Veteran stage and film actor Ian McKellen says children want to say hello to him in the street because he plays the wizard Gandalf in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” movies, but he knows they know he's not the real thing.
“They know you're not really Gandalf, but I know Gandalf, so they want to meet me,” McKellen, 75 and looking every bit the wizard he is on screen in “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” said after the world premiere on December 1.
“It's rather like going to see Santa Claus in the shop, even though you know it's not the real Santa Claus — or at least I did. Didn't you?” he said with a mock quizzical glance.
McKellen has played Gandalf in all six of the movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's tales for young adults. So he has carried the series, which has now reached its finale, perhaps as much as any other person, apart from director Peter Jackson.
McKellen is also the mutant Magneto in the X-Men movies, part of a spectacular Hollywood career that only really began at about age 50, after decades of doing Shakespeare and what is sometimes called “legitimate theater.”
To him, the words are different but the techniques are the same.
“I think with Shakespeare you can be required to do absolutely anything at the turn of a sixpence — suddenly you go into a battle, suddenly you utter something passionate," he said.
“So if you're suddenly doing what otherwise might seem rather ridiculous things in Middle Earth, you think, 'Well, let's do it and trust the storyteller'... ,” he said. “It's the same with Magneto, really — yeah, raise that car, destroy that bridge, yes, lead that battle. It's all possible.”
While riding high on the lucrative X-Men and Middle Earth franchises — the first Hobbit movie took in more than $1 billion — McKellen also has been polishing his stage image. He was in a well-received production of Samuel Beckett's “Waiting for Godot” in which he played Estragon to his great mate Patrick Stewart's Vladimir, most recently in New York City.
McKellen said he had no intention of reviving the famous Beckett play again, after some 450 performances.
But he said he and Stewart, with whom the openly gay McKellen has a well-publicized “bromance,” are thinking of bringing Harold Pinter's “No Man's Land” — which they played in rotation with Godot in New York — to London.
As for the “bromance,” it produced a flurry of charming “selfies” posted on the Internet of Stewart and McKellen at various famous New York City locations.
“That's a wonderful joke in this country — especially a Yorkshireman [Stewart] and a Lancastrian [McKellen] to get on, since we've been fighting since the Middle Ages,” McKellen said.
He shows no signs of slowing down. He is embarking on a second season of his elderly gay-couple television comedy “Vicious” and will be playing in a remake of the play and movie “The Dresser” about an aging actor and his wardrobe assistant.
And what will his legacy be, after a fantastic run in stage and film?
“I always said that when I die it will say, 'Here lies Gandalf, he came out,' ” he said.