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Ian McKellen feels lucky to play Gandalf all over again

Oscar-nominated actor Ian McKellen (“Gods and Monsters,” “The X-Men” franchise) is back on the big screen as Gandalf the Grey, one of the most powerful Wizards in all Middle-earth, in Peter Jackson’s rip-roaring adventure “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.”

In the film, Gandalf the Grey joins the quest to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor and the great treasure that lies within its stone halls from a fire-breathing dragon, Smaug the Terrible. Along the way, Gandalf finds evidence that an ancient evil may have found its way back into the world. In order to uncover the truth, Gandalf must leave his companions to fend for themselves – a journey that will take him into darkest corners of Middle-earth where his worst suspicions are confirmed.

Question: Gandalf was in all three of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” films and will be in all three films in “The Hobbit” Trilogy. What is that like for you as an actor?

Ian McKellen: It sounds like a big responsibility. It hasn’t felt like that. The job has been a wonderful one for me in many, many ways, and it’s gone on for so long. Normally you play a part and that’s it. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get to repeat it.

But it doesn’t feel to me like, ‘Oh, dear, I’ve got to go and do Gandalf again.’ It’s never felt like that. These stories are so wonderful and the productions and the cast are so varied and entertaining that I love going back to New Zealand where we film. So it’s not been a chore at all.

The outcome is very pleasant because I get to meet so many people of all ages who have enjoyed the films, but particularly the young. There are lots kids and early teens and even younger who know the films backwards and they can’t wait for the next one. So Gandalf is always alive and present and there for them. That’s a lovely feature of my life since we started doing them.

Q: What aspects Gandalf have you most enjoyed bringing forth in these movies, and what do you think makes him unique among the other Wizards of Middle-earth?

McKellen: I’m not a great expert on J.R.R. Tolkien, but there are five Wizards mentioned in the stories. Two of them don’t even have names, and we don’t really get to meet them. So we’re left with Saruman, who’s the leader of the order and goes off the rails—a fascinating part played by Christopher Lee. And then we’ve got Radagast the Brown, and he’s a charmer and wonderful for me because Sylvester McCoy and I worked together before when we did King Lear. He was the Fool. He’s too cool to be Nuncle, which is the Fool’s name for King Lear.

And, of course, my Wizard is two Wizards. He’s Gandalf the Grey, which is the one everybody thinks about with the pointy hat. And then he goes missing and is assumed dead, and then he was brought back to life by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings as Gandalf the White. So I get to play two parts, really—the Gandalf that is in “The Hobbit” movies is Gandalf the Grey.

What do I enjoy best about him? He’s popular because he’s always on the side of Middle-earth, and that is his job. He’s there to do his best to alert Middle-earth to dangers and try and put them right. He makes his mistakes, but he’s always well intentioned. I think one of the most telling moments is in the first film when Bilbo offers the ring to Gandalf, and Gandalf says ‘No, no, no, no, don’t give it to me. Even I can’t be trusted with it, it’s so powerful.’

So he’s got what we think of as human frailties, although of course he’s not human. He’s over 7,000 years old. [Laughs] He’s been around forever. You can’t really think about that as an actor. Being eternal is not something you can really take on. In fact, what I like about Gandalf the Grey, in particular, is that he is so human. He likes a smoke and a drink; he loves the Hobbits and likes being in Hobbiton. You see him off-duty every so often.

But most of the time he’s devoting himself to helping out, and he may get a bit impatient when people don’t immediately do what he thinks is the right thing to do. But, as I said, it makes him sort of human.

I think he’s a being you can trust. To the very young, he’s a sort of a grandfather figure. You might not get to know him very well because he’s got a twinkle in his eye and he’s always ready with a rather light remark. But he’s deadly serious, and he knows best.

It’s very rare that you get to play a character who is not only trying to be good but is good. The best parts are usually thought to be the villains, and I’ve played a few in my time on stage and screen, but there’s nothing villainous about Gandalf, and so he’s a very good model for young people to admire.

Q: Gandalf has a wonderful moment in the first film when he says about Bilbo, ‘Because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.’ Why do you think Gandalf feels this way about Bilbo, and sees in him the potential for courage and bravery that others don’t?

McKellen: Well, I suppose we think of Hobbits as the ordinary man in the street—the every man. They happen to be small; they happen to be a bit greedy; they happen to be lazy—all those things that human beings will be when you give them half a chance.

But unlike the other Wizards, Gandalf recognizes in them that they’re stalwart, and they’ve got an inner strength that other people might overlook because of their physical status and demeanor. He thinks that what is sometimes needed is just a Hobbit who will do his best.

Why Bilbo? He’s been keeping his eye on him and then he recognizes that sometimes a character without any imagination at all, someone who’s a homebody, someone who’s rather selfish and very settled in his ways, can, if you give him an adventure, discover strengths that he didn’t know he had. That happens time and again when you read about heroic deeds in the newspapers. They’re often people of whom such things are just not very expected. And Tolkien and Gandalf recognize that.

Q: Those who’ve read the book know that Gandalf leaves the Company, but in this film, we get to see where he goes. Can you talk about Gandalf’s own journey and where it takes him?

McKellen: In the book, Gandalf has to go. The Dwarves don’t know why, and the reader doesn’t get to find out why, but Tolkien knew, and in his notes and in his other writings, he made reference to the specifics of his responsibilities, not just for the Dwarves, but for Middle-earth in general. It was a nice link between this Gandalf and the Gandalf that we meet later in “The Lord of the Rings” films who’s in the thick of it all the time.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there is something going on in Middle-earth. It has changed. Reference is made to that in the first film, and in the second, you meet the specific dangers that Gandalf was nervous about. He gets into one hell of a scrape. I don’t think I can put it in more specific terms than that.

Q: At that moment, does he have any mixed feelings about leaving Bilbo and the Dwarves to continue on without him?

McKellen: Yes, those are the sort of dilemmas that he gets in. He can’t be in two places at once, much as he’d like to be. He does sometimes simply have to leave people to get on with the task that they’ve been given to do.

But that’s the nature of being their commander. You lay down the law, you make your suggestions, you give your orders, you give your warnings, and you say, ‘Good luck and I’ll be back if necessary.’ Then the characters are left to discover their inner strengths. I suppose that’s part of how these stories are told. If they have Gandalf with them the whole time, solving all their problems as they turn up, it would be less of an adventure than it is.

Q: What does Gandalf think about Thorin and his role in leading the Company?

McKellen: Thorin is a stubborn young man, and aware of his lineage, and he’s probably got too much pride for Gandalf’s tastes. Gandalf would prefer that Thorin do things his way, but that’s not up to him. He’s got his doubts whether Thorin actually has the inner and outer strength to pull off the job. You’ll have to see if he’s right about that.

Q: What do you think Martin Freeman brings to the role of Bilbo?

McKellen: As an actor, he brings enormous expertise. I’m a real fan of his work, not just on screen, but on stage. I’ve been following him for years and it’s been one of the great joys to get to learn from him and become his friend. And he is a very, very talented actor. No one underestimates him. He’s highly praised and rightly, but to see it at close quarters is always thrilling, particularly in film. If you’re working with somebody on the stage, you can’t really be observing them all the time. You might observe them through your character, but on film, there’s a lot of hanging around. There’s a lot of feeding him his lines during his close ups, for example, and then you do get a chance to really examine how the actor is working. And in the case of Martin, I admire it enormously.

He was a brilliant bit of casting, and he’s made Bilbo absolutely his own. Every moment on screen is full—he doesn’t coast at all. I think he’s obviously the glue that keeps the whole thing together, and I’m delighted at his success.

That said, the trouble with playing a tall character in the midst of a lot of small ones like Hobbits and Dwarves is you often don’t actually get to act with them all the time because you have to be separated from them for technical reasons. That is painful because I don’t think I ever got to really look Bilbo in the eye as Gandalf more than once or twice. It was the same as working with Elijah Wood as Frodo. I would always have to look below Elijah’s face to make it look credible that I was tall. Silly things like that.

It was always a great relief to act with people of my own height, like Legolas or the Elves. There’s always a separation in working with the Dwarves and the Hobbits, and that was a great pity. But I’m quite genuinely a huge admirer of Martin. And I think it’s going to be wonderful to watch him do more stuff on screen.

Q: What was it like to be reunited with Orlando Bloom and his character, Legolas?

McKellen: I see Orlando all the time, but I didn’t actually get to work with him much on the film. It’s ironic because we’re almost sharing an apartment here in New York where he’s on Broadway doing Romeo and Juliet and I’m on Broadway with Beckett and Pinter, and he’s just sort of along the corridor for me. So I have been seeing a lot of him and that’s been lovely.

Q: Can you talk about your relationship with Peter Jackson and what it’s been like to work with him over all these years and films together?

McKellen: It’s been one of the great joys of my career. I liked getting to know him and Fran [Walsh] and their family, and so many of their friends, who have been with them as long as I have on these films and some even longer. They create an atmosphere which is to their pace, but also to mine, of friendliness and family. I socialize with him a little bit, but they don’t have much time for that, because they’re so busy working.

On set, there’s always a cheerfulness about them, and though they work so hard, they always have time for a laugh and for listening to your concerns, whether they have to do with your digs or your health or the work in question. Although he is the supreme boss and organizer, you never feel at a disadvantage with Peter. He always wants your input.

If he hadn’t been lined up to be the director, I wouldn’t have wanted to do this job over such a long period. It’s one of those things that’s made the job really enjoyable.

A production of New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures (MGM), “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” is now playing in 3D, 2D and IMAX theaters in the Philippines by Warner Bros. Pictures.

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