LOS ANGELES—When Ian McKellen opted to stand up throughout our recent press conference with him, it was like watching a private one-man show of one of the greatest British actors of all time.
Ian laced his answers with humor and irony in a meeting room at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Dressed in a gray blazer, blue tee and purple pants, the thespian ate a muffin in between answers to questions.
Ian has every reason to be cheerful this morning. He goes from reprising Gandalf in “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and two more “Hobbit” films (after the hugely successful “The Lord of the Rings” films) to a role in an unexpected project.
“ITV, the commercial TV station, has commissioned Gary Janetti, who is part of the team that produced ‘Will & Grace,’ and he’s also written for ‘Family Guy,’ to write a sitcom about two old gay fellows who have lived together for 50 years,” Ian announced with a smile that made his eyes sparkle. “Those are the parts that Derek Jacobi, my old friend from university days although we’ve never acted together professionally, and I will play. The working title is ‘Vicious Old Queens.’ When it was suggested to me that I might be involved, I said, ‘I am not old.’ ”
The two-time Oscar nominee sounded really grateful. “I can’t believe how lucky I am at my age to be suddenly allowed to do that,” he said. “Since I did ‘LOTR,’ I’ve played King Lear on stage and on television. I’ve been in the UK’s longest running soap opera, ‘Coronation Street,’ for 10 episodes. I’ve played the Dame in the British pantomime, Widow Twanky in ‘Aladdin.’ I’ve worked with Ricky Gervais in ‘Extras.’”
“So here we are at 73, I’m going to be in a sitcom,” Ian declared with relish—a septuagenarian with roles in movie franchises. “Isn’t that wonderful? Then I’m going back to the world of ‘X-Men’ with Bryan Singer. I’m also going back to Middle Earth to finish ‘The Hobbit.’ I’ve got a project on stage doing a couple of plays—modern classics. Then there’s a new play being written for me that I’ll be doing after those. I’m like some opera singer—I know what I’m going to be doing for the next 18 months. I just hope the energy holds out.”
Ian recently figured in news items about his health. He clarified in his tweet that he was diagnosed with early prostate cancer several years ago. And that the cancer is contained.
The two-time Oscar nominee said that he is “not like Gandalf at all. Gandalf puzzles over things, makes a decision and gives people orders. That’s not me at all. Even when I’ve been directing, very rarely would I say something to the actor. Then immediately I say, ‘But of course, do whatever you want to do.’ I am that person who absolutely can’t be certain.”
Then the veteran gay rights advocate stressed, “The only thing in my life which I can be certain about—and this was part of what appeals to me talking about being gay—is that gay people should be treated equally with the rest of the population. I know I’m right. Absolutely so. In every other area of my life, I can’t be certain—even on boiling an egg.”
Asked about gay marriage, Ian quipped with a sly smile, “I don’t think I want to get married unless someone wants to propose to me.”
Back to Gandalf, he recounted the long journey before he got to put those wizardly robes again for “The Hobbit.” “You would think ‘LOTR’ was enough, wouldn’t you?” he asked aloud. “It was a long job and they were very successful films. There was always a rumor that Peter would want to direct ‘The Hobbit’ but he denied that for many years. Eventually, Peter said that he was interested in doing it. He asked me, would I be interested in coming back? I cleared my diary and then Peter wasn’t going to direct it but the film was on. But Peter did send me an e-mail and said, ‘Ian, you must play Gandalf if anybody else takes over the project.’
“Then Guillermo del Toro stepped in. I met him and yes, he’d like me to play Gandalf. Then Guillermo dropped out. Peter came back and then he was ill. It was on and off and I had to give myself some comfort if the films were actually not made. I began to see the negatives for me, which would have been to live away from my home, at my age, for 18 months, which was a long time. I could be doing something else that perhaps had a bit more challenge to it than returning to Gandalf.”
It took some friendly encouragement before Ian decided to put on the hat again. “In the end, the clincher was a friend, an actor who said to me, ‘Ian, the fans don’t care that you’ve got a problem. They don’t care how much you’re being paid or how long you’re going to live away from home or that you feel you’ve already done this job. They just want to see Gandalf again.’ I thought that was true. It isn’t often true that you sense there are a lot of people who want you to do something. I only act for audiences and it would have been a bit perverse to say, ‘No, I am going off to do something else.’ ”
He admitted with a laugh, “Anyway, I didn’t want anybody else to take over Gandalf.”
He seems to revel in becoming a more recognizable figure as a result of playing Gandalf. He recalled, “I remember a friend who lives in Hollywood saying to me before the film came out, ‘Your life is about to change forever.’ I said, ‘In what way?’ He said, ‘Wait and see.’ It has changed but in a very positive, lovely way.”
Laughing, he dished, “I find that I’ve got friends all over the world who I’ve never met. The fans of Gandalf and Magneto (his ‘X-Men’ character) are very respectful because those are two powerful guys. They’re not quite on our level. They’re people you rather look up to and respect so I get a lot of respect which is due to the characters rather than to me. But it’s not a big inconvenience to be recognized. Sometimes it can be very pleasant if I go into a roomful of strangers and some of them know that I’m the actor who played Gandalf.
“It’s rather pleasant particularly for someone who doesn’t have children and grandchildren. I’ve met an awful lot of 8-, 9-, 10-year-old boys and girls. I’ve had chats with them which I would never ever have had if I hadn’t played Gandalf. So I feel lucky.”
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