Ian McKellen is now known the world over for his role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, but the Lancashire-born actor has spent the last forty years treading the boards across the world.
The knighted gentleman recently sat down with Total Film to cast his eye over a film career that – in our opinion - should have begun 38 years ago:
How did you find working with Peter Jackson? Did he change at all over the course of making the three films?
Ian McKellen: Well, Peter stood up for the story of Lord of the Rings all the time. That was always his principle concern: “I want people to understand what's going on.” And he very much wanted on-the-nose acting, in which everything's very clear.
And sometimes I resist that because I'm always looking at what's really going on underneath, because it's often more interesting than what's actually being said. But I think, without any disagreement, the performance that he's put on the screen is my performance, and one which does have a subtext, too.
What was the casting process like? Were you at the top of Peter Jackson's wish list?
McKellen: So he claims. But I'm pretty sure that enquiries were put out to Sean Connery and Tony Hopkins. In the end, he went for perhaps the riskier choice.
Why risky? Wasn't it Jackson's intention when casting the trilogy to avoid going for star names?
McKellen: Well, the cast you end up with, which may well be the best one, is often nowhere near your first choice. But once you have the actors, then everything is directed towards making them as good as possible.
The films would have been very different if it had been Sean Connery; Gandalf would have come from Scotland for a start! And, of course, there were a number of actors, including Richard Harris, who were hoping to play Gandalf. Auditions took place, I know.
It's interesting you mention Richard Harris, because a story came out that you'd been offered the role of Dumbledore after he passed away.
McKellen: Before Richard Harris died, there was an enquiry: would I be interested in playing in Harry Potter? And I said, “Yes, certainly.” But I've not heard anything since.
So whether they were already sensing that Richard was ill, which I couldn't have anticipated at that point, or whether it was for another part, which is what I assumed, I don't know. But, no, I was never up for Dumbledore. And it would have been unseemly because Richard Harris had made it clear what he thought about my acting shortly before dying.
He said I was “a passionless actor”, and so were Derek Jacobi and Kenneth Branagh. I was very happy to be in such esteemed company! But as I say, Richard Harris was mainly a disappointed man because I had played Gandalf and he had to settle for Dumbletwit. Or Dumblebore, I should say.
Alec Guinness was famously annoyed by the constant attentions of Star Wars fans, but, what with the regular updates you post on your website, you seem to embrace it.
McKellen: Well, I don't know what he didn't like about the attention he got. It could be that he just got fed up with small children asking him to sign not as Alec Guinness but as the character [Obi-Wan Kenobi].
But perhaps I don't quite see it from his point of view because, after all, my script was written by JRR Tolkien, one of the great writers of the 20th century, and his was written by George Lucas, who, in the end, is more interested in the pictures than the words.
Going back a few years, your film debut was meant to be in the wartime actioner The Bells Of Hell Go Ting-A-Ling-A-Ling opposite Gregory Peck. But the movie was never completed...
McKellen: It wasn't and I couldn't have been happier. I was so bored sitting in Switzerland waiting for the weather conditions to be right. It was a summer movie, and then it started to snow early that year and the producers realised that they'd had it.
Apparently you went up for a role in Barbarella around that time...
McKellen: Indeed, I did! And Jane Fonda cooked me eggs and bacon at lunchtime, just before the screentest with her husband, Roger Vadim. That was in Rome, where there was an agent who took a shine to me and kept trying to get me roles.
You were in one of Michael Mann's early films,1983's The Keep...
McKellen: Yep. Before he went off to do Miami Vice.
Do you have good memories of working with Mann at that point in both your careers?
McKellen: No. He wouldn't be surprised I say that because, uh… I was playing a man with a wasting disease, and there was one period in Betws-y-Coed in north Wales when it rained and rained and rained.
And I was there for 14 days on the trot, going in, being made up, and just sitting all day waiting and therefore not working. And I just said, “I've got to leave”, and they got me a helicopter and flew me back to London. I think I avoided some sort of breakdown that time.
And I thought I was ill-cast, really. I was playing a Romanian character and I'd had someone teach me a Romanian accent, and on the very first day, Michael Mann went, “Nah, it's not working. Make it more Chicago.” “Make it more Chicago? I don't have a Chicago accent.” I just wasn't confident enough in myself.
Did you gain confidence when you played the disgraced Conservative minister John Profumo in 1989's Scandal?
McKellen: Well, I didn't think I was very good in that. But it was very nice to be in an English film about an English subject. I mean, so often when you go to be in American movies, you're expected to become American, and that's not playing to my strengths.
My strength is that I'm English and can understand the Englishness of Richard III, the Englishness of James Whale, the Englishness of Gandalf. Once I have to start being sort of transatlantic, I get a bit nervous.
You've said that you deliberately took the role in Scandal because you wanted to play “a raving heterosexual” after you'd come out...
McKellen: Yes. That part was a gift because I had just come out, and the perceived wisdom is that once you're openly gay, that's the end of your career. So I thought, “I'll show them.” Coming out affected my career entirely for the better; my film career has since taken off.
Do you ever get young gay actors seeking advice from you about coming out themselves?
McKellen: What I tell young actors is this: make up your own mind. What is it you want out of life? Is the fantasy of being a romantic leading man in movies so strong that you're prepared to lie about something as basic to yourself as your sexuality?
If you're so thrilled about the film industry that you've got to be a part of it and you want to be openly gay, you can become a director, an agent, a writer, a designer, a personal manager…
Most American actors probably think it'll stigmatise them in the industry.
McKellen: Well, Hollywood has never been at the advance of social change. I went to the Oscars the year that Whoopi Goldberg was hosting, and the Academy suddenly discovered there were some black people.
So gays are, unfortunately, going to have to wait a bit. That was the year in which I had my acceptance speech ready in my pocket for Gods and Monsters saying how proud I was to be the first openly gay actor to receive an Oscar.