If you’re the kind of person who gets obsessive about all thing Tolkienian, it’s been a pretty big week. Sir Ian McKellen made it official Tuesday, announcing on his website that he’ll playing Gandalf in the upcoming two-part movie adaptation of The Hobbit, which begins filming in New Zealand next month. Along with recent reports that Elijah Wood, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett and the guy who plays Gollum are also Hobbit-ready, it would seem that the band, as they say, is really getting back together. But for anybody who’s followed the Internet hand-wringing about the on-again-off-again production, it can feel presumptuous to assume anything until we actually see the opening credits roll. For most of 2010, McKellen kept us guessing about his involvement in the Lord of the Rings prequel the way some actors keep us guessing about their sexuality. As least with McKellen, there’s never been any mystery about the latter. This is a man who famously went on a talk show in Singapore, a country with strict laws against homosexuality, and asked the host “Can you recommend any decent gay bars?” But when it comes to his future as Middle Earth’s favorite wizard, he’s been downright cagey.
Last September, McKellen caused a minor stir when photos of him at a London rally showed the actor wearing a t-shirt that read “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it!” Somebody eventually figured out that the picture had been Photoshopped, and McKellen was actually wearing a shirt that read “Some people are gay. Get over it!” The fake t-shirt was vaguely funny, assuming it made any sense. (To be honest, I still don’t understand. Was the joke that McKellen has played multiple movie roles and that can be confusing? Or that he’s played two seemingly non-gay wizards while he is, in fact, gay?) But it would’ve been so much more poignant had somebody thought to Photoshop his shirt with the message “I may or may not be Gandalf again. Get over it!” With all due respect to the gay community, they don’t have to contend with nearly the same anxiety and helplessness of a Lord of the Rings blogger.
I met with McKellen at the Savannah Film Festival, where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. During his acceptance speech, he talked about how the Georgia governor-appointed “Ian McKellen Day” nearly replaced Martin Luther King Day, and how he became the first openly gay man to legally serve in the American military (long story). Prior to the ceremony, I was invited to speak with him at the local college’s library. McKellen teased me about wearing shorts (complimenting my boyish calves, thank you very much) and proved that he has a healthy sense of humor about himself. Except, of course, when it comes to Photoshopped t-shirts that make fun of wizards and homophobia.
Eric Spitznagel: I’m not sure what I should call you. Is it Sir Ian or just Ian?
Ian McKellen: Just Ian, please.
So the bloom is off the rose with the whole knighthood thing?
Well, I don’t know about that. There are some tremendous actors in the U.K. who have been knighted, and I’ve spent much of my life admiring many of them, like Laurence Olivier. So it’s very flattering to be in their company. But you also end up in the company of people you don’t admire, including some rather dodgy politicians. I tend to discourage people from calling me “Sir Ian,” because I don’t like being separated out from the rest of the population. Of course, it can be useful if you’re writing an official letter, like trying to get a visa or something passed through Parliament. They’re impressed by these things.
I was under the impression that British theater actors, at least the good ones, are all drunks. And yet talking to you now, you seem completely sober. Are you the exception that makes the rule, or is it just too early in the day?
(With an expression of exaggerated umbrage.) Well, there are many famous drunk actors, the most famous of which is probably W.C. Fields. So I’ll thank you not to be so rude about the Brits.
There are actors who feel the need to have a little drink before they go onstage, and they probably act worse as a result of it.
Even Peter O’Toole? Or Richard Burton?
I don’t know anybody who does that. If drinking was a requirement for someone to be an actor, and they couldn’t function on stage without a drink, then I would think they should perhaps change their jobs. I don’t see how you could be in control if you’re inebriated, do you?
I guess not. But I’ve heard such amazing stories. Oliver Reed throwing up on Steve McQueen, and Robert Newton stumbling on stage and saying “If you think I’m pissed, wait till you see the Duke of York.”
Perhaps you should ask Anthony Hopkins about this. I think he would have a very strong negative view on drunk actors.
Obviously you’re not a big drinker. Do you have any vices?
(Laughs.) None that I’m going to share with Vanity Fair.
Well, are you superstitious? Can you say the M word? The Scottish play that dare not speak its name.
MacBeth? Absolutely. All the time. MacBeth was a very lucky play for me.
You’re positive you haven’t just ruined this interview by mentioning it?
(Laughs.) That’s nonsense. Do you know the origin of that myth?
I vaguely recall something about actors dying or getting hurt every time the play was produced. Isn’t it like the Spider-Man of Elizabethan theater?
Yes, well that’s the story anyway. The most likely explanation is the most practical. MacBeth is a very popular play with audiences. If you want to sell out a theater, just mount a production of MacBeth. It’s a short play, it’s an exciting play, it’s easy to understand, and it attracts great acting. So in the old days, if you were in a touring company and you found out that you were doing MacBeth, it meant there was trouble. There probably wasn’t enough money in the kitty to pay the actors. So even mentioning MacBeth was considered bad luck.
Are you superstitious about anything?
I don’t think I am, no. As a kid, I was a bit cautious about not stepping on cracks in a sidewalk. But I think that was more of a challenge than a superstition. I have little routines in the theater. Once I’ve established something, like the order of putting on makeup and a costume, I have to invariably do it in the same order every time, even if I only did it by chance the first time round. That is a superstition of sorts, but it’s a practical one, because it means as you go through the same routine each day and don’t miss anything. If you suddenly decide to change your shoes and pants before putting on your makeup rather than after, for example, then you may forget to put on your underpants. Which does happen on occasion.
If I’m hearing you correctly, you’re telling me that you went commando during the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I’m not familiar with that phrase.
Gandalf may not have been wearing his tightie-whities.
(Laughs.) No, I’m afraid you’re mistaken.
Are you impressed that I went this long without bringing up Gandalf?
No. It always happens eventually.
Does that get annoying? You’ve done so many roles, both in movies and on stage. And yet people probably aren’t running up to you on the street and saying, “Holy shit, it’s Uncle Vanya!”
You’d be surprised. They do say that. But yes, I see what you mean. And it’s perfectly obvious why that is. If you’ve been in a film that’s seen by millions and millions and millions of people, you’re more likely to be recognized for that than for your theater performances, which were seen by considerably less people. Why would I get upset by that?
I don’t know. Why would Russell Crowe throw a phone at a hotel clerk? Why would Christian Bale have a meltdown on a movie set? Why would Mel Gibson call a traffic cop “sugar tits?” Actors have a reputation for being touchy.
(Laughs.) Yes, okay, I see. But it would be silly for me to take that personally. There are people who’ve enjoyed my work in the theater and they let me know that it was special for them. I’m not going to say, “Well, you should have seen me as Gandalf!” It doesn’t worry me at all. It’s not the same thing as being so identified with a part that you couldn’t go on to do anything else. I’m not in that position, thankfully. I’m not like James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey who just did the one part over and over again and it turned him mad.
Does Gandalf know where all the gay bars are in Middle Earth?
(Thunderous laughter.) Of course not! Gandalf is seven thousand years old. There’s no sex in Middle Earth.
Are you sure? There’s some fanfiction on the Internet that would beg to differ.
Tolkien was the only authority on that world, and I don’t think he was very interested in sex, at least not with the evidence of Lord of the Rings. Other people can read into it what they like or what they can. But I don’t really see it. Although I have heard speculation that Sam and Frodo might be an item, but I don’t think Tolkien really saw it that way. I don’t think Peter Jackson does either.
Here’s a hypothetical epic battle: Albus Dumbledore versus Gandalf the White. Who wins?
Well, the real wizard, of course.
And who would that be?
(Rolls eyes.) I cannot believe I have to answer these silly questions. The real wizard.
Your money’s on Gandalf?
I think you might lose that money. Other than using his staff as a flashlight, what exactly are his magical talents?
I can’t help you with that one. I should probably chat with Michael Gambon (who plays Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films) before saying anything derogatory about Dumbledore’s magical abilities. You know, he and I often get mistaken for each other. I saw Mike recently when he was doing a play in the West End and I asked if he gets mistaken for me. He said it happens all the time. But he never corrects them. He told me, “Oh, I just sign your name.” (Laughs.)
Here’s another hypothetical battle. Gandalf versus the Pope. Who wins that one?
I can’t touch these questions, I’m sorry.
Really? I’m surprised you have cold feet about poking fun at the Pope. I heard you like to rip out the passage in the bible that condemns homosexuality as a sin.
I do, yes. It’s Leviticus 18:22 that I object to. And I only do it when I’m in a hotel room and there’s a bible in the drawer next to the bed. I don’t want those nasty, homophobic sentences lying within twelve inches of my head. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t write in ink. I only write in pencil so it can be rubbed out. I never turn down the corner of a book. I respect books, but what I don’t respect is that particular little verse. It’s not the whole of the book.
You don’t have a problem with the rest of Leviticus?
I don’t mind there being injunctions against eating shellfish or the injunctions against wearing cotton and wool clothing. I only get offended when it suggests that men shouldn’t make love to each other.
What about a line like “Any person who curseth his father or mother must be killed.” That should probably go too, right?
“People who have flat noses, or are blind or lame, cannot go to an altar of God.” That can’t be right. “The eating of fat is prohibited forever.” Obviously not in America.
There’s a lot in there that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t take on all the worries of the world, you know. I can only talk about being gay and being an actor. I’ll have to leave those other battles to somebody else.
Let’s talk about another controversy. Your t-shirt that never was. The one that was Photoshopped to read “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it.”
Yes, I was a little disappointed about that. Because the original t-shirt was much more interesting. “Some people are gay, get over it.” I was proud to wear that shirt at the anti-Papal march. If some people want to make a joke about it, that’s okay. But there was a serious intent behind the real shirt.
What was the joke, exactly? I don’t get it. “I’m Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it.” What does that mean?
I don’t really know.
It’s like the caption of a New Yorker cartoon.
I don’t find it funny. It’s a very serious matter, my campaigning on behalf of young people. I don’t want to pretend that it’s something we can all laugh about and you don’t have to worry about being gay anymore. People have a very, very hard time of it. It’s not a joke to me.
Let’s move on to something that is funny. You’ve got a Lord of the Rings tattoo, right? Any regrets?
Oh no, not at all. It was a sweet idea. The hobbits had such a wonderful time on their first big job, and they wanted to commemorate it in some way. I happily joined in. I’m very proud of that little tattoo. I can’t see it very well. It’s very small and very discrete. I’m very happy to keep it.
What does it say again?
It says “nine” in Elvish.
Are you positive? Sometimes people don’t do their research before getting a tattoo.
Elijah Wood sorted it all out for us, so you’d have to ask him. It’s on my upper arm, so when I look at it in the mirror, it’s usually upside down and it actually spells Gucci. I don’t know if there’s any significance to that.
Would you ever get another tattoo?
Not a Lord of the Rings one, no.
But you’ve been in plenty of productions since. How about Waiting For Godot? Didn’t you do almost four hundred performances of that show?
Three hundred and sixty. We did a tour of Australia, New Zealand and Africa.
That’s worth commemorating. How about a stage direction from the script, something like “Let’s go. Yes, let’s go. (They do not move)?”
(Laughs.) No, no. My body isn’t a temple, but nor is it an advertising hoarding. I don’t think I shall be putting anything else on it.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)