Sir Ian Mckellen: On Mutants & Wizards

September 26, 2018
With the documentary, McKellen: Playing The Part, in cinemas this week, we take a look at Sir Ian McKellen’s essential place in the Marvel and Middle Earth movies.

It’s 2014, and Sir Ian McKellen is doing press for X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The veteran actor squints at his day’s schedule. “FilmInk?” he says. “What’s that?” It’s a film magazine and website – from Australia – we explain. “Oh, yes, of course it is.” Not that the decidedly-hip-for-his-age British performer needs a lesson in the media; he’s savvy enough as it is. “I was just telling the Fox people that when they put something on their website for X-Men, and then I put it on my website, more people read it on my website!” he beams. “I’ve got two-and-a-half million followers now.” That number is considerably higher now four years later.

It’s hardly a surprise, given that over the last close-to-twenty years, McKellen has garnered a rabid fan-base from two of the world’s biggest movie franchises, playing Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit, and also serving as Marvel Comics’ metal-manipulating X-Men villain, Magneto. Both characters are well and truly retired now (Michael Fassbender is of course now playing a younger version of Magneto in the current X-Men prequel series), but they remain McKellen touchstones, with the actor inhabiting them whole, body and soul.

Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto

The X-Men films – despite being big budget superhero popcorn films – hold a special place in Sir Ian McKellen’s heart. To one of the few openly gay actors to book major roles in Hollywood tentpole movies, the themes of his Marvel movies are particularly pertinent. “The demographic for the comics is young blacks, young Jews, and young gays,” the actor told FilmInk in 2014. “They’re the ones that made those X-Men comics popular. And [four-time X-Men director and overseer] Bryan Singer [who is also gay] was always clear of that when he asked me to do it. He said, ‘It’s a gay metaphor.’ It’s not just a fantasy story. It’s not just putting on fancy costumes. It’s about something. In the second movie, one of the mutants comes out to his parents. In the first film, you see an example of discrimination which many, many people can relate to. My character [the young Erik Lehnsherr, who becomes Magneto] is in Auschwitz, and you see him separated from his parents and, disturbed by that, he discovers that he can bend the metal at the gates. That’s what brings it out of him. You can’t write off the X-Men movies. They’re about something.”

McKellen’s partnership with Singer has been a particularly fruitful and essential one. “I’m a huge admirer of Bryan’s, and a bit of a friend,” the actor told FilmInk. “I’ve done more films with him than any other actor. The first was Apt Pupil. Then we did two X-Men [films]. Then I did a little contribution to Jack The Giant Killer. And I’ve just done my fifth, and I don’t think anybody else has done five movies with him.”

McKellen on set with Bryan Singer

Calling his friend and director “a very generous host”, McKellen told a particularly amusing story about Singer taking him to the star-studded White House Correspondents’ Dinner. “We’re sitting there having dinner and there, behind a little red rope, is The President – eating! You can’t help gawp, can you?” laughs the actor. “Bryan said ‘Hi!’ and Obama says to Bryan, ‘Hi!’, and then pointed at me and said, ‘Great actor!’ I practically curtsied!’ It turns out that he’s a fan of the X-Men movies!”

Sir Ian McKellen was equally charming when FilmInk met with him to chat about 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which saw him reprise the role of the wizened Middle Earth wizard, Gandalf, whom he had so brilliantly played in Peter Jackson’s much loved fantasy trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings. On a rotating roster with other cast members, FilmInk found the actor sitting in his London hotel suite wearing a black Hobbit sweatshirt – the one that he was given to mark the halfway point through the 200-day shoot.

McKellen as Gandalf

McKellen instantly proclaimed his love for the iconic character, and revealed that his house is filled with Gandalf models, toys and merchandise that he’s been given. “The best one that I’ve got is a nodding-head Gandalf,” he laughed. “But I don’t quite know what to do with them. Sometimes I club them all together and have a little Gandalf convention on the shelf! Sometimes I hide them. They’ve given me the hat – what the hell am I going to do with the hat? And I’ve got the sword! And if you went to my pub next door, you can see Gandalf’s staff behind the bar.” That’s not all: McKellen also swiped gold coins from the monstrous eponymous dragon’s lair in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, assorted knives and forks, and even the keys to the Bag End set that now adorns Peter Jackson’s garden.

While he admits that “more people have seen me play Gandalf than anything else” – and that includes the X-Men movies – playing the character again in the Hobbit trilogy was not entirely cut-and-dried; the actor had to consider uprooting his life in Britain and relocating to New Zealand for yet another exhausting shoot. “The clincher for me eventually was, ‘Would I mind if somebody else played Gandalf?’ It was made clear to me that whatever I said, the film was going ahead. I wasn’t a film-breaker. There are other people who can play Gandalf, and knowing that, I thought, ‘They’re not going to get a chance!’ There have been two Dumbledores – so who knows?”

McKellen as Gandalf

Even so, McKellen described playing Gandalf for the second time as “like going home.” There was no need for training. “I just put on the nose, the beard, the moustache, the wig and the costume, and we seemed to be there. I had to be careful not to do an imitation of myself. And sometimes Peter would say, ‘Where’s Gandalf?’” It didn’t take McKellen long to find the estimable wizard though. “There’s more detail in his character this time,” McKellen says. “You see him being the politician around the table, assessing what’s going on and making his point. In The Lord Of The Rings, he sits back and listens, but this time, he’s in the thick of it.”

Another difference to The Lord Of The Rings was the humour. “Yes, we’ve got jokes,” smiled McKellen. “Peter did sometimes say – not very helpfully – ‘Be more funny!’ He wanted Gandalf to be drunk at one point, and I said, ‘No, Gandalf doesn’t drink!’ I don’t know why I was so certain that Gandalf doesn’t drink. But yes, there is a lot of comedy.”

Not surprisingly, it wasn’t easy for McKellen to let the character of Gandalf go, given how he came to symbolise Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations like no other actor. “It’s been such a big part of my life. In fact, it’s been my life,” McKellen told FilmInk while promoting The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies, the final film in the Middle Earth series. “And it won’t be over, because I’ll keep meeting people who’ve seen the film for the rest of my life. Little kids see it, so there’s a whole new generation – a generation of people who were not born when we made the first films, who are now waiting to see the last Hobbit film.”

Ian McKellen and director Peter Jackson on the set of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

While Gandalf’s role in Jackson’s Hobbit films has been expanded from Tolkien’s book, McKellen points out that there “are many strands” still to be completed. “He’s very involved in The Battle Of The Five Armies. For him, it’s a hugely important event. He thinks that the future of Middle Earth is at stake. Now whether we can convince the audience that they have to be really worried about that, when they know that the Lord Of The Rings films are complete and happen afterwards, is another thing!”

The week before we met, McKellen was in London recording his final ever session of voice-looping as Gandalf. “Philippa Boyens, one of the screenplay writers, who was in New Zealand, said, ‘Ian, you’ve just recorded your last ever Gandalf.’” He paused theatrically for dramatic effect…a wonderful McKellen trademark. “Well, I’ve heard that before! And just as I was leaving the room, her voice went, ‘Oh, I think you might have to come back next week!’ So it’s never the end – the road goes on and on.”

Of course, hardcore fans would doubtless like to see Jackson tackle Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, in which Gandalf makes an appearance – though McKellen dismisses the idea. “I don’t think that’s very likely,” the actor frowned. At the time, he’d just wrapped another iconic role – that of an ageing Sherlock Holmes in Bill Condon’s 2015 drama, Mr. Holmes. So, was it special playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective? Sir Ian McKellen smiled. “Over seventy actors have played Sherlock Holmes. There’s only been one Gandalf!”

McKellen: Playing The Part is released in cinemas on September 27. Check out the review here.

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