Question: For you, at a time in life when other actors might have started having a hard time finding great roles, you got two that were both iconic. What did it mean for you to have that happen for you when it happened for you?
McKellen: You’re not really aware of it until it’s happened, really. 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. 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.
Now, how did I get Magneto? I do know how that happened. 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.
Question: Thirty-five mill?
McKellen: 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. I know I had a big fan in Philippa Boyens, who of course is very close to the Jacksons, and she’d seen me play Macbeth and she still– She talked about it the other night to me, and that was forty years on. So maybe when my name came up, she was able to be enthused. But I didn’t do an audition. I didn’t put on a wig.