In the early months of 2011, more than a decade after he first began work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sir Ian McKellen returned to Wellington to play the wizard Gandalf the Grey once again.
He'd had his reservations about reprising his role: legal entanglements and union actions had delayed the production for years, and McKellen, at 71, was far from certain that he wanted to be tied up in filming halfway around the world from his home in London.
And this time, in the first of director Sir Peter Jackson's two projected prequels based on Tolkien's The Hobbit, the part would be more technically demanding.
Gandalf would spend most of his time surrounded by diminutive characters – hobbits and dwarfs half his height – but as they were played by actors of ordinary proportions, the film-maker would have to employ an arsenal of special effects to make their world seem convincing. Some were surprisingly simple: in long shots, Gandalf could stand close to the camera and a hobbit farther away, using forced perspective to make one seem larger than the other. But in close-ups things became more difficult.
So, to film an inaugural dinner party in Bilbo Baggins' underground home, McKellen found himself sitting alone in a scaled-down set representing Bilbo's "hobbit hole", as 13 actors playing hobbits sat in a full-sized version of the same set on the other side of the studio. They would all play the same scene simultaneously to a pair of cameras, and the shots could be overlaid in post-production.
But McKellen could neither see nor hear the other actors, instead having their dialogue read to him through an earpiece, and faced a phalanx of photographs on stands that lit up when each character spoke, to help guide his reactions to their lines. To further complicate matters, the pictures he had to respond to were not of the characters in make-up, covered with layers of prosthetics, but of the actors beneath, none of whom he had ever met before.
"This is my first day of shooting," he tells me. "I don't know who they are. I can't hear what's being said. I don't know who's speaking to me. I don't know what they're looking at. I'm acting in a vacuum."
By the end of the day – alone with his earpiece, his miniaturised cutlery and his faces on sticks, watched by only a robot camera – McKellen grew tearful with frustration.
"This," he muttered to himself, "isn't why I became an actor."
That night, he offered to quit.
In spite of his various honours – a CBE in 1979, the knighthood in 1992 – McKellen remains famously informal. When I arrive at the sprawling penthouse apartment where he's staying in Manhattan, while appearing in Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land with his friend and fellow X-Men star Patrick Stewart, his assistant is surprised. "Oh, s***," he observes. "He's asleep." It's noon on a Monday, and McKellen's day off. The previous night, he hosted a party here for 100 guests that didn't finish until 5am; the interview has been forgotten.
An hour later, a freshly showered McKellen is still waking up. The living room of the apartment has been set with vases of fresh flowers; on the mantelpiece is the certificate registering McKellen as a minister in the Unification Church, something Stewart's new wife, Sunny, organised, so that he could officiate at their wedding in September.
McKellen has no confidence that his online ordination has any legitimacy. "We may find out that Patrick and Sunny are not really married at all, and it will all be my fault," he muses. "Hmm."
As he waits for his breakfast to appear, McKellen's distinctively theatrical delivery is even more stately than usual. He eats an apple, rubs at his face and digs in his ear with one arm of his spectacles.
"Monday is my Sunday. I'd just got it into my mind that I didn't have anything on today," he says. "Anyway. Well. We'll be talking about The Hobbit, will we?"
After his inauspicious start more than two years ago, McKellen not only continued his role as Gandalf – Jackson found other ways of making him seem larger than his fellow cast members – but saw it expanded. At the end of nine months' back-to-back filming for the planned pair of Hobbit movies, the director announced that, on the recommendation of chief backer Warner Bros, he would turn it into a trilogy.
The first instalment, An Unexpected Journey, released last December, has already outdone even the success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of all time, with global box office takings of more than US$1 billion (NZ$1.2b).
This – along with his appearance in three X-Men films, playing the villain Magneto – has helped turn McKellen, regarded as possibly the greatest classical actor of his generation but wholly ignored by Hollywood until he was in his 50s, into one of the most bankable film stars in the world. And yet he says his life remains, in most important aspects, unchanged.
"We could go out now and nobody would turn a hair ... or they might," he says. "Depends on chance. But I go on the subways; I go on the tube. It's not that once I was in these films I suddenly became overwhelmed with offers to be in other films, or do the sort of work that I wasn't previously doing – not at all.
"Since I did Lord of the Rings, I've been on Broadway with Helen Mirren, I've played King Lear for no money for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I've also been in these films, which have brought me retrospective fame, of a sort. But nothing like, thank goodness, the fame that Tom Hanks has got, or Johnny Depp, or whatever. It's not an impediment."
Indeed, McKellen says that the roles that have made him globally recognisable have also helped him keep the public at arm's length.
"Because Gandalf and Magneto are rather imposing characters, people don't take advantage of you. They're a little bit in awe, in a way that they wouldn't be if they saw a friendly face from Coronation Street. People on television have trouble with fame, because audiences think they're their mates."
Yet McKellen apparently does an excellent job of being famous. He's maintained a voluminous personal website (which he says he writes for in place of producing an autobiography) since long before the invention of social media, and has a game and sometimes self-deprecating public persona – swigging advocaat on British television show Chatty Man or baking brownies with Martha Stewart – that seems particularly winning in a knight of his generation.
During a break in rehearsals for Godot in Melbourne a few years ago, he was mistaken for a tramp by a passerby, who gave him a dollar for his trouble. He doesn't even mind when he's mistaken for the wizard from the Harry Potter movies.
"The other day there were 100 people outside the theatre who wanted autographs," he says. "Just as I did the last one, a woman grasped my hand and said: 'It's so wonderful to meet Dumbledore in person.' I blew her a kiss and got into my car."
(McKellen is acutely aware of the perils of mixing up actors who have appeared in similar roles. On being introduced to Jack Klugman, who played Oscar in the television version of The Odd Couple, McKellen took him for Walter Matthau, who portrayed the character in the movie, with more distinction.
"You're my favourite actor," McKellen told Klugman, before realising his mistake. "Whenever Jack came through London thereafter, he would send me a postcard, saying: 'Hi! Your favourite actor's in town!'."
Over his half-century of professional acting, McKellen has kept at least one prop from almost every role he has played. He has Gandalf's sword, staff and hat, and many gilt coins from the hoard of the dragon, Smaug, the centre of the latest Hobbit film. "There were quite a lot of them," he says.
Since the end of his relationship with Nick Cuthell, a young New Zealander he met while working on The Lord of the Rings, McKellen has lived on his own. He enjoys it.
"I think if I didn't, I wouldn't. I've got quite a lot of friends who live alone. So we see a lot of each other. It's not that we're not sociable."
For a while, McKellen talked about taking six months off from work every year to travel and spend time with his friends and family. But he's since abandoned that idea; his output now seems as great as ever and its variety borders on the absurd. Over the past 10 years, he has appeared as both King Lear and as Widow Twankey in Aladdin; in The Simpsons and in the sitcom Vicious; before beginning work on Godot he also played himself in Extras ("How do I act so well?" he asks Ricky Gervais. "What I do is I pretend to be the person that I am portraying in the film or play.")
Is there anything he hasn't, yet, been asked to do?
"A musical? Ice skating?" he suggests. "My own chat show?"
When he's finished his current run on Broadway, he'll return to London to play a 100-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the new movie A Slight Trick of the Mind. Now 74, he has dental implants, a hearing aid and has been treated for prostate cancer, but he uses everything he can in his work: "I run around in Godot. I climb over a wall. Fortunately, I have to do it as a man who – oh! – whose shoulder hurts. And probably my shoulder does hurt, because if it didn't and it was my hip, I would go: 'Oh, the hip!' So you can use your complaints."
He has no plans to retire. "Old age is no place for sissies," he announces, quoting Bette Davis. He pulls himself upright in the chair where he's been slumped for the past hour; silhouetted against the window, McKellen's grey hair is a bright corona, glowing white in the afternoon sun.
"What can I do to keep it at bay? You can keep active. Some people garden, some people go walking, some people act."
And he'll keep doing that as long as he can.
"Acting is more important to me than ever. If I weren't doing it, then I really would be on the slippery slope ... the end of which is The End. So," he says aridly, "it's a matter of life and death, a bit." Telegraph Group
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug opens on December 12.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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