What better way to kick off this January's Television Critics Association press tour than with Sir Ian McKellen discussing his upcoming Great Performances version of "King Lear," which he acknowledges is generally a career-capping role for most Shakespearean actors.
"If, like me, you've worked your way through Shakespeare as an actor, waiting up there is King Lear and beyond him a shadowy Prospero maybe or a Falstaff," says McKellen, who admits to being terrified of Falstaff.
McKellen adds, "It's the challenge. It's the expectation that it will complete your journey through Shakespeare."
Of course, no matter how much acclaim McKellen gets for his stage work, he knows that he'll always be recognized in the street for something different.
"They often say, 'Hi, Dumbledore,'" McKellen cracks.
"I say, 'No, that's Michael Gambon.' I play the real wizard. The best wizard. Though, of course, there is confusion because Rowling has announced that Dumbledore's gay, hasn't she? So maybe that's the confusion. Of course, whether Gandalf's gay is another matter. His wife was never mentioned and he's 7000 years old. He must have had some experience of sex."
Wait. Gandalf? Gay? No wonder he likes hanging out with all of those hobbits. But that's another issue. I asked McKellen is doing "King Lear," this sort of pinnacle work, makes him think differently about about revisiting a role like Gandalf.
"Going back to Gandalf, it'd be a new script entirely. We aren't remaking 'The Lord of the Rings.' We're going to do 'The Hobbit' and what Gandalf has to do in that will be different line-by-line and scene-by-scene than in the trilogy," McKellen emphasizes. "While that's going back to the character, it's going back to a whole new set of circumstance."
And has he been keeping in the loop with the team developing the "Hobbit" movie?
"As much as I can, because I don't want them to forget me," McKellen laughs. "I was very pleased to have an invitation to dine with Guillermo Del Toro, who's in LA at the moment, who is going to direct 'The Hobbit,' so he hasn't forgotten about me."
Of course, "The Hobbit" is still a long way off, but viewers will get to see plenty of McKellen in "King Lear," though not as much as they would have seen on the stage. The PBS version features a somewhat obscured version of McKellen's much-ballyhooed nudity.
"I think it's discretely avoided the moment at which Lear, not McKellen, but Lear, removes his clothes," McKellen says. "I think there's some PBS rule that I don't know about, or it may have been thought, as I thought it was in the theater, often distracting. Inevitably, if a man or woman takes their clothes of on stage, the eyes generally go to those parts that are hidden and at that moment maybe something of import that the scene is about is lost. If it's a distraction of that sort, it's not worth the candle."
Remembering the experience, McKellen chuckles, "Every night when I take my clothes off, you know what I used to do? Pull in my stomach. That's pathetic. I was playing an old man. I should be letting it all hang out and I couldn't do that."