Sir Ian McKellen interview

Gandalf actor on DVD extras, Peter Jackson and Martin Freeman

Interview

After 13 years, the last in Peter Jackson’s epic series reaches our screens, marking the close of a cinematic era. Sir Ian McKellen who played the endearing and ever-wise wizard Gandalf talks about the closing of this chapter.

How does it feel to come to the end of this journey?
I did the last automated dialogue replacement for the voice of Gandalf. Never again. Philippa Boyens, one of the screenplay writers, who was in New Zealand – I was in London – said, ‘Ian, you’ve just recorded your last-ever Gandalf.’ I’ve heard that before. And just as I was leaving the room, her voice went, ‘Oh, I think you might have to come back next week.’ So it’s never the end – the road goes on and on. But it’s lovely. It’s been such a big part of my life. In fact, it’s been my life. And it won’t be over, because I’ll keep meeting people who’ve seen the film for the rest of my life. Little kids see it, so there’s a whole new generation of people who were not born when we made the first films, who are now waiting to see the last Hobbit film. I shall be sorry not to go back to New Zealand, but, at the same time, I don’t like being so far away from home – so I feel quite cool about it.

How different was it shooting The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings?
It all feels, in retrospect, like a natural progression. The main thing I remember is the continuity: it was the same people doing the same jobs often, but with years of experience behind them. There have been changes, but it seems to be pretty consistent. And if there were to be further films, it would probably be the same – but I don’t think that’s likely.

What challenges does Gandalf face in this final film?
Well, it’s much of the same, really. In the book, Gandalf sets up the quest for the Dwarves and then rather lets them get on with it and comes back when they need him. But in the film, you find out what he’s been doing and that’s not just been invented. That’s all in the side-notes by [J.R.R.] Tolkien, who knew what Gandalf had been up to. So Gandalf is still looking after everything. He’s therefore more worried than most about the significance of this quest. He allows it to happen, because he thinks it’s going to bring about other underlying developments in Middle-earth, which would be unfortunate to say the least. He’s just the sort of person I’m not. He stirs up trouble in order to solve the problem. So in this last film, all this is resolved. You’ve already seen him at the end of the second film at his lowest ebb. I know Gandalf dies and is resurrected in The Lord of the Rings, but in this it does look as if he’s not going to escape…

What makes Martin Freeman a perfect Bilbo?
His stature and his face – neither of which reeks of leading man. But here he is playing the leading part. But being Martin, it’s full of quirks and qualities that are in the book, which aren’t necessarily always attractive. He’s very pleased with himself at times and then very bewildered and very put-upon and he complains. Martin can do all of that, and at the same time, you care about him because he’s an attractive personality. So he makes it very rich indeed.

Do you have a favourite scene in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies?
Yes, there is a sequence when Gandalf is captured and at his lowest ebb – I loved the way that was dealt with. It’s always fun when you get to finally see the films for it all to make sense. These scripts are very dense, and difficult to read, and the dialogue and the scene order often changes. I’m constantly asking Peter: ‘Where are we? Why am I here? Where have I been? Where am I going?’ All those things that if you were doing a play, you’d absolutely understand. So seeing it all cut together, and it making sense is a relief.

How do you feel about scenes like that being put on the DVD extras?
Well, of course, a film should be cut down in length. The craft of doing that is absolutely crucial. The way that a screenplay is honed and presented is part of its success, if it works. But then if you enjoy that, to know there’s more… wouldn’t you like to see the outtakes for Casablanca?

Did you take many mementoes from the set?
Er… yes. If you came to my house, you could have a look at Glamdring. You could put on Gandalf’s hat. And if you went to my pub next door, The Grapes, you can see Gandalf’s staff behind the bar. I’ve got some gold coins from Smaug’s lair. I’ve got the keys to Bag End. I’ve got some knives and forks. I know Peter Jackson was saying, ‘We’ve lost the keys to Bag End.’ And I had to keep very quiet. He’s put the original set of Bag End in his garden in the country and you have access to it from the main house through a secret door, and you emerge in Bag End. It’s astonishing. One day, I hope there will be a wonderful travelling museum where these artefacts can be seen and you can walk around the sets. There ought to be a Middle-earth theme park.

Have you and Peter Jackson stayed in touch over the years?
Yes, we have. We send each other emails about things that concern us. Though I can never be quite sure.
I get these emails from the shared address that he and Fran [Walsh], his partner, have. And I’m not always sure if the message I’m getting is from Peter or from Fran. I think they email in the same voice, as it were. But I don’t think they have any secrets. But that confusion aside… he (or she) sent me something the other day. A ridiculous poster from Mexico of Gandalf advertising hotdogs. You just have to accept that Gandalf is an iconic figure who exists so strongly beyond the books, beyond the films. He is an idea as much as a person.

So how has Peter changed over all these years?
The big change was that he’s started wearing shoes. I noticed by the end of this shoot, though, he wasn’t. Well, he’s now a powerful player in international filmmaking. He’d made a few amusing, entertaining films – best described as cult movies. This is totally mainstream. I don’t detect that he’s got better at the job because he was always very, very good at it. But he’s just a bit more of everything. And it’s summed up by the fact that those first three films were shot in an old paint studio and that these three Hobbit films were filmed in state-of-the-art studios. Everything is better and bigger, but equally controlled, and very much stemming from Peter’s aesthetic and the idea of working hard and doing it together – and all those things. He’s got even more toys to play with than he’s ever had, but he’s playing with them in exactly the same spirit.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is out in cinemas across Dubai on Thursday December 11.

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