It's a challenge just trying to figure out how to approach Sir Ian McKellen, how to begin questioning him about his craft and the choices he's made in his career. After all, he's probably best known for his numerous Shakespearean roles -- Richard III being the most outstanding -- but he also starred as the brilliantly evil Magneto in the science fiction film X-Men. He nabbed an Oscar nomination for his riveting portrayal of horror director James Whale in the film Gods and Monsters, yet he's currently starring on Broadway, opposite Helen Mirren in the August Strindberg play Dance of Death. And this week he can be seen in wig and robe and long-stemmed pipe playing the powerful and benevolent wizard Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three Lord of the Rings films.
"I've always had very catholic taste when it comes to performers," says McKellen in a deep, rich voice. "And I see no distinction really between a stand-up comic and the guy who plays Hamlet. I would like to be in a musical, I would like to sing a song on stage or be in a British pantomime. I don't think of myself as a Shakespearean actor, although I've done a lot of Shakespeare, or a classical actor, although I've done a lot of classics onstage. And I've never wanted to be thought of as just a theater actor. Of late, I've been offered wonderful parts in movies, and I'm very pleased about it. So here I am, I'm on Broadway in a hundred-year-old Strindberg play, and I'm opening in Lord of the Rings, and it's the same person.
"Acting is the same, whatever the material is," he adds. "And what connects everything I do, is that I only do good scripts. Shakespeare wrote good scripts, and Fran Walsh wrote a good script for Lord of the Rings. "
In the film, McKellen's tall, tea-drinking, all-knowing Gandalf helps guide a group of Hobbits, led by Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), on a long, tortuous journey toward the land of Mordor, where they must dispose of a magical ring before evildoers get ahold of it. The entire production was filmed in New Zealand by Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners).
"I went over for an initial costume fitting so we got Gandalf's look right," says McKellen. "I had a false nose with the wig. And over three or four sessions in front of a mirror, gradually Gandalf came to life. And once I'd seen his image and believed it, then I found it easy to walk like him and talk like him, and I began to think like him. Normally, this actor works the other way around. I think about what's inside and then wonder how you might look."
But in this case, he didn't know much about the character, and wasn't familiar with the books.
"I had read The Hobbit, " he says of the trilogy's precursor. "But I didn't know Lord of the Rings. I was aware of it. But I didn't at all know what impact it had on people like Christopher Lee, who reads the novels every year, or Edmund Hillary, who has read them seven times. So they passed me by; I was too busy acting. I came in contact with it when Peter Jackson and his wife, Fran Walsh, visited me at home in London and showed me some of their designs for the settings and left the script behind. So it was on the basis of the script that I got excited."
But McKellen has since read all of the books. "Oh, they became our bible," he says. "There was even a pocket in Gandalf's costume to carry a copy."
And he finds that the Tolkien books, with their story of Hobbits and elves and humans and wizards coming together to face an evil menace, are quite prescient about our complex, troubled times.
"Lord of the Rings is now a classic, 50 years old, and it goes on appealing to different generations perhaps for different reasons," he explains. "That's the nature of classics, that as time goes by, people see different things in them that apply to their own lives. And certainly, to this nation at war, I suppose a coalition of different groupings and races put together to destroy all evil does have reverberations. However, the fellowship are quite different from the coalition of mighty nations, because these are just individual representatives. To my mind, Tolkien is saying that evil is destroyed not by the commanders or the chiefs or the controllers, but by the foot soldiers, and I think Frodo represents us all. He's the Everyman."
Gandalf, on the other hand, is the advisor, the encourager, the supporter who keeps asking the group of travelers if they're going to live up to their responsibilities. He's also a fighter who must go up against a one-time friend, Saruman (Christopher Lee). There ensues a darn good two-man brawl, with magic powers flying back and forth.
"Christopher and I are of a certain age where we're a little bit worried as to how involved we were expected to be," says McKellen (who's 62), laughing. "Of course we had very athletic stunt doubles who helped us out. But when you see Gandalf spinning around on his shoulders, that actually was me. And just off camera there was a chiropractor waiting. You don't want to put your neck out for life, for the sake of a movie, do you?"
But he certainly does keep taking risks with all of these radically different types of roles. And he's thrilled at the new level of popularity he's discovered.
"We're on the stamps in New Zealand," he says incredulously. "Christopher Lee and I are on the 40 cent stamps. Everyone who sends a Christmas card from New Zealand is going to lick our backsides and then press us down on the envelope. Can you believe that? There are not that many people who are alive who are on a stamp! And a Burger King cup! Armistead Maupin, who is my godfather, in the sense that he encouraged me to come out and be open about my sexuality, sent me an e-mail the other day and said, 'I cannot believe that an openly gay man is being given away with hamburgers at Burger King.' "