Question: Twenty-eleven, yeah?
McKellen: Was it two years ago? Well, eighteen months ago. We were on the road there for two solid months going from location to location, and that was thrilling. And I felt there was a lot more of that with The Fellowship, and that probably reflects the sophistication of the technology, which has improved so much. 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. 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.
Question: You’ve got Gandalf, and you’ve also got Magneto, as well. Did you ever see yourself so entrenched in popular culture in two thousand and thirteen?
McKellen: Well, I suppose the most popular writer in the world over the centuries has been Shakespeare, so I’m quite used to being involved in popular drama. I think it would be a pity if you went through life as an actor and didn’t actually acknowledge that there are some forms of entertainment that actors get involved with that are more popular than others and I’m aware that a lot of what I do doesn’t either appeal to people or because it’s in the theater, doesn’t reach them.
And film, of course, there’s a much wider audience. No, but it’s just chance, isn’t it? I’ve just come back from doing another X-Men with Bryan Singer in Toronto, just before I came here. No, Montreal, sorry. Well, I don’t know. It’s just a fluke and it tickles me, really.
And some places I go, they think it’s Gandalf walking in, and some think it’s Magneto. And it’s interesting that sometimes those audiences don’t cross. The X-Men audience doesn’t always know about The Lord of the Rings. It’s funny, isn’t it? But, there we go. And I don’t mind that one little bit, being thought of as either of those characters, because I admire them both, really.
Question: But there are still people in London who approach you about play X or play Y that you did over the years, right?
McKellen: A few. And I hope in New York, as I’m about to do Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land in repertoire on Broadway with Patrick Stewart and two wonderful American actors. Yes, I hope they haven’t forgotten.
Question: You said that there was some trepidation for coming back to the movie, because in the book Gandalf doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than point and say, “You need to go here, I’m going to go away for a while.” And now we know that Fran, Phil and Peter have expanded the role and brought a lot of the appendices stuff in. Now that you can look back, that you’re at the end of your shooting, are you happy and content with the stuff–
McKellen: (overlaps) I am happy. 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. I don’t have to defend the Jacksons. They’re perfectly capable of looking out for themselves.