Question: Do you ever hope for your legacy as this particular character? Is there something that you hope gets communicated to future generations in this performance?
McKellen: I don’t know about that, but I suppose if I’d ever had ambition in films, it would be to make a classic film that would go on being watched long after shooting was over. It’s alluring, that. In the theater, you do a performance and that is it. There’s another performance coming up tomorrow, eight of them in the week, but different audiences each time, different experience for them, and therefore for the performers.
It’s for the nonce, it’s for now, it’s immediate, it’s live. You could say, negatively, that cinema is dead, because by the time the audience sees it, the disparate parts have separated and some of the performers may indeed be dead, whose performances you carry on enjoying. So that is quite different from the theater. And I feel rather detached from it, so I don’t have any responsibility. I don’t know where the film’s being shown at any one time or who’s watching where under what conditions, but that it is being watched and enjoyed and, more than that, relished and loved, and to have been part of it–I have to speak, in the past, really–has been wonderful.
And then in the present, goes on being wonderful because I meet people whose lives have been affected by it, often quite young people, who love Gandalf. They often refer to him as their grandfather. Yes, that’s lovely.
Question: Looking back to when you first accepted the role to today, is there anything that you wish you’d known back then that you know now?
McKellen: No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. Yes, any experience is different from what you’d expect, isn’t it, whether it’s a holiday or a relationship or a job. I think if I’d known when Peter and Fran showed me the designs for Middle-earth in nineteen ninety-nine that actually what they were saying– And, “We want you under contract until two thousand and thirteen,” I think I would have thought twice.
But as it’s happened, as it’s rolled on, intermittently, of course. I’ve had some wonderful jobs in between times– No, I don’t think so. There have been no big difficulties, obstacles to overcome. So no, I don’t think so.
Question: Do you know what the theater performances are that you did for the longest time, for the most shows?
McKellen: Well, I did– I don’t, because although I’ve done long runs without a break, I’ve also done plays in repertoire which have been revived over years. I know I did a lot of Macbeths. I may well have the record for playing Estragon in Waiting for Godot. I’ve done three hundred and forty of those and I’m about to do some more on Broadway. Amadeus on Broadway was ten months.
How many performances is that? Quite a lot. But I’m not in the thousands. I do like it when you can be in a play which gets revived and comes back and circumstances change and you do it again. If it’s a great play. But actual figures I don’t have.
Question: Well, are there any similarities to returning to Estragon after years away from it to returning to Gandalf, to returning to anything that’s been in repertory that you take a year or two or three off from and then come back to?
McKellen: No, because this is a different script and a different situation and a film with a different tone to Lord of the Rings. Godot remains the same script. And crucially one or two bits of the cast and the same director. But it doesn’t seem odd to me to come back to something I’ve already done. The question is is there going to be enough– Are you going to enjoy it? Is there enough challenge remaining?
I think back, two or three years ago we’d be sitting here now with Guillermo del Toro having just finished these films. How different would that have been? I don’t know. He and I got on very well and were talking about Gandalf. I think the films might have looked different. But I don’t know. We’ll never know.