WELLINGTON, NZ. Perhaps it's the blustery winterish weather outside and the relative warmth and stillness inside the vast, canvas-covered tent/structure that give Sir Ian McKellen comfort.
Maybe it's the lure of craft services dessert that give him cause to stay.
Or maybe the venerable thespian is just in an introspective mood.
Whatever the cause, as wind howls outside and various members of the “Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” crew scurry in and out of the door, accompanied by chilly gusts and intruding drizzle, McKellen holds court with a small group of reporters for nearly 45 minutes. Some of that time is spent on The State of Gandalf and the events that may or may not be on-tap for the third installment of Peter Jackson's second Tolkien-based trilogy, but far more of the interview is dedicated to deep reflection, delivered in the same authoritative and sonorous tone McKellen might use to repel orcs or deliver Shakespeare.
It's early June 2013 on the New Zealand sound stages housing the “Hobbit” movies, but it's not just another day for the actor. He's come to set just to talk with us, but he's one day away from something more momentous: Tomorrow will be Sir Ian McKellen's last day shooting on “The Battle of the Five Armies” and, thus, it will be his last day of production as Gandalf the Grey.
“As things stand,” McKellen chuckles, resisting any sort of absolute finality.
“Because the films go on, they don't just get released,” he explains. “They get released on DVD, and I suppose most people have actually watched 'Lord of the Rings' and maybe 'The Hobbit' at home, they haven't been to the cinema. And they watched it over and over again in a day. I talked to someone whose four-year-old. Oh, it was Bill Kircher's daughter, four. They'd shown her the DVD of 'The Hobbit' and she watched it five times in the day! So, how can it be over? You see what I mean? Wherever we go, we're associated with it. So, it's a permanent part of your life and you can't just say, 'Oh, that's it.' However, as far as the actual filming is concerned, I think it is it.”
And although he has a pending departure, McKellen knows he has more “Hobbit” work in store, which keeps him from speculating on what the next day will feel like.
“Well, I'm going straight to another job and my focus, I suppose, will just, as I get on the plane, will switch to that and there may be a delayed reaction,” he admits. “As I say, there are premieres, there's ADR to be done, adding the voices. It isn't 'never see you again' sort of thing, it's not saying goodbye. It's not the break-up of a relationship.”
This also isn't the first time that McKellen has thought he was leaving Gandalf, presumably leaving him forever. The three “Lord of the Rings” films were a massive time commitment for all involved, a massive success for all involved and, as “The Return of the King” was on its way to Oscar glory, nobody was discussing a return to Middle Earth.
Despite the gap of time between the trilogies and the brief window in which it seemed that Guillermo del Toro would be taking the directing reins, there was extensive continuity between the six films, from Jackson and fellow scribes Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, composer Howard Shore, the Weta Workshop team and countless members of the crew.
From McKellen's point of view, though, do the six movies seem like a single, cohesive, six-episode installment of “The Gandalf Chronicles,” or do they feel like two contained and separate trilogies?
One clear different, McKellen notes, is one of scale.
“This used to be a tent, literally a tent,” McKellen says, gesturing around him. “You might think it's a bit blowy now, but it was just a canvas roof. It was, you'd light your own hands when the Southerly was blowing in here. You felt the whole thing would take off. It's all a bit more bedded down, our studios are more state-of-the art and expansive.”
And, of course, there's a not insignificant chasm in expectations, both for Jackson and also for the actor selected to wield Gandalf's staff.
“There is one big difference between when we started out. It was with some trepidation that a group of people started to make a film of the world's most favorite novel. A lot of people were very doubtful that the film should be made. And the airwaves– The Internet was just starting up thirteen years ago. They were letting their worries be known. Was the casting of Gandalf quite right? Some people thought it was inappropriate for a gay man to play this heroic character. Was Peter Jackson up to the job? Nobody knew. Everyone was very nervous. Now, Peter started talking to those people and trying to reassure them, and I did, too. And I think it turned out to be the first blog any actor had ever made in history. I called them 'e-posts' unfortunately. A phrase that didn't catch on, but I was blogging there and it was all defensive action,” McKellen says, laughing at the quaintness. “
He continues, “Once the first film had come out, we came back here to do pickups for the other two films, knowing that we'd made a film that millions enjoyed, therefore we were now making films that millions were expecting, looking forward to. And that was, for me, a huge change. Very, very rare that you do a job knowing that the audience is desperate for you to do that job. Most films you make don't get released, is the fact. So, when we came back to do 'The Hobbit,' it was a little bit of, 'Ooh, should we be trespassing on this kids book that so many of us have enjoyed?' 'Yes, we probably should.' 'And would millions be waiting to see it?' 'Yes, they would.' So, there was a lightness of spirit here that these were films that we wanted to make and that others wanted us to make and that's a very unusual position.”
Much has been made of Jackson and Company's decision to turn Tolkien's not-especially lengthy tome into not one, not two, but three rather-especially-lengthy films, but one of the beneficiaries of the expansion was McKellen's Gandalf. In the book, the character spends the bulk of the action conducting important, but off-screen business, business the writers have worked hard to visualize. When a reporter suggests McKellen might have had his own trepidation about returning and asks if he's happy he came back, the actor immediately cuts off the query.
“I am happy,” he insists. “If you're suggesting I mightn't come back as Gandalf because the part wasn't good enough, that wasn't quite it. It was just a sense that I'd done it and at my age, each job might be your last. Did I want to be knocked out by an Orc forever more, when I could've been doing a play somewhere? In the end, there was no choice. He had to come back. I don't think anybody refused. I was the beneficiary of dividing the plays into three, onto two because much of Gandalf's story was well on its way to completion at the end of the original first film. There wasn't much for him to do in part two. Now it's all been split up, in the way it has, Gandalf's shared over the three films in a way that is appropriate, I think, because he's a major force. You can say that they've put in some new stuff. All the stuff that Gandalf has in this film was originated by Tolkien, in the appendices and elsewhere. So he knew where Gandalf had gone off to. He just didn't put it into 'The Hobbit.' But, by the time he'd done 'Lord of the Rings,' it looks pretty clear that it is the same Gandalf, it is the same character, and to link the two films thematically through him and others is appropriate.”
And, like any other role that one might play over an extended period of time, becoming Gandalf has become a routine for McKellen.
“I've been trying to find out how many times we've put on the nose and the wig and the beard and the staff. Nobody seems to know. But somewhere in the records, it must be and I don't know whether it's in the thousands of days. It probably isn't. It is a routine. I go to work, I get up, I come into work, I don't live far away, it's an easy drive. I go in to see Rick 45 minutes later, having had breakfast in the make-up chair I emerge as Gandalf. That's no effort at all. And poor old Dwarves in the same trailer have been there since half past three or four in the morning, wearing masks and false heads and all sorts of prosthetics. Ah, they've been so good natured about it, but it's been difficult. In comparison, I just sort of get ready. In the theater I quite like the time between getting changed in the dressing room and leaving the day behind and knowing that now I'm going to be in this situation with this character I'm playing. And the 45-minute series is a useful time to forget everything and concentrate on the day ahead. So, it's easy.”
When this all began, McKellen was a Tony winner, an Oscar nominee and an internationally admired actor of some stature, but you never would have thought of him as a movie star. Now, with six Tolkien films and his role as Magneto in the ongoing “X Men” franchise, he isn't just a movie star. He's a movie star with two multi-billion dollar franchises on his resume. It isn't lost on him that this is both notable and an achievement that didn't come without some good fortune.
“You're not really aware of it until it's happened, really,” McKellen says. “Male actors have it over women because there are some fantastic parts for older men. King Lear, Falstaff, Prospero, many other parts in Shakespeare. Women run out of parts in Shakespeare. And that's sort of spread over other work as well. We do have it easier. There are some fantastic parts for older actors. And if you're still game and you're still in the business and you're still hale and hearty, then you may be lucky enough to land them. But the way you get parts is– Everyone assumes you get a good manager, get a good agent, you'll be fine. Well, maybe. But perhaps when you're starting out that would be a big bonus.”
He continues, “I still don't know why I got Gandalf. In fact, I'll ask Peter tomorrow, on our last day. Because the rumor was that other actors had been offered it and turned it down. That would be likely, wouldn't it? Such a wonderful part that you'd go initially for perhaps a known actor, which I really wasn't in film terms. But before Peter Jackson asked me to play Gandalf, Bryan Singer asked me to play Magneto. That came first. And when the 'X-Men' dates changed, I had to call Peter up and say, 'I'm sorry, I can't play Gandalf because my initial commitment has changed its dates.' And it's only because Bryan Singer is a gentleman and talked to Peter Jackson and they agreed quite unofficially, nothing in writing, that Singer would get me out of 'X-Men' in time to do 'Fellowship of the Ring' that I was able to do both parts.”
At this point, as I mentioned at the beginning, McKellen is both in a reflective mood and in no rush to return to the intemperate world outside, so his answer about the two franchises continues and because he's Sir Ian McKellen, even his own origin story as a film star is captivating, a story of good luck, good performances and good timing.
“Now, how did I get Magneto? I do know how that happened,” McKellen continues proudly. “Bryan Singer had seen me as Richard the Third, and that was the beginning of my film career. I made a film which I produced and I co-wrote the screenplay. And it was noted in Hollywood that Ian McKellen was, for the first time in the film industry. He wasn't one of those actors who shouts in the evening, as we call it, in the theater. So Singer saw that, was casting a part in 'Apt Pupil' of a Nazi. It was similar territory to the way I played Richard the Third, and he met me and said, 'I'm sorry, you're too young. What a pity.' And we then talked about other things, including John Schlesinger, who we are both big fans of, an English film director whose last film pretty well was for BBC, 'Cold Comfort Farm.' And I'd played a ranting preacher in that. And Bryan asked me, had I seen the film, not knowing I was in it. So I said I had. He said did I know the actor who played the part I played. I said, 'Yes, it was me.' He said, 'But you were so much older in that.' I said, 'Well, it's acting, isn't it?' And then he cast me as Dussander in 'Apt Pupil.' But if I hadn't, on a whim really, done that film for John Schlesinger because I had always admired him– Very difficult film to make, on a very low budget. And successful as it was, the BBC were not interested in the film being shown in cinemas, which was Schlesinger's hope. Schlesinger personally paid to transfer it from sixty millimeter to thirty, whatever it is. Thirty-five. Without that determination, it probably wouldn't have been shown in a place where Bryan Singer would have seen it. Nothing to do with agents. That's to do with luck and what's in the air and people's tastes and people getting on together. I got on with Bryan from the word go at that first meeting. We're good friends. How I got Gandalf, I don't know what they'd seen. They must have seen something that just sort of clicked.”
As the conversation comes to a close, we congratulate McKellen on his milestone the next day and if there's any chance he's going to cry.
“When we finished the other trilogy, it was a big day, the day you finished, for the principal actors. We'd finished shooting and they said this is the last day for whoever, everyone went away, the actor got changed, and everyone came back. People didn't go home. They waited. And I remember my last day was out here in the car park, the battlements of something or other, Minas Tirith. And Peter, Barrie Osborne, the producer, stood up there and they showed a film all about me. Five, six, seven minute film, full of fun, jokes, moments you wanted to remember. And then you were called up and you were given your sword. Which I still have at home, of course. And there was torch light. You couldn't help being moved by that. We'll see if anything similar happens tomorrow. I suspect it will just be b'bye. “Bye-bye, Hobbit, bye-bye.” I don't know. But yes, I should be very sad to say goodbye to some friends. But I sense that why won't we be meeting up again in a few years' time? We probably will. It's possible, isn't it?”
“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” opens on December 12, 2014.