It’s perhaps something of an indictment on the age in which we live that one of the finest stage actors of our time is best known to the general public for dressing up as a wizard and a magnetic mutant, but if such things bother Sir Ian McKellen, he’s not showing it as he seats himself across the table from a horde of journalists at a fancy uptown hotel. The great man is a suitably witty and engaging interviewee, fielding all manner of questions ("Can I put my career in two words? Well, no") with good grace and good humor.
This month finds McKellen reprising his role as Gandalf the Grey in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of another Middle Earth-centric trilogy wherein director Peter Jackson contrives to extend a 310-page novel into a three-film epic. The story follows the fortunes of a rag-tag company—13 dwarves, a hobbit and McKellen’s elderly wizard—who are trying to recover a lost kingdom that’s been gazumped by a large, unfriendly dragon. (If you’re wondering, Jackson has leant heavily on material that author J.R.R. Tolkien added to the story in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings in his quest to expand The Hobbit from its literary incarnation.)
The film’s notable for featuring the best in suitably expensive cutting-edge visual effects, including its much-discussed 48-fps incarnation, which, depending on your point of view, either makes the film look groundbreaking or like the world’s most expensive home movie. It also finds McKellen sharing plenty of screen time with both dwarves and hobbit, all of whom were played by "normal" sized actors (including the 6’3" Richard Armitage), necessitating much cinematic trickery and the use of a new technique called slave motion capture, which apparently isn’t quite as much fun as it sounds.
McKellen cuts a suitably dashing figure in An Unexpected Journey, looming above his gaggle of pint-sized companions and brandishing both his sword and his weed pipe for all they’re worth. Read on to hear about single-set alienation, a lonely wizard on Twitter, and why a Lord of the Rings spin-off called Gandalf the Gay might just be a possibility.
How did you find returning to New Zealand?
It was just like going home, really. And also like going on a holiday, because New Zealand is such a beautiful place to live. The big difference was that this time we knew we were making a film for an audience who desperately wanted us to make it. That’s very unusual. Usually when you do a film you’re wondering if it’ll get released, and then will it get good reviews, and then will anyone come and see it. But we knew in this case that people couldn’t wait for it. So there was a slightly more relaxed atmosphere.
Did the new technology Peter was using mean that the filming differed at all this time around?
There’s a lot less green screen than you’d think. If you see Gandalf on top of a mountain, that means I was there. That’s not faked. What might happen is that when you get back to the studio, they realize they’ve missed a shot or a close-up, and you’d do that in front of a screen.
Can you tell me about the slave motion capture technique that was used to film you and the dwarves together?
There was an absolutely dreadful day, which was my first day back—I had a little rehearsal with the 13 dwarves and the hobbit in their set, which was a normal size set for them, but I had to look bigger, so I couldn’t be photographed in that set, because I would have been the same size as them. I had to go to my own little set, and that was built entirely of green so that it could be removed. I was filmed at the same time as all the dwarves, by separate cameras that did exactly the same thing at the same time. [This meant] Peter could put those two images together, take out the green and I look bigger than [the dwarves]. That’s how it works.
So you were on your own, basically?
Exactly. Me and a robot camera. I’ve only just met these dwarves and seen their faces for the first time, and so I know where to look in relation to where they actually are, they put these posts with photographs of the actors of them. Photographs of the actors, not of the dwarves. I’ve just met the dwarves, and I don’t know who the hell these people are. All I know is that whichever [post] is flashing is the one that’s speaking, and I can hear what he’s saying through an earpiece.
Yes. Wow. It meant there could be no spontaneity, because I can’t really tell what the person’s saying, or in what spirit they’re saying it, and I have to remember what we’ve just rehearsed. It’s very difficult. At the end of that day I got a bit weepy. I heard myself saying, ‘This isn’t why I became an actor!’ Unfortunately I had the microphone on, so the whole studio heard it [laughs]. That night I thought, well, if this is going to be it for the next 18 months, I’m not sure I’m up to it. I emailed Peter, and he emailed me back and said, ‘Don’t worry. We got the scene, and we’ll try to do it differently in the future.’ The next day I went in and my little tent where I get changed was decorated with bits of Rivendell scenery and little carpets and screens and lamps and fresh fruit and flowers. It was absolutely beautiful. That lasted until the flowers faded, and then it all went away and I was expected to get on with being a grown-up actor [laughs].
How much of the filming was done like that?
Peter’s the sort of person who, alert to the problem, will try to solve it. I didn’t have any further days like that—there were other ways in which we could do the scale difference. It does mean that if I was in a scene with, say, Martin Freeman, who had to be smaller than me… I was put closer to the camera, and he was further away. It’s a silly obvious trick. But it did mean that Martin couldn’t look me in the eyes, because that would make the [scale] relationship all wrong. He’d act to the top of my hat, and I’d have to act to his belt. It calls on all your technical know-how.
What’s up next for you?
I’m doing a sitcom called Vicious Old Queens with my old friend Derek Jacobi. In England? Yes, I don’t think it’s going to make it beyond England [laughs]. I was also joking the other day that we were going to make a sequel to The Hobbit called Gandalf the Gay, in which I would be very well cast. And we were tweeting yesterday! I’m not on Twitter, but we were tweeting, and suddenly a thing came up saying, "Ian McKellen is trending." So after these interviews are done, I’m going to go and trend again.
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