Interview: Icon Sir Ian McKellen

Fill your pipe and mount your steed—Gandalf the Grey is back, and this time he brought dragons.

Photo: Sarah Dunn / Warner Bros. Entertainment | Licensed to Alpha Media Group 2013

You’re putting Gandalf’s robes back on for the second Hobbit movie. What can we expect from The Desolation of Smaug?

The trouble in answering that is that we filmed the three Hobbits at the same time. What is actually in the second film, I’m not quite sure. I know that Gandalf has quite a big stake in this one. It’s pretty striking stuff, quite violent, hopefully exciting, and a bit mysterious. 

Have you seen the final design of the evil dragon, Smaug?

No, I’m as in the dark as everybody else! Gandalf doesn’t meet Smaug, so I haven’t needed to inquire what he looks like. I’ve seen his lair; I’ve seen the piles of gold and coins and jewels. I actually filched a few. Don’t tell anybody, but I have my own little stash of Smaug gold at home, which I’m deciding whom I’ll distribute it to. Maybe Christmas will be a good time to do it…

What exactly is Gandalf smoking and can we score some?

J. R. R. Tolkien wrote an essay about the different sorts of weed that were available in Hobbiton. People speculated as to whether it was a narcotic of some kind. I always assumed it was. When Gandalf and Bilbo in the first film are rivaling each other by blowing spectacular smoke effects and rings, I thought that reflected what the weed was doing to their brains. 

You and the other Fellowship Of The Ring actors all have the number 9 tattooed on you in Elvish – do you think you will do something similar with the Hobbit cast?

Mine is on my upper arm, the others all had it done in different places. I remember Orlando had his put on his ankle – very painful. I think Elijah Woods’ is on his waistband. I don’t know where the others were, but we are marked for life. We discussed it [with the Hobbit cast] and the dwarves weren’t as keen to have the branding as the original hobbits were. Most of us got a ring, which links us, but we don’t have any tattoos.

Stan Lee told us recently that no one could have played Magneto but you. What did you think when you were offered the role?

That’s terrific! I went to have a look at the comics, which I didn’t know, and in every major depiction of Magneto there’s a lot of emphasis on legs and muscles and crotch. Often his legs are wide apart and everything is on display. I was a bit nervous that I was going to be expected to reproduce this superhuman, muscular body in the films, but I didn’t have to—that was left to Hugh Jackman. The way [director] Bryan Singer presented it to me, the argument between Professor Xavier and Magneto is very much the argument I have come across in the gay rights movement and, of course, most civil rights movements: What do we do? Do we even consider violence in order to preserve our rights? Or do we assimilate and serve society rather than stressing our difference? I’ve always felt that X-Men was about something serious. It wasn’t just fantasy.

How often do fans stop you in the street and ask you to say lines from either Lord Of The Rings or X-Men?

I’m fortunate to be famous for two rather imposing characters like Magneto and Gandalf. If people recognize me, I’m surprised that they do because as Gandalf, he had a disguise – long beard, wig, pointy hat… People confidently come up and say that they like the film and it’s always rather rewarding. They sometimes ask for Gandalf’s autograph or ask for me to say a line and I say, “I’m sorry, I’m not Gandalf. In fact, I’m not quite sure where he is at the moment.” I don’t get bothered. It’s not like being a familiar figure that lives in your living room because you’re on some soap opera – Gandalf is more of a special occasion figure and, as I say, a little bit imposing. People approach me with some respect or even trepidation. 

You have a knighthood, six Olivier Awards, a Tony, a Golden Globe, and numerous Oscar, BAFTA, and Emmy nominations. Do you ever worry that you haven’t achieved very much in your life? 

Those things are an outward confirmation that something’s been going right. What I am pleased about, and even a bit proud of, is that I’ve reached the stage where I’m allowed to do things I enjoy doing, even though other people would think they’re perhaps not appropriate for that distinguished gentleman you described, like going off and doing a sitcom or tweeting silly photographs with Pat Stewart.

You and Patrick Stewart have the Internet’s favorite bromance. How do you feel about that?

Isn’t that sweet? Two guys in our mid-70s still thought to have credibility with young people who think we’re quite cool is very nice, because that’s how we think of ourselves [laughs]. We do think we’re rather cool. It’s appropriate at the moment because we’re working on the same two plays, Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land. We spend all our days together and lots of our evenings. He’s a very sweet-natured person. He might be rather stern in the parts he plays, but we laugh a great deal and care about each other. If that’s a bromance, then, yeah!

Is it possible for you to sum up Waiting For Godot in one sentence?

It feels to me that it’s a play about old age. Right at the start of the play, on comes a character who can’t get his boots on because his feet are swelling, and he can’t remember where he was yesterday. The other character comes on having failed to have a satisfactory pee because he’s got something up with his prostate. This is basic to their lives, they talk about it non-stop – it’s about life, and it’s about waiting. 

Given that you’ve worked with Stewart so much, what was it like to officiate his wedding?

I was a bit nervous, because I didn’t know quite what was expected of me until the last minute. The words choked me up a bit. It wasn’t my best performance, really, but it was heartfelt, and I was really honored to be a part of it. 

He tweeted a pic of you two with Elmo in Times Square. Who was more starstruck, you or Elmo?

[Whispering] I didn’t know who Elmo was. I’m not quite as cool as I would like to be, really. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug hits theaters December 13. 

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