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Interview: Sir Ian McKellen Talks "The Hobbit"

By Garth Franklin Thursday October 25th 2012 11:02AM
Sir Ian McKellen Talks "The Hobbit"

One person on this production that needs no introduction is Sir Ian McKellen. From "Richard III" to "X-Men", from "Gods and Monsters" to "The Da Vinci Code," McKellen is one of Britain's greatest acting legends both on stage and on screen. While several actors from "The Lord of the Rings" have returned to make short appearances here, Gandalf is the true bridging character who plays nearly as much a part of this adventure as he does in the previous films. Slipping back into perhaps his most iconic screen role so far, one would think the experience would be a breeze for McKellen.

That wasn't the case for his first bit of filming on the dinner party scene at Bag End. With the kind of refreshing candour that only true acting legends can get away with, McKellen recalls: "We had rehearsed the scene I was doing with thirteen dwarves and a Hobbit. As a wizard is taller than them, I had to then move away from them and put into my own green screen set … I didn't feel like being back, I wanted to go away. I was very, very unhappy, miserable."

Because his character was of a markedly different size to everyone else, McKellen shot his scenes alone on the new 'Slave-Mo-Co' camera system. That lack of interaction with the other actors and scenery upset him enough that the production shifted to minimise the need to do these kinds of scenes. McKellen admits: "I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter has managed to cut down the number of times we've done that since."

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Once that was sorted, coming back was like no time had passed really."Everybody beyond the camera was familiar," says McKellen. "From the director through to Emma who does my costume and Rick who does my make-up. I was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn't met before here, although I knew some of them from England. They turned out to be a very friendly bunch."

Far more visible than with anyone else we interviewed, McKellen's presence commands attention and deference. His manner is generous, with a fierce intelligence at work behind his eyes along with a wicked sense of humor. He does, however, talk at his own pace and would occasionally ramble off on some wild tangent. However, there was an "I, Claudius" feeling about those brief asides. You sense that keen intellect is playing up his 'eccentric classical actor' persona to test the boundaries of those around him and see what he can get away with.

McKellen says one obvious change for the films is that Gandalf has been made "less bossy" than he was in the novel. More visible though is that he's the major player in a bunch of scenes that are either not in the book or only suggested in passing. "There are scenes which are not in the book, but that doesn't say they're not in Tolkien somewhere, or in the back of Tolkien's mind. Philippa [Boyens, screenwriter], who I talked most to about the script, often refers to details in the book that I had overlooked, or implications that she's developed. But you've only got to look at the width of 'The Lord of The Rings'. Things had to be cut to get it down to the three films. 'The Hobbit' is that -- things have got to be expanded."

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As a result the film's story has a much wider scope than just the events happening to Bilbo and the dwarves. McKellen says: "When Gandalf leaves the dwarves to get on with their job, you get to discover why he is supporting them. That involves an overview of Middle Earth, which Wizards and High Elves get involved with. So I think that will lead on very well, out of the story of 'The Lord of the Rings', because it's quite clear that Middle Earth is at stake."

That doesn't mean it doesn't dismiss the lighter tone of the books either. "The Hobbit is an adventure story for kids, and told in the first person by someone who might read it to you before you go to bed," says McKellen. "Lord of The Rings is about the end of the world. So the tone is clearly very, very different, and that will be reflected. It's reflected in the script, it's reflected in the casting, and it will be reflected, presumably, in the finished film. But alongside that, there's that lighter feel, or a more adventure-story feel. There will be the politics of Middle Earth going on in the background as a support."

McKellen admits he's only recently scored a good idea of where Jackson is taking the film. "Peter did say to me very early on, there was a rambunctious scene in Bag End, and all the dwarves were eating and drinking too much. He thought it would be fun if Gandalf were a bit tipsy. I was appalled at that and said, 'No, Gandalf doesn't get drunk.' But now, after a year of it, I see what Peter was after. I think he wants a lightness, and he has cast some really expert comedians, whose eye will be looking out for what's amusing. I think Gandalf is a small part of that, but I think the pressure's taken off me once you've got Billy Connolly and Barry Humphries and Stephen Fry, and indeed Martin Freeman who is an expert comic actor. Let them get on with it I think."

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McKellen also admits he didn't purposefully go back and look at "The Fellowship of the Ring" to recall the work he did as Gandalf the Grey in that film, even though he finds that incarnation of the character more enjoyable than Gandalf the White in the subsequent two films. He says: "I've never really liked the White. I never said I didn't like playing him, but I didn't warm to him. He's a man with a mission, and he's a commander, and he's a man working right at the end of his tether. Gandalf the Grey, I think Peter agrees, is a much more congenial person, and humane, and full of all sorts of life, particularly when he's with the Hobbits … I don't think he warms to the dwarves as much."

McKellen says he finds it painful watching himself act, particularly because "you can't do anything about it, it's all done and dusted." Even though he himself is older and the character younger, it doesn't matter on screen because "when you're sixty-seven thousand years old, I guess it doesn't make much difference … I obviously look very much the same because my own features are framed by a wig and a familiar hat, and a mustache and beard, so there's not a lot of me there. In fact, my face has shrunk in the meantime, but it won't be particularly noticeable because it's covered up with hair."

There's been plenty of downtime between the blocks of filming. McKellen was able to go back to England and do a play between the first two blocks. We visited the set several months into the third and final block of filming, and even then McKellen hasn't had much work to do, so he's organised a one-man show which he's currently taking around New Zealand on the weekends to keep himself feeling active.

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Even with all his experiences, McKellen still finds himself learning things: "Ian Holm taught me a great lesson when he was doing Bilbo. Every single take that we did, whether it was a close-up or a mid-shot, or a long-distance -- He would give a different reading, a different performance, in intensity, and subtleties. He would keep asking, 'Peter, can I do it a different way now? Can I make it angry? Can I make it placatory? Can I make it jokey? Can I make it quiet? Can I make it loud?'. I saw in front of me all sorts of different aspects of Bilbo. Thrilling to work with because in the moment you responded to whatever you received. Ian said he thought it was his job to provide everything that he possibly could discover about the character, and present it in the performance, and then the director can cut it together in the way that he wants. So the performance is created by the director. The actor is the material."

McKellen has nothing but good things to say about his dwarf co-stars: "My goodness, what they've had to put up with. These guys have been doing it for, wow, fifteen months. I call them a grump of dwarves, but they're not grumpy at all. They're so into it and high-spirited, and funny." He's also disappointed he didn't get a chance to reunite with Christopher Lee who shot scenes for the film in London, even though in the final cut they appear on screen together. "I've seen that scene cut together, in which Gandalf and Saruman appear. It's where they're in the same room, and it is peculiar. I've seen a lot of the film now, a lot of Part One, and it is looking magnificent."

Finally, he shared one great story about witnessing the effect the original trilogy had on new minds: "I had two young friends aged six -- Or was she five? Just on the cusp. Her sister, ten. They were visiting me, and their parents allowed them for the first time to look at 'The Lord of the Rings', which they thought, perhaps, was a bit too grown up in some senses. So over their shoulders, I watched whilst they were looking at the films for the first time. They watched them all three times in two days. I saw firsthand, the effect these films have on kids. I know children -- I remember myself, I liked to hear the same story over and over again, but three screenings of 'The Lord of the Rings' in two days?"

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FURTHER READING

Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
From inception to production, a set report on the year's biggest fantasy epic.

Interview: Sir Peter Jackson
The filmmaker talks frame rates, filming techniques and development woes.

Interview: Martin Freeman
The 'Sherlock' star on his the pressure of being Bilbo and fellow actors.

Interview: Richard Armitage
The handsome 'Spooks' star on what it is like to play a dwarf leader.

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