NEW YORK – He's either a great actor, or loves his new movie. Of course, both 'ring' true for Sir Ian McKellen.
The openly gay English stage actor admits he was worried about the role of Gandalf at first, and was unsure if Lord of the Rings could even be made successfully.
But when we sat down recently in a Manhattan hotel room for an interview, those concerns were behind him. He defended computer generated images, enjoyed the occasional wry observation and even laughed out loud in a very un-British manner several times.
McCuddy: How tall are you in real life?
McKellen: Well, it depends on whether I'm standing up straight. Probably about six feet.
McCuddy: Because you sort of tower over some of the cast in this thing.
McKellen: It's a nice puzzle when you're looking at Fellowship of the Ring to decide: 'Is Elijah Wood really small or is Ian McKellen really large?' Uh, that's perhaps even a moral puzzle that won't be solved until we've seen the entire trilogy.
McCuddy: Yeah, we're just getting into this thing.
McCuddy: I wonder how different it looked to you, having acted in it, and then seeing it because so much of it was layered in after the fact.
McKellen: I went to see Fellowship of the Ring with all my fingers crossed. I was worried that the special effects wouldn't match up to what was essential, the magic of Tolkien's characters brought to life. I was worried that the story might be too complicated and difficult to understand. Although the basic story is simple. A fellowship is going on, the journey to destroy all evil, but you have to understand the background...
McCuddy: Because everybody says, 'Oh you get 200 or 300 hundred pages into the book and then it really starts to kick in'...
McKellen: (Laughs) Well, I was also worried that we would feel unhappy to be left in mid-air because there are two more films to complete the story.
McKellen: But as it was. The special effects are the best I've ever seen in any film, so seamless that they don't look like special effects. In the early reviews I noticed nobody mentions the fact that the hobbits are four feet tall because they just accept it. I didn't even think it was me up there. I thought it was Gandalf the Grey. The story was absolutely crystal clear. I deliberately took along friends who don't know the books, and they had no problem with it. And at the end of it, all we were gagging for the next movie.
McCuddy: It's 'hobbit-forming.'
McKellen: (Laughing and nodding) A hobbit-forming movie!
McCuddy: It really is. And I do want to see the next one. You are a great stage actor, who I would think might have been a little leery of something with this much CGI (computer-generated images) in it. Did (co-star and veteran actor) Christopher Lee also have any concerns like that?
McKellen: Well, Christopher Lee has made over 250 movies and I've made considerably fewer than that. But we both know in the end an actor's performance relies on his imagination, and even when you're on the stage you know, that is all you are on. You're not really in Denmark when you're playing Hamlet, or Cypress when you're playing Iago. You're just on stage in front of an audience. So the idea of working against a blue screen, or having to cope with the technicalities of film magic isn't that much of a problem. It can be a little bit daunting when you're playing a scene with another actor who isn't actually there, because they have to be shrunk down to the right size.
McCuddy: I'm sure you've had that experience even when the actors were there.
McKellen: (Laughs) But you'll have noticed very often in this film, it has epic landscape, unbelievably heart stopping, beautiful shots of mountain ranges and many thousands of soldiers fighting and so on, and yet the next minute the camera has come right into a huge close up. Peter Jackson knows that the story is probably going to lie in the iris of the eyes of the actors.
McCuddy: Because if he stays on that wide shot too long and pans over maybe Julie Andrews will be singing. There was one mountain top where I was sure you guys were going to walk into her.
McKellen: (Laughs) No, something much more real than The Sound Of Music is going on in Lord of the Rings.