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WELLINGTON, NZ – After almost a year and a half of shooting two, er, now three “Hobbit” films, no one would fault Sir Ian McKellen for being a tad bored. That’s a long time to work on any movie or spend away from home (granted there were two long breaks). The 73-year-old acting icon has ventured to the set of “The Hobbit” this May day to spend what was supposed to just be 20 minutes talking to visiting press, but it soon became clear McKellen was excited to have a live audience again. 20 minutes soon turned into something closer to 40.
First, some background. McKellen is, of course, is once again playing Gandalf the Grey, a role he originated in Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in 2001. And, as any Middle Earth fan will tell you, the Gandalf he reappeared as in 2002’s “The Two Towers” and 2003’s “The Return of the King” was Gandalf the White - quite a differently temperament. His performance in “Fellowship” was critically acclaimed earning him his second Academy Award nomination (he was previously nominated for "Gods and Monsters") and he ended up winning the SAG Award for best supporting actor that season. Combined with playing Magneto in “X-Men” and “X2” during the same period, in the early '00s McKellen went from being a legendary British stage actor to one of the most recognizable people in the world. Now, he’s reuniting with Jackson to bring J.R.R. Tolkien’s precursor to “The Lord of the Rings" to the big screen.
Sitting down, McKellen looks like he hasn’t aged at all over the past decade. But, it turns out his first scene back in the sorcerer’s cloak wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped it would be. Jackson has taken great technical pains to make the perspective between what should be much smaller hobbits, significantly smaller dwarves and a towering Gandalf. Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been to his actors benefit.
As McKellen explains, “After we had rehearsed the scene I was doing with thirteen dwarves and a hobbit, because I, a wizard is taller than them, I had to then move out away from them, into my own green screen set, so that my figure could be transposed onto their picture for it to be off by two enslaved cameras working in exactly the same way, at the same point. So the thirteen dwarves are over there in their set, and I'm over in my set, which is a little green screen cutout to make me look tall. With nobody else, 'cause my camera's enslaved to the other one, there isn't an operator. I can't see the people I'm talking to, so they're represented by pictures on top of poles, which light up when they're talking, and I hear them through a sound piece in my ear. I didn't feel like being back, I wanted to go away. I was very, very unhappy, miserable. But fortunately, I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter has managed to cut down the number of times we've done that since.”
Don’t think that McKellen isn’t happy to return to Middle Earth and Hobbiton, however. Perhaps he just needed to remind himself how anticipated the new films are to fans across the globe.
“In the more general sense, it was the sort of feeling we had by the time we were making ‘The Return of The King,’ that there had already been two films gone out, which had been much enjoyed,” McKellen says. “So, we felt, which you don't often feel when you're doing a job. This is a job that the audience wants me to do. But most of the time when you do a job, a play or a film, you're wondering, ‘Will there be an audience?’ We know with ‘The Hobbit,’ there's going to be an audience. Millions of people are going to want to see it. We fear we're not on our own. The audience's expectations are ever-present. It's a more comfortable job than most. There's not that worry at the back, ‘Are we all wasting our time?’ Which you can feel even when you're doing King Lear.”
The difference from "Rings," it seems, is his co-stars. McKellen says, “Everybody beyond the camera was familiar, from the director through to Emma [Hare] who does my costume and Rick [Findlater] who does my make-up. It was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn't met before here, although I knew some of them from England. And they turned out to be a very friendly bunch.”