Our HOBBIT Week continues, as we sit down with Gandalf himself to talk all things Middle Earth…

The final instalment of Peter Jackson’s adventures in Middle Earth – THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES – is released in Irish cinemas this month, and promises to be the defining chapter of Bilbo’s journey to reclaim The Lonely Mountain from the dragon Smaug. Ahead of the film’s release, had the pleasure of sitting down with Gandalf himself, Sir Ian McKellen, to find out how he feels now the franchise is coming to an end, which incarnation of Gandalf he most likes to play, and whether anyone has ever stopped him in the street to tell him he’s rubbish.

Now it’s all coming to an end, are you going to miss your time in Middle Earth?
Ian McKellen: We finished filming it a year ago, but we keep finishing these movies over the last 10 or 12 years. I keep being told’ That’s it, goodbye’, then I keep being called to come back, so on and on it goes; the road goes on.

Do you think there is enough Tolkien material for another trilogy?
IMcK: Apparently there is, but I don’t know that they have the rights to the book THE SILMARILLION; you can’t just make these films, you have to negotiate with the Tolkien estate, part of which doesn’t really like these films or want them to be made. They are very protective of the idea of the books as books. Tolkien had sold the rights, so there was nothing they could do about it. Whether those other books will ever get made into films I don’t know, but I think it’s unlikely at the moment.

Would you return to the role of Gandalf if new films ever went into production?
IMcK: Oh that’s a big if; I don’t know. Will I still be standing up? I don’t know.

You’ve played the same character for so long, but you’ve played two incarnations of Gandalf – Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White. Which did you prefer?
IMcK: Oh well, Gandalf the Grey, and in these films, it’s all the Grey because it’s before THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Gandalf the Grey has got a bit more to him, a bit more variety to play. He’s not quite as driven, he’s got time to enjoy himself a little bit. Gandalf the Grey attends the Council with Galadriel, he’s down there in Hobbiton with the Hobbits, he’s on horseback with them all going on the journey, he’s racing off to Dol Guldur with Doctor Who number 7… He gets all over the place and that’s why I like him.

There is a lot of fighting in THE HOBBIT Trilogy. Did you do any of your own stunts?
IMcK: Whatever they tell you, nobody does all their own stunts in these movies, because often there are stunts done by a computer generated figure. No I don’t do everything you see… I jump on a horse, I gallop this, I go up that… No, no, no. I had a friend who died riding a horse in a film, and I am very wary of horses. It’s a very very dangerous occupation for someone who’s not a horseman. I just thought; climbing about on ropes or climbing up trees; there’s no need to. If you see me fighting and wielding a sword, that’ll be me.

The other thing is, Gandalf being twice the height of everyone else…
IMcK: When I was doing the ADR I said; ‘there’s something wrong there, what am I doing…? Oh! That’s not me!’ It was my large double working with Martin Freeman. It’s very difficult; it cannot be me all the time. About seven people play Gandalf. I do the voice, and the voice is such an important part of it for me. I don’t get precious about the idea of not doing all my own stunts; I think that’s a young man’s boast.

How do you make the connection with other actors if you aren’t necessarily in the shot with them, and are added in later?
IMcK: We are very clever actors. I have never once, in these films, looked Martin Freeman in the eye… Or Elijah Wood. I have not, in a sense, ever acted with them. It’s very very difficult, it’s very very technical and it depends on a lot of trust between the actors, and a lot of preparation. It’s a constant difficulty. You do as much preparation as you can, and the longer you’re on the film the more you get to know each other, and the easier it becomes, but it never becomes totally easy. Everything about these films is immensely technical… I never worked with the Balrog; I worked with a yellow tennis ball on top of a pole. If you see Gandalf racing across the plain on a white horse, that’s not me, it’s in the computer. These are Peter Jackson movies; we are there to help.

Did all these doubles, and green screen work make you feel disassociated from the character in any way?
IMcK: No, because it’s all at the service of the character that you’re playing, and the idea of all this – as far as the audience is concerned – is for them to believe it all comes from the same person, so it’s all supporting me, it’s not pulling me away from the character. It can be a bit of a shock when you see the finished films; you say ‘I don’t remember being there’, but you weren’t, because ‘there’ doesn’t exist; it’s all drawn by these amazing people in New Zealand. Thousands of them! From all over the world! Most of them under 30 years old. People who have been brought up with the computer, and it’s an extension of their hand. They are putting their own artistry in, all to support me. Acting, particularly in film – but also in the theatre – it is technical, it is a technique. We don’t just come on and be the character, it’s al; pretend [laughs]. It didn’t really happen. That’s the excitement; to make the audience think that it did.

Where, in your technique, do you go when you have to walk over a hill and supposedly see an army of a billion Orcs?
IMcK: Well, you remember playing as a kid, don’t you? Bang! You’re dead! That’s all it is. I feel sorry for other adults who forget what fun that is. We are given that ability, as human beings. The other animals are not very good at it, but we are very good at disguise and pretending and imagining, and because we are sociable people, we can imagine that it’s like. I can imagine what it’s like to be you… I love all that imagining. I think anybody can do it, but a lot of people forget how to do it.

Having worked with Peter Jackson and his team for such a long time, can you see that they have changed at all?
IMcK: I think Peter’s got a bit more confident, and why wouldn’t he!? Every door in his house is held back with an Oscar, but basically he’s the same person. There is a special spirit of determination in New Zealand; ‘We can do it’, but it also goes with a modesty that comes from the certainty that they are living in the most beautiful country in the world. I know a lot of people feel that about their own country, but they have a right to feel like that; there are not many people living there, and it is amazing that they have an international film industry in their little town, built on the back of these films. I think over the years, Peter feels absolutely secure, but he always did; backed up by his team. It’s a wonderful organisation.

Is there anything you have in common with Gandalf?
IMcK: Oh well yes. I am not quote as old as Gandalf; he’s 7,000 years old. I am not as wise as him, I don’t have his superhuman abilities or talents, but there are basic things I share with him, that come from the heart, like the world belongs to the little people, and if we do things together, we are probably going to do them better than if we try to do things on our own. He’s a great organiser, which I’m not. He laughs quite a lot, he likes people, he likes different sorts of people, and that’s true of me as well. He’s absolutely fascinated by the world, and I share that with him as well.

Do you feel there is a character you wouldn’t be able to take on?
IMcK: You can see a pattern in the things I’ve played. I play to my strengths. I have played an awful lot of men with long beards. [laughs] I am good at some things, I am good at the basic things about acting, which is to allow the character to come through me, through my voice, through my height, through my appearance. Although I like disguise, in the end you can’t disguise your spirit, and thank goodness, like Gandalf, I find people very interesting.

Who is your favourite character that you’ve played in your career?
IMcK: What do you expect me to say!? Of course I’ve got to say Gandalf! If I am asked that question, the easiest and honest thing to say is the character that I’m currently playing, because I don’t want him to get jealous of other people [laughs]! So I have just finished playing Sherlock Holmes, as a 93 year old man, in a new film called MR HOLMES. I am still inside that a little bit. He doesn’t have much to do with Gandalf, except they’re both pretty old, and aware of their age, but I am as well, so I made an emotional connection. But… I am so pleased to have played Romeo and Coriolanus and Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard III… And King Lear and Iago. It’s an absolute privilege to delve into those masterworks, so it wouldn’t be one specific character.

Do you enjoy interacting with your fans?
IMcK: Well I live in the real world so if I travel around London, it’s on the tube, or buses, or walking, so I meet people. That has changed for me, because I meet many more people, and these days, they usually want their photograph taken, which is unnecessary. I prefer to look someone in the eye, I keep saying, to remember it’s you and me now, but they all want this little photograph. That’s a nuisance, but this actor acts in order to make an impression on the audience. If there’s no audience there’s no performance. In theatre, f nobody’s there, there’s no point in the actors being there, and the point of the actors being there is to affect the lives of the people who come to hear the story told. If those people then come up to me and say ‘thank you’ well, that’s confirmation I’m doing the right thing. If people haven’t liked you, on the whole, they don’t bother telling you. I can’t remember anybody coming to me and saying ‘You were rubbish in that film’. They keep that information to themselves! [laughs]

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is released in Irish cinemas on December 12th 2014

Words: Brogen Hayes