Grey’s anatomy: Interview with Sir Ian McKellen

By Zaki Jufri in New ZealandMovies - 31 October 2013 12:00 AM | Updated 01 November 2013

Grey’s anatomy: Interview with Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf The Grey in a scene from 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'. Photo: AP / Warner Bros

If he had his way, Sir Ian McKellen would not have donned the wig, the wizard’s robe and that distinctive pointy hat for another Middle Earth movie.

He was initially reluctant to reprise the role of Gandalf in 'The Hobbit' movies, as signing on for another Tolkien saga is a very long engagement — almost two-and-a-half years this time, to be exact.

Now, McKellen has played the wise wizard in director Peter Jackson's take on Tolkien's classics since the first 'Lord of the Rings' movie began filming in 1999 to when ‘Desolation of Smaug’ wrapped up shooting in June 2013.

But the thought of someone else playing the iconic sage was too much to bear. And so the 74-year-old McKellen commited to the role again.

A fixture of the London stage, McKellen, is also known for his turn as the mutant villain Magneto in the X-Men films and will reprise his role in the upcoming ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’.

Speaking to inSing about ‘Desolation of Smaug’ in a trailer-turned-artiste green room tucked away in a corner of the eight-acre Stone Street Studios in Wellington, New Zealand, he regaled us 
with his stories of Middle Earth in his distinctive and commanding voice, peppering his long, thoughtful answers with self-deprecating humour. It was his day off, but the actor was professional and more than pleased to drop by the studio.

Gandalf The Grey is Ian McKellen's favourite version of the wizard. Photo: AP/Warner Bros


“I don't like to play a part that I have played before. You know, once you've played Gandalf, you get offered a lot of parts for old men with white beards,” he said.

“Now here I am, back to the same person. It is a long commitment, and at my age, I have to decide, ‘Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to go on this journey?’ Because if not, I can go on another journey,” he continued.

But a friend reminded the actor of his fans. 

“I meet these little people, these eight-year-olds who love Gandalf. They love him. Not me, him. And she said that I have to do it for them. That cleared my mind as I couldn't actually face talking to an eight-year-old and explaining why I didn't want to be Gandalf again,” McKellen quipped.

The actor mentioned that he is glad to be playing the affable Gandalf the Grey again, instead of the no-nonsense Gandalf the White.

“Gandalf the White is a bit of a stick. You know that expression? So we're back with Gandalf the Grey — meddlesome, troublesome, good-humoured and generous. Not to mention the dirty clothes and fingernails. We like his human qualities, and he is the guy who liked to visit Hobbiton because he had a good time there, as well as going about his business,” McKellen explained. 


McKellen said that filming conditions have changed quite considerably between 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and ‘The Hobbit’. 

This time, they have "proper state-of-the-art buildings that are waterproof, windproof, weather-proof and with air-conditioning".

The actor said ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was shot in a “paint studio”, so every line he spoke in the original trilogy was from ADR (automated dialogue replacement) dubbing sessions.

And then there was audiences’ expectation.

McKellen, now 74, was 59 years old at the start of the first shoot for 'Fellowship of the Rings'. Photo: Warner Bros

“When we were making the films originally, we didn't really have any idea whether anyone else would be interested in them,” McKellen recalled.

“But once the first film came out in 2001, we knew we had been involved in successful filmmaking. So then when we came back to film a lot of extra stuff for the second film and the third film, we knew we were making films that people wanted to see. How often can you say that when you are making a film?”

The first trilogy raked in about US$3.9 billion (about S$5 billion) worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing movie franchises of all time, not to mention that it took home 17 Oscars out of the 30 that it was nominated for at the annual Hollywood film awards.

“It’s the same again in this case (for 'The Hobbit'). We know the audience is waiting and that's a wonderful feeling. Now, whether they are going to like it, that's another matter, but we know they are going to come and see it,” McKellen said.

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Two Sirs: Peter Jackson and Ian McKellen posing for a picture after filming wrapped up in June 2013. Photo: Peter Jackson Facebook page


In the first trilogy, McKellen became firm friends with the rest of the cast over the 14 months they spent shooting in New Zealand. He has had a good time seeing some familiar faces this time, such as Cate Blanchett, Andy Serkis, Hugo Weaving and Orlando Bloom on this film's set.

Her husband doesn't know but she (Blanchett) and I are going to get married quite soon; and that will surprise a lot of people. We had a whole week, or maybe two. That was a thrill because she's a great screen actor and a very congenial person. There wasn't a moment that we didn't have stuff to talk about.

“And it was lovely to see a rather grown-up Orlando and his beautiful family,” he added. 

McKellen also observed that director Peter Jackson, now 51, was not the same man that he met back in 1999.

The three Academy Awards, including receiving the Order of New Zealand in 2012, sure bolstered the director’s confidence in helming the mammoth task at producing another trilogy.

“How could you not be?” McKellen exclaimed. “You have to be confident if you're running an outfit like this. He's very much the boss. He's not just the hired director, he's the producer, and he’s the mind and the imagination behind it all. You can get a little bit lazy as an actor when you have a director who is as on top of his material as Peter is.”

And what about McKellen 13 years on? 

“I hope the acting is better, but that's for others to judge.”


‘The Hobbit’ is also not as serious or heavy as ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was, the actor said.

“The stakes are not as high. So there's more humour in this and it's definitely lighter. Some of the world's greatest comedians are in it. Barry Humphries, Billy Connolly, Martin Freeman, Stephen Fry,” McKellen added.

“My only disappointment with this script is there isn't a little bit more of how they actually survive in between the scenes. We see the dwarves eating a lot and drinking a lot. They never seem to go to the loo. I suppose it's those costumes. Perhaps they have some machinery inside I don't understand,” he said. 

“And it's easy enough for Gandalf to relieve himself, because he wears a gown. Lift it up. Sometimes I don't even bother. 

'The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies' opens 18 December 

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The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
  • The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

  • Rated
    PG13 /
    Adventure, Fantasy
  • Language
  • (6 Reviews)