Ian McKellen for “Desolation of Smaug”

If there’s one person who continues to say “bugger” to notions of age, it’s Sir Ian McKellen. The acclaimed 74-year-old thesp still as sharp and going strong as ever – tearing up the stage in various productions around the world, camping it up on the small screen in “Vicious,” recently reprising his other iconic role of Magneto for “X-Men Days of Future Past,” and preparing to play a retired Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s fascinating sounding “A Slight Trick of the Mind”.

He’ll next be on our screens though in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the second film in Peter Jackson’s ‘Hobbit’ trilogy in which McKellen now reprises arguably his most famous screen role to date – the wizard Gandalf. While Gandalf was in absentia for much of this part of the story in the novel, Jackson has used other elements of Tolkien lore to flesh out a subplot for Gandalf which also better bridges this trilogy with “The Lord of the Rings”.

Speaking with him on the New Zealand set last year, McKellen says that filming conditions have changed quite considerably between the ‘Rings’ trilogy shoot back in 1999/2000, and the 2011/2012 shoot for “The Hobbit”. This time they have “proper, state of the art buildings that are waterproof and windproof and weatherproof, have air-conditioning.” With “The Lord of the Rings” it was shot in a paint studio, so every line he effectively spoke in the original trilogy was from ADR dubbing sessions. Another difference this time out is audience expectations:

“I think a big difference is that when we were making the films originally, we didn’t really have any idea whether anyone else was interested in the films being made. It had been a long time waiting to be filmed, of course. So it was likely that a lot of people were very keen to see the films we were making, but we couldn’t be certain.

Now, once the first film came out and it was confirmed, although a lot fewer people saw that than saw the third film, in the cinemas anyway, we knew we’d 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? And in this case, the same again. We know the audience is waiting. Well, 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.”

One thing he loves is being able to play Gandalf the Grey from ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ again, rather than the stuffier Gandalf the White from the other two films:

“Our favorite, Peter and my favorite, was Gandalf the Grey. Now we’re back with Gandalf the Grey…meddlesome, trouble, good humor, generous. And dirty clothes, dirty fingernails. So it’s back with him now. Whether he’s any different from the Fellowship of the Ring Gandalf, no, I think it’s the same person. I think the scenes that Gandalf is in that are not in The Hobbit, when we see what he has been up to, does lead on a little bit more to Lord of the Rings, when he is trying to get an overall view of what’s happening. Which isn’t much in the novel.”

One challenge he had, especially early on in the production, was having to film various scenes on his own against a green screen:

“It was pretty severe to begin with, acting with fourteen other people who weren’t in the room. Doesn’t make for spontaneity, really. You just have to do what you’ve planned. That’s not what filming’s about, usually. But Peter’s been very good and has reduced that sort of filming to the minimum. The other day Martin Freeman was walking in a shallow ditch so that he would look smaller. Well, that’s lovely, because I’m allowed to look at him then.

But it was true in Lord of the Rings I never got to look Elijah Wood in the eyes. We were never in the same place to do that. I was always looking at the mask of his small-scale double and he was always looking at a big pole, seven foot two. So in this film, Peter’s managed to allow us to act together in a way that we didn’t before.

He’s had a good time seeing some familiar faces on the film’s set, but has only shared a few scenes with them:

“Old friends have been back, but I’ve not worked with them too much. And old friends from my private life like Stephen Fry, who I know well, but I’ve never worked with him before.

Cate Blanchett. Her husband doesn’t know but she and I are going to get married quite soon. Which will surprise a lot of people. But you see, we only met at a party last time, we weren’t on screen together. Well, we were on screen together but we didn’t meet. Here, we had a whole week, or maybe two. That was a thrill because she’s a great screen actor and a very congenial person, for me. She’s based in theater. That’s her main job at the moment, running a theater. So there wasn’t a moment that we didn’t have stuff to talk about.

And Hugo Weaving back, another Australian. So that was rich, really, very rich. Now, unfortunately, the scene we were doing, the main scene we were doing together was one that included Christopher Lee. I say unfortunate because he filmed his bit in London. We filmed with a very, very credible double who could imitate Christopher something alarmingly well.

Well, and then Elijah was here. What a treat that was. Dear, dear Elijah. And this film has got his blessing, as it were. I think he’s so appropriate. You know, when people ask what making these films are like, you can imagine, can’t you? Some awkward customer playing Frodo and somehow spoiling it for everybody.

Well, exactly the opposite is with Elijah. Elijah is always full of the right spirit for the right occasion. And so supportive to this venture, and wanted to come along and be in it and that was lovely. And where there’s a hobbit, there’s usually a Legolas, and so it was lovely to see a rather grown up Orlando and his beautiful family. Who else is new? Or old rather. Well, Andy Serkis. But now directing second unit. Big boss. I think I did his very first day as the director of the second unit.”

You may be surprised to learn that McKellen was initially reluctant to return as Gandalf, and to make another long filming commitment like this:

“I don’t like to play a part that I have played before… Now here I am, back doing it specifically, that’s actually the same person. And 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.”

So there was a lot inside me saying, “No, no, no, what’s the point? I’ve done it. Am I going to enjoy it? Am I going to find anything new in it?” And against that, what persuaded me was could I bear the thought of somebody else playing Gandalf? Because it’s easily done. You put anyone in the outfit and they look like Gandalf. Not that clever.

It was a friend who said, “Ian, just think of those fans,” who I am always going on about. I meet these little people, these eight year olds who love Gandalf. They love him. Not me, him. And she said, “You have to do it for them, don’t you?” And that cleared my mind totally, so yeah. I couldn’t actually face talking to an eight year old and explaining why I didn’t want to be Gandalf again. Because he wanted me to be.”

The character of Gandalf himself hasn’t changed much in the thirteen years since filming:

“The wig is the same, the beard is the same, the makeup– Rick Findlater, fortunately, is the same. So we’re back trying to look the same. The fact that I’m thirteen years older, I don’t think it’s been much of an advantage. Except other people’s perception of me. I mean, I can tell…if I walk through dressed as Gandalf, I can see heads turning. They like to look at him. But that doesn’t take any effort from me.

Everyone says, “Oh, it’s remarkable, and you look exactly like you did in The Fellowship of the Ring.” No, I don’t. I’m thirteen years older and it shows. I don’t know that the voice is exactly the same. Anyway, nobody’s told me that I’m getting it wrong, and they would have been quick enough to do that.

Indeed, it seems Jackson and his writers Fran Walsh and Phillippa Boyens are ready to jump on the smallest detail being out of place:

“You can get a little bit lazy as an actor when you have a director who is so on top of his material as Peter is. And Fran and Philippa as well. Their eye is unerring. If they see something they don’t like, they are the first to tell you and to get it changed. That’s what I mean about it being a home movie, it’s the three of them. They live next door to each other. They are in and out of each other’s lives all the time because they are working on these films and there’s nothing that they are not interested in. Should Gandalf have ear hair? Or hair coming out of his nostrils. They will know. They will have a view.”

That hasn’t stopped McKellen from having a little fun though and suggesting ideas such as Gandalf showing off his morning routine:

“The one disappointment is that Peter had half-promised, he may not remember, but at some point we said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see Gandalf getting up in the morning?” And Peter’s always saying he likes the guy who does sleep under a hedge and gets up and saves the world. Yes, so do I. But we do have a scene briefly where Gandalf is seen to be washing. And it’s about time someone in Middle-earth washed.

I had, I thought, the brilliant idea of, “Why doesn’t Gandalf have a huge pack on his back?” You know, with all the things you need when you are travelling. “That would look ridiculous.” “Okay.” So I said, “Well, why can’t I keep everything in my hat?” So if he was hungry, he just went in and out came an apple. Or a sandwich. Or a toothbrush. Or a razorblade. Oh, he doesn’t use a razorblade. Except on his chest. So everything was in there, you know? And that would have been a wonderful thing because he can do a bit of magic. And why has he got this big, pointy hat? Because it’s a big, pointy bag that he wears on his head. But we never got around to that.

That’s my only disappointment with this script, that 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. And it’s easy enough for Gandalf to relieve himself, it’s just a gown. Lift it up. Sometimes don’t even bother.”