Widely considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, Sir Ian McKellen has wowed audiences in everything from the stage to the screen throughout his career. Open to a variety of roles, McKellen refuses to be typecast, although he’s recently been making his case for a spot in the Fantasy Hall of Fame with his performances as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings and Magneto in the X-Men movies. We sat down with the 74-year-old Brit to find out more about his growing love affair with Montreal and his budding interest in hockey.
Filming X-Men: Days of Future Past was your first experience in Montreal. What do you like best about the city?
SIR IAN MCKELLEN: It’s a little bit European, which was intriguing. I really enjoyed the architecture in the city; it took me a little time to get accustomed to it. One thing I really liked was walking in the big park you have downtown [Parc La Fontaine]. It was right beside where we’re staying in Montreal.
We read that you learned a little French in school; have you had the chance to break some of that out and practice while filming in Montreal?
IM: (laughs) I used it a little bit, but let’s just say that my effort was better than the final product. I remembered some vocabulary from when I was in school, when I was about 15 years old. Back then we went to France and I had a penfriend in the North of France named Bruno. The trouble with English is that everybody speaks it, so I’m afraid the French lost that battle. But it’s very convenient to be able to speak English and also a little bit of French. You feel you’re abroad even at home. I can see the appeal of it in Montreal; it’s a unique situation in North America and it’s not artificial.
Is this your first time attending an NHL game?
IM: Yes, but don’t tell everyone. (laughs) We don’t play ice hockey in the UK. It’s always very moving to come to a place that means so much to so many people. I must say, the Canadiens were really well behaved on the ice – I expected more rumbling.
Are you a sports fan in general? Did you play many sports growing up?
IM: No, I’m not a sports person at all. I’m no good at them. While everyone likes watching football back home, I prefer going to cricket matches. I also enjoy tennis, but I don’t play either sport. When I was brought up in the North of England, at the back of our house there was a cricket pitch. I was doing the scoring for all the games organized in our yard.
Throughout your illustrious career, your work spans genres ranging from Shakespearean and modern theatre to popular fantasy and science fiction movies. Is it a challenge every time you have to adapt to a new style of movie?
IM: Not at all. It’s all the same really. They each have their own style. The acting is probably the same, but the style of the presentation is different depending if it’s a big movie or a small show on TV or radio. Same thing if we’re in a big stadium or in a small theater. The medium affects the style and then the story that’s being told and the way it’s being told. There’s that sort of connection in X-Men that’s very theatrical like some of the stuff I’ve done on stage. It doesn’t feel that different. When you’re working on a project, you’re not really aware of how popular it might be.
Do you prefer playing the hero or the villain?
IM: When you play a villain, you don’t think of them as villains; you just think of them as people who are misunderstood. You’re sympathetic to them if you can. And if you can’t, then it means the script is probably not very good. The “villains” also often have the best lines in the script. But I wouldn’t want to be associated with having played only villains. I’m not a very violent person. I don’t approve of violence.
Do you find it weird that even though you’ve been playing different roles since the 1960s, a lot of people know you primarily for your roles as Magneto in X-Men or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings?
IM: No, more people have seen me play Gandalf, haven’t they? It wouldn’t be surprising at all. Some people have never seen my earlier films or they don’t know other stuff I did. It doesn’t matter at all. I don’t think X-Men is low-quality because it’s popular. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth doing. On the whole, people can trust me to be in stuff that’s worth their time to look at, and enjoy themselves.
Who would win in a head-to-head battle: Magneto or Gandalf?
IM: I think Gandalf would win. There’s not much metal in Middle Earth; it’s all wood. Magneto wouldn’t have a lot to work with.
Was it an easy decision to sign on to play the same role, Gandalf, in six different movies over two trilogies?
IM: Well, they’re two different jobs. The first one, The Lord of the Rings, I knew from the beginning that there would be three films. Before accepting the second job, I did think about it a lot and I decided that I didn’t want anybody else to play Gandalf. Originally they only wanted to do The Hobbit in two parts but they decided to add another one. That’s why as soon as I finished working on X-Men in Montreal, I flew to New Zealand right away for that other project. I’m also reuniting with Patrick [Stewart] on Broadway for two plays: Waiting for Godot, which we’ve already done in England in the past, and No Man’s Land. Basically the play cross-casts. We’ll be
busy until next spring.
Speaking of trilogies, which one did you have the most fun participating in: LOTR, The Hobbit or X-Men?
IM: I can’t remember really. The Lord of the Rings just seems to get on, and on, and on. I enjoyed all of them, really.
Of all the projects you’ve worked on during your career, is there one that you’re most proud of?
IM: Probably the film I made about Richard III, which I produced. It wouldn’t have happened without me. I initiated the whole idea and the screenplay. I still can’t quite believe that it happened. And if it hadn’t happened, [X-Men producer] Bryan Singer would not have cast me in Apt Pupil, which he did immediately before doing X-Men, and I would not have been in X-Men. A lot of things came out of Richard III. That was some time ago and I don’t want to ever do something like that again. It’s very, very hard work.
What’s more intimidating: performing Shakespeare at Globe Theatre or answering complex LOTR and X-Men questions on a live panel at Comiccon?
IM: Acting is difficult; answering questions from fans is easy. The people at Comiccon are usually so pleased to see you that they’re not at all aggressive, nor confrontational. It’s like meeting other friends, really.
A lot of things, good and bad, have been said about Twitter in recent years. As someone who’s fairly active on it, what are your thoughts on social media?
IM: I must admit I’m not the one who writes on it. I don’t know how to post things on Twitter. I send messages to my Webmaster and he does it all. It’s nice to be able to communicate but I don’t know why some people spend so much time tweeting.
The X-Men cast is pretty diverse. How do Wolverine and Magneto groupies differ?
IM: I have no idea. I don’t think Magneto has any groupies. (laughs)
Catch McKellen in his double bill of Waiting for Godot and No Man’s Land alongside Sir Patrick Stewart at New York’s Cort Theatre until March 2014. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters now; X-Men: Days of Future Past hits theaters on May 23, 2014.
This article, written by Hugo Fontaine, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 28 No. 2.
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