Knight Vision

Ian McKellen has a face for the movies—one of the great faces, it now seems. This was not always self-evident: Photos of the venerated actor in early stage and screen performances—and even as recently as such films as Scandal, Cold Comfort Farm, and The Ballad of Little Jo—suggested that McKellen was destined for the usual colorful character roles Hollywood turns to reliable stage actors to fill.

The younger McKellen had some of John Gielgud's icy remove in his small eyes (blue, when you could see them), coupled with John Hurt's wiry physique. Of course it wouldn't count for much in Hollywood that onstage McKellen could play practically any size, age, or type—as when I first saw him in Acting Shakespeare at the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen), and he convincingly became Richard III, Romeo, Hamlet, even Falstaff without a change of costume. A versatile actor may never starve, except for recognition.

The film Gods and Monsters—Bill Condon's melancholic romp through the last days of James Whale, the gay expat auteur who kicked off Universal's 1930s Frankenstein franchise in style—showed us something else. Within the elegant crags and bags of McKellen's 60ish face was a pair of glowing, tender, mischievous, piercingly soulful eyes. Who knew? If audiences and the industry had taken admiring note of McKellen's devilish 1995 film of his Richard III, his performance as Whale moved them to their highest tribute: nominations for an Oscar, a SAG Actor, and a Golden Globe.

Now, with a SAG Actor and an Oscar nomination for his literally towering performance as Gandalf in the blockbuster The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Sir Ian is bona fide acting royalty. It couldn't happen to a nicer, more gracious man. I spoke to him a day after he received the Oscar nomination (and I'll speak to him at a free forum at the Canon Theatre on Mar. 4—see the sidebar on this page for details).

Back Stage West: When we last spoke to you, you were in town doing Ibsen's Enemy of the People at the Ahmanson Theatre, before Gods and Monsters was released. You noted that you'd mostly been cast in films as nasties, cranks, and very old men. Things have taken a different turn since, haven't they?

Ian McKellen: After I did Richard III, people who—if they'd heard of me at all—thought that I preferred to spend all my time in the theatre suddenly thought, Oh, this is a calling card that we hadn't expected to be thrown down. And because I'd put myself through a series of acting lessons in other people's movies before doing Richard III, I managed to look competent in front of the camera. From that came other films I otherwise wouldn't have been considered for. Apt Pupil and X-Men happened because Bryan Singer had seen me in Cold Comfort Farm. Gods and Monsters—they were not at all certain they wanted me for that originally. I think Peter O'Toole was the first thought, and there was a lot of talk as to whether I was the appropriate person heading that cast list. Once I was nominated for an Oscar for that, then I think the word was out: Ian McKellen is reliable, he turns up on time, he delivers the performance the director was looking for, and he wasn't all that expensive.

BSW: Gods and Monsters seemed to discover your eyes and your face on screen in a way I hadn't seen before. Are you aware of how you use your face, of the effect you're creating, for the camera?

McKellen: Although that was a very quick shoot, it was with material with which I was very much at ease. The character I was playing was my own nationality, my own sexuality, and working in the same industry as me. He was a bit older than me, and from a different generation than me, but I felt very relaxed with it. And vis-à-vis the camera, yeah, I was by that time very relaxed with the idea of being photographed. Before that, I had what I think is a shared human feeling about the camera, which is, Oh, please don't take my photograph, please don't film me—observe me if you must but don't let me know that you're there. But now I was relaxed with the camera and therefore could ignore it, and at the same time accept that the camera can detect things about a person's inner life because it can get so close to the face. And the simple notion, I think I heard expressed most strongly by Michael Caine, is that when the camera is close you don't have to act—all you have to do is think. And I've taken that to heart. In Gods and Monsters I did a lot of thinking.

In all my years in theatre—with those long rehearsal periods you have for plays—it's all about, What is the character thinking? Come the performance you may be rather selective, and in cinema terms rather crude with some of your effects, but you know what's going on inside. So that was good training for thinking in front of the camera. I do it again as Gandalf. Peter Jackson's style is great, epic, monumental, overwhelming, romantic photography, wide scenes of thousands of people, and then coming in very, very close and being very intimate with the principal characters so that the audience feels with them and gets engaged, and that was always my chance to show that Gandalf thinks. And if someone thinks, they're likely to feel, as well.

BSW: Did your stage training also help you "create" some of the sights and creatures of Middle Earth that were added later, in post-production, and hence weren't there with you on the set at all?

McKellen: Absolutely. It's a point I've had to make to other people who haven't understood—that when you're on a stage, you are not where you appear to be. You're not on a blasted heath, you're not in Elsinore, and the scenery is exactly that—just scenery. So it's a matter of some indifference to me when I'm on a set what's going on behind me. I look at it and examine it and try to feel familiar with it, but if it turns out to be a blue screen, someone's only got to tell me what's there for me to very quickly believe that I'm in the situation.

But the allure of filming is that often you are where you appear to be. When you're dropped by a helicopter on top of a pretty high mountain in New Zealand into 18 inches of snow with the rest of the Fellowship, and off the helicopter goes because it's going to film you—there, it's "no acting required," you write in your script. You just respond to being there—the wind, the cold, the difficulty of walking; you don't have pretend. That stuff is very alluring and very exciting, and it happened over and over again with Lord of the Rings that, despite all its technological elements, most of the time we were where we appeared to be.

Of course the reverse of that is the studio stuff, where Ian Holm and Elijah Wood [as hobbits] are shrunk, or Gandalf is inflated; that does have its problems, because it probably means that you're not being able to look the other actor in the eye in a way that you would do if it were a conventional film. So there were difficulties. We had to do scenes over and over again in different sets; you know, there were two Bag Ends, a big one and a little one. And I think perhaps 13 Oscar nominations reflects the admiration of other film workers for the difficulties involved, not just in what we're talking about, but in terms of, my God, how on earth do you make three films for that amount of money. They see the difficulties, and yet the difficulties are not reflected on the screen—the innocent cinema-going audience just gets swept up in it—but the pros know that there were a lot of problems that had to be conquered.

BSW: Shooting films out of sequence is a challenge of any filmmaking process. But in shooting all three of the Rings films at once, was this challenge greater?

McKellen: We thought of it as just one movie, really, and I wasn't always clear whether we were in the second or the third film, and in a sense it didn't matter, because the story was continuing. Again I leant very heavily on Peter, who knew exactly where each scene was and what its importance was. Filming out of sequence is not really difficult—when you're rehearsing a play, you often rehearse it out of sequence, and you sometimes get Act Three sorted out long before you've solved the problems of Act One. But it could be a little bit alarming. For instance, on my first day, I was riding on the cart and pulling up at Bag End for my first scene. The next week we did the very last Gandalf appearance in the third movie, as Gandalf the White, looking quite different; I had no idea really what I was up to. And that's when do you lean very heavily on a director to guide you. But these are standard problems with filming out of sequence; there was nothing tricky about it. And the length of time? In a sense, which would you rather do, make your movie in four weeks, like Gods and Monsters, or make a movie over a year, like Lord of the Rings? Well, both have their disadvantages, but on the whole the longer you're working on something, the more likely you are to get it right.

BSW: You finished Dance of Death on Broadway a month or so ago. I'm curious how you balance the stage and film careers.

McKellen: I finished Lords about a year ago, and I immediately took six months off. Then I settled on the idea of doing Dance of Death, simply because I was invited by the Shubert Organization and my old friend Sean Mathias, who was directing. I've always enjoyed working on Broadway, and the idea of doing Strindberg on Broadway—and not a transfer from the Royal National Theatre but a production actually thought up by the oldest theatre management in the States—was very appealing. Also I worked out that, Oh my goodness, I'll be playing in Dance of Death on Broadway when Lord of the Rings comes out, and it's long been a fantasy to be in a Broadway show when a major film of mine came out; it seems to be the most glamorous thing that could happen to an actor.

When I was nominated for Gods and Monsters, I was away at the Yorkshire Playhouse doing three plays: Present Laughter, The Seagull, and The Tempest. That was an attempt to go back to my roots in British repertory, and also my roots geographically, because it was in north of England, where I was born. Often the job is more than just the part you play. It's who you're working with and where you're doing it. And I've always wanted to feel that a play would have an impact on an audience more than just being a couple of hours entertainment—whether it was a comedy or not, that there would be some meat to it, some purpose to it, and it could affect an audience. So I'm very alert who an audience might be, and an audience outside London is often more homogeneous than one full of tourists in the West End. It was fun being in Leeds.

What my next big job is, I don't know. I don't have a list of parts that I simply must play. I never have had. I suppose one day I might be asked to play King Lear—it's sort of standing there, waiting—but there've been an awful lot of other very good King Lears, and you don't think of tackling that mighty part without about nine other very good actors playing the other parts, half of which I've already played. At the moment, if I get the choice, it will be to do a new work—and that would be true of cinema, as well—rather than an adaptation of a novel or a play. I'd love to do a new play, and I think that will be good for me, because creating a part that doesn't already exist in people's imaginations and that nobody else has ever played before, that's a real test, and I think that's a test I'd like to take.

BSW: When we first spoke to you, you were in town to shoot Apt Pupil and performing the play A Knight Out as a benefit at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Ellen DeGeneres had just come out, and there seemed to be hope of a change for gay actors in Hollywood. But the field of high-profile openly gay performers is still rather small.

McKellen: It baffles me and I do get blue when I think that in this day and age, with public attitudes rapidly changing—although governments of course don't change as quickly as the public, they lag behind, and armed services, too—that there should still be a major industry like the film industry which informally advises young people that if they want to be successful in the business as an actor, they should lie about their sexuality. It's so unfair, and it's so unnecessary. I say it often when asked, but I don't go around berating people about coming out—I know the problems; everyone who's gay has shared them, to a greater or lesser extent—but there are many, many actors who are confident enough to come out. Most of them are working in the theatre, but there are a few now in TV programs. I hope one day it will just not be noted, it will not be a point that anyone needs to care about, because acting is acting, and what you're seeing on the screen is only a part of the person, and there could be another part that is either none of your business or is not the business of the performance. It really doesn't matter. And you know, my mail, and there's a lot of it now—12 million hits on my website since Lord of the Rings opened—I get no homophobic mail, none whatsoever, and on the contrary I get many, many letters from a wide range of people in the industry and outside it, of both genders, of all ages, saying they thank me and admire me and think I'm showing the way. It doesn't feel like that to me, but if it's how it seems to them, it only points up the fact that for some people it remains a difficulty, and I'm very sorry about it.

BSW: Are you still in touch with the young Shakespeareans at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles?

McKellen: I certainly am. I saw their last production, which was Winter's Tale. They go on from strength to strength. When I was last in L.A., I met with them and some kids from some other schools, and read bits of Fellowship of the Ring to them. My goodness, Tolkien works well read out loud. They're terrific stories.

BSW: Indeed they are. We'll see you in a few weeks. BSW