Ian McKellen spends his last day as Gandalf on the 'Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies' set
WELLINGTON, NZ. Perhaps it's the blustery winterish weather outside and the relative warmth and stillness inside the vast, canvas-covered tent/structure that give Sir Ian McKellen comfort.
Maybe it's the lure of craft services dessert that give him cause to stay.
Or maybe the venerable thespian is just in an introspective mood.
Whatever the cause, as wind howls outside and various members of the "Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" crew scurry in and out of the door, accompanied by chilly gusts and intruding drizzle, McKellen holds court with a small group of reporters for nearly 45 minutes. Some of that time is spent on The State of Gandalf and the events that may or may not be on-tap for the third installment of Peter Jackson's second Tolkien-based trilogy, but far more of the interview is dedicated to deep reflection, delivered in the same authoritative and sonorous tone McKellen might use to repel orcs or deliver Shakespeare.
It's early June 2013 on the New Zealand sound stages housing the "Hobbit" movies, but it's not just another day for the actor. He's come to set just to talk with us, but he's one day away from something more momentous: Tomorrow will be Sir Ian McKellen's last day shooting on "The Battle of the Five Armies" and, thus, it will be his last day of production as Gandalf the Grey.
"As things stand," McKellen chuckles, resisting any sort of absolute finality.
"Because the films go on, they don't just get released," he explains. "They get released on DVD, and I suppose most people have actually watched 'Lord of the Rings' and maybe 'The Hobbit' at home, they haven't been to the cinema. And they watched it over and over again in a day. I talked to someone whose four-year-old. Oh, it was Bill Kircher's daughter, four. They'd shown her the DVD of 'The Hobbit' and she watched it five times in the day! So, how can it be over? You see what I mean? Wherever we go, we're associated with it. So, it's a permanent part of your life and you can't just say, 'Oh, that's it.' However, as far as the actual filming is concerned, I think it is it."
And although he has a pending departure, McKellen knows he has more "Hobbit" work in store, which keeps him from speculating on what the next day will feel like.
"Well, I'm going straight to another job and my focus, I suppose, will just, as I get on the plane, will switch to that and there may be a delayed reaction," he admits. "As I say, there are premieres, there's ADR to be done, adding the voices. It isn't 'never see you again' sort of thing, it's not saying goodbye. It's not the break-up of a relationship."
This also isn't the first time that McKellen has thought he was leaving Gandalf, presumably leaving him forever. The three "Lord of the Rings" films were a massive time commitment for all involved, a massive success for all involved and, as "The Return of the King" was on its way to Oscar glory, nobody was discussing a return to Middle Earth.
Despite the gap of time between the trilogies and the brief window in which it seemed that Guillermo del Toro would be taking the directing reins, there was extensive continuity between the six films, from Jackson and fellow scribes Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, to cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, composer Howard Shore, the Weta Workshop team and countless members of the crew.
From McKellen's point of view, though, do the six movies seem like a single, cohesive, six-episode installment of "The Gandalf Chronicles," or do they feel like two contained and separate trilogies?
One clear different, McKellen notes, is one of scale.
"This used to be a tent, literally a tent," McKellen says, gesturing around him. "You might think it's a bit blowy now, but it was just a canvas roof. It was, you'd light your own hands when the Southerly was blowing in here. You felt the whole thing would take off. It's all a bit more bedded down, our studios are more state-of-the art and expansive."
And, of course, there's a not insignificant chasm in expectations, both for Jackson and also for the actor selected to wield Gandalf's staff.
"There is one big difference between when we started out. It was with some trepidation that a group of people started to make a film of the world's most favorite novel. A lot of people were very doubtful that the film should be made. And the airwaves-- The Internet was just starting up thirteen years ago. They were letting their worries be known. Was the casting of Gandalf quite right? Some people thought it was inappropriate for a gay man to play this heroic character. Was Peter Jackson up to the job? Nobody knew. Everyone was very nervous. Now, Peter started talking to those people and trying to reassure them, and I did, too. And I think it turned out to be the first blog any actor had ever made in history. I called them 'e-posts' unfortunately. A phrase that didn't catch on, but I was blogging there and it was all defensive action," McKellen says, laughing at the quaintness. "
He continues, "Once the first film had come out, we came back here to do pickups for the other two films, knowing that we'd made a film that millions enjoyed, therefore we were now making films that millions were expecting, looking forward to. And that was, for me, a huge change. Very, very rare that you do a job knowing that the audience is desperate for you to do that job. Most films you make don't get released, is the fact. So, when we came back to do 'The Hobbit,' it was a little bit of, 'Ooh, should we be trespassing on this kids book that so many of us have enjoyed?' 'Yes, we probably should.' 'And would millions be waiting to see it?' 'Yes, they would.' So, there was a lightness of spirit here that these were films that we wanted to make and that others wanted us to make and that's a very unusual position."