“Ringleader” by Christopher Lawrence and the IQ Gamer Staff

Sir Ian McKellen reveals what it’s like to play the ultimate wizard – from “Lord of the Rings” combat training to keeping Gandalf’s pesky beard out of harm’s way.

The tip of the gnarled staff rhythmically taps upon the rocky terrain as the old wizard makes his way up the mountainous path. Behind him follows a literal fellowship of some of the most beloved heroes ever sprung from the well of imagination: hobbits Frodo Baggins, Pippin Took, Sam Gamgee and Merry Brandybuck; Legolas the elf; the dwarf Gimli; Boromir of Gondor; and the ranger Aragorn. Of course the wizard – the powerful mage known as Gandalf – isn’t exactly a slouch himself. A central figure in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythos, Gandalf is perhaps the most important character in modern fantasy and easilly the greatest wizard since Merlin. As he reaches the summit of the mountain slope, Gandalf touches a hand to the wide brim of his pointed hat and solemnly continues his trek. He’s marching toward dramatic history … a place Sir Ian McKellen knows well. McKellen, the acclaimed British actor who’s enjoyed more than three decades of success as a performer, is most familiar to American audiences as Magneto, the villainous star of last year’s summer blockbuster “X-Men.” Come this Christmas, that’ll no longer be so. On December 19, McKellen explodes onto the big screen as the personification of Tolkien’s classic wizard in director Peter Jackson’s long-awaited, live-action adaptation of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” McKellen graciously agreed to take a few minutes away from his busy shooting schedule and active web chatting atwww.mckellen.com to answer a few questions for INQUEST about all things Gandalf…

INQUEST: There has been a lot of debate about how “Fellowship of the Ring” opens. Will it start at Bilbo’s birthday party or detail the history of the War of the Ring?

MCKELLEN: Its original prologue has been abandoned and the backstories of Isildur and of Smeagol, who both found and lost the Ring, are now to be told once Bilbo, the adventurer from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, has been introduced. In Bag End, we will see Bilbo starting to write his memoirs. Gandalf’s arrival in Hobbiton for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party of magnificence now opens the movie just as it opens the first book but it has been expanded to help with the exposition. A Prologue, with its stash of names and facts, can unnerve audiences, and I am relieved that ours has gone.

INQUEST: When Sir Alec Guinness played Obi-Wan Kenobi, he hated the role. What do you think of your Gandalf part?

MCKELLEN: Sir Alec didn’t like the sparse dialogue in “Star Wars.” By contrast, Gandalf gets some of Tolkien’s best writing.

INQUEST: Gandalf has a fair amount of action sequences in the movie. Did you play the action scenes or did your stunt double?

MCKELLEN: You will appreciate that the camera doesn’t always record the truth and that when, for instance, Gandalf falls after the Balrog, it may be neither me nor my stunt double who is dragged off the Bridge of Khazad-dum. But generally, if some action is potentially dangerous, I am happy to let others take over, knowing that in the completed film, no one will be the wiser. When I realized on “Last Action Hero” that even so fit a gent as Arnold Schwarzenegger has a double, I lost any worries about being thought weedy. Doubles have a double advantage: It means that two “Gandalf” scenes can be shot simultaneously, and so the schedule progresses.

INQUEST: Does Gandalf’s beard ever get in the way?

MCKELLEN: After five months, I am reconciled to having my face disguised by false hair all day and even finding some comforting security in the wig. Moustache and flowing beard. After all, without them, I wouldn’t look or feel much like Gandalf. At lunchtime, my wig is pinned back and the beard I bundled into a hair-net which snoods it out of the way of salad and dessert.

INQUEST: Would you liken the character of Gandalf to any of your other roles?

MCKELLEN: early on, I found Gandalf’s character comfortably familiar, making me wonder if I had met him elsewhere disguised as some other character who I had played. Prospero, Shakespeare’s wizard, who I played just before Gandalf? Or Shakespeare’s angelically down-to-earth Kent who tends to King Lear and his successor Edgar on their journeys? But no, Gandalf is unique and I have relished getting to know him well over the last 10 months.

INQUEST: did you receive and combat training to play Gandalf?

MCKELLEN: I have never had any general fight training, so each time I have to wield a weapon, I start from scratch. In “Lord of the Rings” I have trained a little with Gandalf’s staff and Glamdring, which he carries once the Fellowship is en route to Mordor. Fighting is easier on screen than on stage. The camera rarely sees the full figure, whose silhouette is crucial to convince a theater audience. Hence the use of doubles who save the actors’ time and bloodied knuckles. You can be pretty sure that when you can’t see the characters’ faces during a film fight, that doubles are being used. That leaves the actor with his close-ups, wielding an off-camera weapon, sometimes minus its blade to avoid slicing the operator!

INQUEST: Will Gandalf’s powerful elf ring Narya be seen in the films?

MCKELLEN: By the end of the third film, Narya will be in evidence. The ring was made in the WETA workshops, which supply all the other props. Once, I forgot to take it off at the end of the day’s work, which gave the props department a sleepless night.

INQUEST: Now that filming has wrapped, do you ever find yourself impersonating Gandalf, or taking on his habits and mannerisms?

MCKELLEN: It may surprise you, but I seem to have left Gandalf’s persona behind in New Zealand. Perhaps I am unconsciously like a painter clearing the canvas for the next character I have to portray.

INQUEST: Gandalf aside, is there any one Tolkien character that intrigues you more than others?

MCKELLEN: Treebeard is a favorite of mine. Anyone lost in a wood like in the “Blair Witch Project” can believe that trees walk and talk.

INQUEST: Any other role you would have liked to play?

MCKELLEN: Where I the right age4, I should like to have tackled Frodo; I have always been attracted to characters who go on journeys and mature as a result.

INQUEST: Excluding yourself, who would you have picked to play Gandalf?

MCKELLEN: Fans have expressed enthusiasm for Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Lee as likely Gandalfs. I would have picked Paul Scofield. He won the Oscar for “A Man of All Seasons” and was so wonderfully unworldly as Mel Gibson’s dead father in Zeffirelli’s film of “Hamlet.”

INQUEST: What other actors do you admire?

MCKELLEN: Those who dare to be different part by part. Those who like hard work and challenges. Those who put money and status low on the list of priorities. Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Gambon, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Lindsay, Sean Penn, Meryl Streep and many other who are not yet well-known.

INQUEST: is filmaking as grueling as everyone says it is?

MCKELLEN: “Long and tedious fun” about sums it up. Actors get driven to and from work mainly so they don’t disrupt the shooting schedule by having accidents. We get up before dawn and get home maybe 15 hours later. At work, we are fed for free and relax in our personal trailers. All this attention is to prepare for the vital moment when the camera turns and we actually earn our salaries by acting.

INQUEST: How do you prepare personally?

MCKELLEN: Nothing too distracting: a daily crossword, if I can find The (London) Times newspaper, or a book – currently Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling – or snoozing or even answering e-mail. And I read and reread whatever scene is being shot next.

INQUEST: Is it difficult to separate your roles from your personal life?

MCKELLEN: During the weeks of rehearsing a play, I tend to become absorbed by the character as I look for him during private study and with the other actors. I try out walks and accents and gestures of face and body. I sometimes learn my lines on public transport muttering them out loud to myself. This must look odd to fellow passengers.

INQUEST: What was your most difficult scene while filming the “Lord of the Rings”?

MCKELLEN: Confronting the Balrog was hard because, whatever you eventually see in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” all I saw aloft in the studio was a yellow tennis ball, Gandalf’s eyeline for the monstrous fiery creature.

INQUEST: What would you change about the story if you could?

MCKELLEN: I would want to reinstate some of the episodes from the novel which didn’t make it into the three movies. But that’s entirely hypothetical and only possible if we had made five or maybe six movies.

INQUEST: Did the success of “Star Wars” influence new Line’s decision to do the story in trilogy format?

MCKELLEN: All filmakers admire the “Star Wars” trilogy, and it certainly set a sort of precedent. But you can tell, it was a storytelling imperative that made [director] Peter Jackson stick out for at least two films. He was very happy when new Line Cinema offered money enough for three, They are dealing with a classic whose following is worldwide – 6.6million downloaded the online snippet of “Lord of the Rings” in its first week. That would be some opening weekend if they all bought a ticket!

INQUEST: It’s been argued that Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” is an allegory for World War II. Do you think this has any weight?

MCKELLEN: Tolkien composed “Lord of the Rings” during the years 1936 to 1949 and tellingly refers to it as “a history of the Great War of the Ring.” World War II was fought by conscripted civilians and volunteers including Tolkien’s own son, Michael. Adolf Hitler’s dominance over Europe must have impinged on the father’s life and writing. The basic plot of ordinary peace-loving hobbits drafted by Gandalf into the fight against Sauron mirrors contemporary events. The wizard warns Frodo about spies being everywhere, just as there were posters in wartime Oxford saying the same thing. Having been born in 1939 and remembering sleeping in an Anderson Shelter against the Nazi bombers, I found it easy to identify Hitler with Sauron.

INQUEST: Assuming the movie is the mega-hit we think it will be, does the idea that you may be forever remembered in most people’s eyes as Gandalf worry you?

MCKELLEN: I have always admired myself on being a protean actor, capable of successful disguise as I deliberately look for variety in my work. What critics or audiences think of me doesn’t worry me overmuch, as long as I am still offered new challenges in the theater as well as cinema. There are worse fates than to be permanently associated with a great literary icon, should that come about.