “Rings,” it seems, is his co-stars. McKellen says, “Everybody beyond the camera was familiar, from the director through to Emma [Hare] who does my costume and Rick [Findlater] who does my make-up. It was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn’t met before here, although I knew some of them from England. And they turned out to be a very friendly bunch.”
Another key differentiator this time around is the material. Warner Bros., New Line, MGM and Jackson have made it clear they see “The Hobbit” films as even more family friendly than “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. And that’s been very obvious to McKellen who is one of the few actors to appear in what will be two separate, but connected triologies.
“”The Hobbit” is an adventure story for kids, and told in the first person by someone who might read it to you before you go to bed,” McKellen says. “Tolkien’s in the story, ‘I, I, I”… ‘Lord of The Rings” is about the end of the world. So the tone is clearly very, very different, and that will be reflected. It’s reflected in the script, it’s reflected in the casting, and it will be reflected, presumably, in the finished film. But alongside that, there’s that lighter feel, or a more adventure-story feel.”
For those hoping for a taste of the dramatic thrills from “LOTR” McKellen adds, “There will be the politics of Middle Earth going on in the background as a support.”
To that point, one writer points out to McKellen that Gandalf is something of trickster in Tolkien”s novel. Is he more lighthearted this time around or are dark developments in Middle Earth keeping him more serious minded?
“That is a little bit of a dilemma. A bit of both, it depends on what the situation is,” McKellen says. “The overall view is, ‘I better keep an eye on these dwarves.” Particularly Thorin, who is a bit out of control, and not easily managed. So, that’s clearly an ongoing relationship. Will Thorin do it Gandalf’s way or will Gandalf have…? Gandalf loses his temper with him at one point. And then at other times, it is light-hearted, yes.”
For those of you who haven”t read The Hobbit or it”s been awhile, Thorin, played by Richard Armitage, is the leader of the Company of Dwarves who join our hero Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf on their quest. A reporter asks if Thorin and Gandalf will have more of a relationship on screen than in the source material. McKellen isn”t sure because while he admits, “Once there is a script, although it is very helpful to relate back to the book, I don’t start comparing the two.”
But, back to the subject of Thorin, McKellen notes, “It’s certainly a constant of the story, and each time he and Thorin talk, it’s a development of that relationship. But he’s got an ongoing one with Bilbo, of course, but that too has its ups and downs. Perhaps that’s a little more light-hearted, yeah. Well, Gandalf loves Hobbits. Peter did say to me very early on, there was a rambunctious scene in Bag End, and all the dwarves were eating and drinking too much. He thought it would be fun if Gandalf were a bit tipsy. And I was appalled at that and said, ‘No, Gandalf doesn’t get drunk.” But now, after a year of it, I see what Peter was after. I think he wants a lightness and he’s cast some really expert comedians whose eye[s] will be looking out for what’s amusing. And I think Gandalf is a little bit a part of that, but I think the pressure [is] taken off me once you’ve got Billy Connolly and Barry Humphries and Stephen Fry, and indeed Martin Freeman, who’s an expert comic actor. Let them get on with it I think, really.”
As noted earlier, McKellen has played both Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White. He”s clearly happier he”s returning to play the Grey this time around. McKellen reveals, “I don’t make much connection between White and Grey, and I’ve never really liked the White. I never said I didn’t like playing him, but I didn’t warm to him. He’s a man with a mission, and he’s a commander, and he’s a man working right at the end of his tether. Gandalf the Grey, I think Peter agrees, is a much more congenial person and humane and full of all sorts of life. And particularly when he’s with the Hobbits. I don’t think he warms to the dwarves as much.”
There are obvious differences to McKellen though between Gandalf in the novel and the script.
“I think the script has made Gandalf a bit less bossy than he is in the novel. But he supports them on their quest, which they call it, and their desire to reclaim their land and property, with a different sort of enthusiasm than he would send the Fellowship off to retrieve the Ring,” McKellen says. “Which is why it’s helpful to me that we should know what’s going on elsewhere in Middle Earth, which dwarves tramping around the place, attracting the attention of old enemies and new, threatens to unbalance the ever-present sleeping dragon, the wisdom of waking him, now he’s fully grown. If they’re going to go off and do that, Gandalf thinks, ‘I better be there.” And he’s right.”
Coming in at just 320 pages in paperback form, everyone is quite aware a lot of new content had to be added for “The Hobbit” to become three films. McKellen admits Gandalf has scenes not in the book, but that doesn”t mean they aren”t from Tolkien in some form.
“Philippa [Boyens], who I talked most to about the script, often refers to details in the book that I had overlooked, or implications that she’s developed,” McKellen says. “But you’ve only got to look at the width of ‘The Lord of The Rings.; Things had to be cut to get it down to the three films. [With ‘The Hobbit”] things have got to be expanded. You could, I suppose, have made just one film of the story of ‘The Hobbit.” I still think it would have been a good idea to not make a film of The Hobbit, but to make a TV series of The Hobbit, and do every episode. Do everything that’s in the book in full detail, and just tell the story. It might take thirteen-hour episodes, I don’t know. I thought that would have been another way of doing it. But I’m not a producer and I’m not a scriptwriter.”
This visit to the “Hobbit” set less than a month after Jackson previewed footage for theater owners during the 2012 CinemaCon convention. Jackson showed the footage in the new 48 frames per second format. “The Hobbit” will also be in 3D, an option much less popular when “LOTR” hit your local multiplex. The reaction from theater owners to the 48 FPS, however, was mixed. In the months since the “controversy” has died down once Jackson and the studios decided to limit the number of theaters screening it in that format. At the time, though, it was top of mind for everyone working on set. McKellen hadn”t seen any of the footage in 48 FPS and isn”t concerned on how Jackson will use 3D.
“My reaction to 3D is as used here, subtly,” McKellen says. “Things don’t come out at you, but rather you– The audience come into the film. It invites you in, it doesn’t throw things out at you. And people say, “Oh, do we need 3D?” Well, ever since the invention of the camera, people have been trying to create 3D, because we see things in 3D, and everyone’s aware that the camera doesn’t. So how can we make it? Myburgh, who was one of the founders of the moving image, was trying to do 3D the whole time, all those things that you looked through. And so at last, film has discovered how to do well, what it wanted to do from the word “go”. So it’s all much more believable, 3D. Two-D looks so flat. Well, it is, of course, it’s flat. But 3D isn’t. And for an adventure story that takes you into a long-distant, fictional world, it’s ideal, I think. As for the clarity of the 48 frames, I’ve heard people say that it looks odd, it’s too demanding, there’s too much information, you don’t know where to look. That judgment is based on film which has not been graded and finished off properly. And when Peter says the audience is going to love it, I’ll bet he’s right. It does seem to be part of the future of film. But people should be reassured, if they don’t want to see this film in 3D, they don’t have to. If they don’t want to see it in 48 frames per second, they don’t have to. You’ll have the choice.”
Before he departs McKellen asks if we”ve met the actors playing the dwarves yet, which we hadn”t. He volunteers, “They’ll all be thrilled that they’ve done [the movie] but my goodness, what they’ve had to put up with. Billy Connolly’s been here for weeks. I don’t know if he’s met the cameras yet, but he looks very happy wandering around. We have lunch together and he said, ‘I”m learning how to walk as a dwarf.” He has classes on how to walk as a dwarf. When he becomes a dwarf, he’s going to discover that he’s wearing, probably a wetsuit or not, but padding and prosthetics, and big hands and feet, and a big head and a wig, and he has a mustache. You don’t have to learn how to walk as a dwarf, you’d just try and walk as a dwarf. And these guys have been doing it for, wow, fifteen months. I call them a grump of dwarves, but they’re not grumpy at all. They’re so into it and high-spirited, and funny.”
That they are, but that”s another part of this “Hobbit” set visit. For McKellen it was a gracious goodbye and he was gone.
“The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” opens nationwide and in IMAX on Dec. 14..