It's hard to remember a time when Ian McKellen wasn't a hero to nerd culture, owing to his unforgettable portrayals of Gandalf the Grey, in "The Lord of the Rings," and Magneto, in the "X-Men" series. But McKellen's journey to the multiplex was far from inevitable -- he got his start on the English stage in the early 1960s and didn't tackle Hollywood in earnest until three decades later. And yet, he's not one of those stage actors who look down on movies even as they exploit them for a buck. To hear Sir Ian talk about his action-hero status is to discover that it means a great deal to him -- more than most people might imagine.
This weekend, McKellen will reprise his role as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three Hobbit films, all of which take place many years before the events of "The Lord of the Rings." I spoke to Sir Ian about his off-again on-again participation in "The Hobbit," his emotional investment in the themes of the X-Men story, and his perspective on the same-sex marriage laws that passed in three states this past November.
When you finished "Return of the King," did you always know that you hadn't seen the last of Gandalf? I know you were a little concerned with the delays at one point.
No, absolutely not. And when Peter was asked if he was making "The Hobbit," "No," he said. "No, no, I'm not going to make 'The Hobbit.'" Then, suddenly, out of the blue a few years later, he said, "We're going to make 'The Hobbit'!" "Oh," I said, "Who's going to be in it?" And he said, "Well, maybe it's you." I said, "fine." And then he dropped out. And the day he announced -- because of his arguments with New Line -- that he wasn't going to make "The Hobbit," he sent me an email that said, "Ian, this doesn't mean that you mustn't make 'The Hobbit.'" And I would have thought twice if it would be appropriate for me to play Gandalf with another director. And he said, "Absolutely. You must do it. Because 'The Hobbit' can't manage without the original Gandalf." And that was lovely. And then along comes Del Toro and he said the same thing. Terrific! But then he dropped out. So then Peter was going to do it, then he was ill -- ups and downs. After this had been going on for two or three years -- and I had kept myself free -- I felt the film wasn't going to happen. And I thought, Well, frankly, does it matter personally if it doesn't? There are other things that I can happily do and that I had been doing. But, in the end, [laughs] when the call came and said, "Look, are you going to come and join us or not?" -- it was irresistible, really.
It would be hard to imagine people, myself included, accepting anyone else as Gandalf. Do you agree with that?
No, I don't. I mean, who remembers Richard Harris ever played Dumbledore?
I think a lot of people do, actually.
But I think it's now Michael Gambon's part. And Gandalf could well belong to anybody. And, frankly, if you put any English actor of my age in a beard and a mustache and a pointy hat, I think you're probably there. I don't know. Who knows? The clincher really was for me when an actor said to me, she said, "Ian, you have to do this for all of the fans. They don't care that you have another job to do. They don't care that you've already played the part. They don't care that you have to go live away from home for 18 months. They're not interested in the terms of the contract. They just want to see you do it." And I thought ... well, I didn't want to think. Because she had pressed exactly the right buttons with me. I act for two groups of people: writers and audiences. And if an audience is saying, "Please! Please! More! More!," who am I to say "no," really? As long as the writing is good, there we are. That sums it up.
That sounds much better than the opposite, if audiences don't want an actor to do something. I suppose you have to listen when they do.
[Laughs] Yes. You're not often in the situation when you're asked to reprise something. And as a long-standing theater actor, I am acting for those people who turned up and decided to come and see it on the off chance and bought a ticket. That's the contract. And I must get up and do it the best I can. And, of course, the same is true of films as well. I mean, in this case, what a wonderful luxury to be working in New Zealand with old friends and a lot of new, wonderful equipment. And to know that there are millions of people who wanted you to be making the film.
It's interesting that you wondered if it would be appropriate to make "The Hobbit" with a director other than Jackson. Did you feel that way with Magneto and Bryan Singer [who directed "X-Men" and "X2" only to hand over the reins to Brett Ratner on "X-Man: The Last Stand"]?
No, I didn't feel that. I like those characters and the themes of those stories a lot. They are very important. The demographic for the comics, the X-Men comics, is young blacks, young Jews and young gays. They all relate to the notion of being mutants because society treats them differently, you know? And lands them with a problem that maybe they can solve. They become movies about civil rights, and that's reflected in other areas of human life. That's what Bryan had taught me and told me, but I thought another director could, perhaps, do it as well. Or differently. And it didn't matter as long as the theme was strongly there. So that's what I thought there. But when Guillermo del Toro was was going to do "The Hobbit," you think, Oh, well, we've got another genius and he'll give us another view. I may think about the writers and the audiences -- that's where my responsibility lies. But the person who is going to lead me there is the director. And I'm always very, very interested in who's directing.
I'm going to preface this by saying that you are in excellent physical shape, but at any point while filming "The Hobbit" did you think, This was easier 10 years ago?
I didn't feel that. Maybe they were providing support I wasn't aware of, just thinking about it. But I don't think so. I never took advantage of the buggy carts that would take you to the set if you needed it. It was the dwarfs who did that -- poor things carrying the heavy weight of their armor and their padding and so on. And their prosthetics. No, I could still manage it . But, actually, being a film actor is a bit of a doddle. You're looked after every inch of the way. You're taken up by helicopter to the top of some mountain that no human being has ever climbed because you're in the wilds of New Zealand and, there, you'll be treated a three-course meal that would grace a really expensive restaurant down below. [Laughs] There are even clean and serviceable loos for you to use. And someone to help you dress ... no, no -- it's pretty easy. But I don't get any special treatment because everyone gets well treated.
One of the first things I remember seeing you in was "And The Band Played On." Back then, if someone told you that in the year 2012 you'd be an icon to the fantasy and comic-book-genre community, would that have surprised you?
I still don't believe it now! It's absolutely extraordinary. But it's been a wonderful, wonderful adventure making contact with people worldwide who I wouldn't otherwise have connected with. Particularly young people. Sometimes very young people -- eight and nine year olds. I go around to screenings quite a lot, talking about gay issues and the welcome that I get -- that Gandalf and Magneto gets -- well, it makes the job of talking easier, because it means that I don't talk down to them. I talk to them as an equal. Some of the best things about being an actor is that the age difference is not crucial to having a good relationship with somebody. The older person has more experience, but the younger person might have more insight -- particularly to someone who doesn't have children, like me. That's been the best thing about being attached to these projects: they've been films that young people want to see. You reminded me of "And The Band Played On." The only reason I was in that -- they couldn't find an American actor who would play the part that I played because he was an openly gay man. Couldn't find an actor!
I didn't realize that.
The world has changed.
It's interesting because that movie was a few years ago, but it really wasn't that long ago.
I was the last person that should have played that part. I was wrong in every possible way except that I play a gay man and at that time I said that I was a gay man. Yes, yes. But the man playing Gandalf and Magneto is openly gay and nobody gives a toss. The audiences don't give a damn.
Are you encouraged by the same-sex marriage results in Maine, Maryland and Washington?
You know, I'm pretty indifferent to it, really. When I got involved in gay rights, the last thing we were going to fight for was marriage -- we didn't think marriage was frankly a good idea at all. Part of being gay is that we were different. And these are the arguments that turn up in "X-Men," you know? But the principal is simple: equality. That's what Stonewall was trying to help found in the U.K. and was devised for -- equality under the law and equality within society. If gay people want to get married, of course they should be allowed to, because everybody else can get married. It's as simple as that. Yes, I'm very encouraged by the election results in the States. I thought the most remarkable thing about the election was that the propositions that were pro-gay seemed to succeed and there are few out-gay members of Congress being elected. And I think the opponents of the acceptance of gay people within society must be feeling pretty confused and miserable as they realize that they've lost the argument and it's over, really. It's just a matter of time. It will all row forward and in a few years' time, we will all be wondering what the fuss was about.
It's difficult to imagine that there was a time that black and white people couldn't get married. Or that women didn't have the vote. Or things that are so obviously appropriate. And it will be the same for gay people. Now, that's not to say that that will be true in other parts of the world. But, in the United States, yeah.
It was great talking to you, sir.
I'm a big fan of Huffington Post. If I want to know what's going on in the States, I'm there. And I'm sorry this isn't going to be video that people will watch, but you can liven it up and make it sound as lively as a picture, won't you?
I will do my best.
Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.