Our special guest journalist Martin Freeman interviews the wizard in his life, Sir Ian McKellen, about acting, the internet, sex scenes and the end of his 15-year journey through Middle-earth
“What do you do?” says Ian – never Sir Ian to his face – McKellen. I’m the film editor for the magazine, I say. “Yes, I know that,” he replies, “but if he’s interviewing me, what do you actually do?”
He has a point. Today McKellen is being grilled by friend, fan and colleague Martin Freeman. It seems fitting, upon the release of The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies – the third Hobbit and sixth and final (we assume) film in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth franchise – that the man who held them all together as Gandalf should be the subject of this interview, and Freeman, his second Bilbo Baggins, asking the questions.
As the two actors sit down to pick their way through McKellen’s astonishing career, the job in my head is to facilitate this conversation, but in reality, it’s to make sure the Dictaphones work and watch as Freeman makes my job look very easy.
Martin: I understand that as a child you would go to the theatre?
Ian: Yep, we didn’t go to the cinema. My parents thought they were rather too dangerous.
M: But not theatres?
I: Isn’t it funny? But the cinemas as I remember them in Wigan were flea pits. Canoodling in the back row, things you wouldn't do in the theatre. And foreign as well, American. There’s something wholesome about the theatre.
M: Whereas at the theatre you’d be seeing things like what?
I: If it was the professional theatre, we’d be going to the weekly, where there’s a different play every week. Anything from Agatha Christie to JB Priestley. Noel Coward. Nothing classical. People’s expectations were to see a set with two doors and a fireplace that moved around each week. Then we’d see some amateur theatre, who did do Shakespeare.
M: So you were a fan?
I: A total fan. My dad knew the man who owned the theatre, so I used to go backstage. At 14, I was in the wings, watching these people go on. That was my fate sealed, but I didn’t know it.
M: So what did you think your job was going to be?
I: I wasn't going to follow my dad as a civil engineer. I was impressed by teachers. I wanted to be a chef at one point, and then a journalist – that’s what I most wanted to do.
M: Did you still think that when you went to university?
I: When I was 20, I had no idea what I was going to do. I was reading English, which doesn’t prepare you for anything. But I met all these people at Cambridge, such as Peter Cook and David Frost – they were going to be in the business. They did professional work on the weekends. Peter Cook had two revues on in London while he was an undergraduate. So the idea of becoming a professional yourself didn’t seem quite so extraordinary. Then everything fitted into place and it was as if it had been meant all along.
M: When did you get your first television?
I: I saw television with my next-door neighbours. I used to go to watch the kids’ programmes. I never thought of being on it. I do remember telling my mum, “This is the future” [laughs].
M: I remember my mum saying that it was truly magical.
I: What was magical was, what was happening was actually happening. It wasn’t a film. It was real life that you received with the immediacy of the radio. Radio was the big thing. And radio was wonderful for the imagination. I always thought television didn’t quite match up to it.
M: I think it’s similar to my own feelings about the internet. I was always a late adopter because I didn’t take it seriously.
I: I haven’t got it still…
ShortList: You’re on Twitter, aren’t you? With 1.5 million followers.
I: Yes. I have nearly four million Facebook followers or likes or something. But I’m a grumpy old man when I go on the Tube, and I’ve got a script in my hand or a newspaper and my eyes are closed because I’m thinking about something or simply nodding off. And everybody else is wired. They’re listening to music with things in their ears. They’re sending messages to people. None of them are where I am, which is travelling on a Tube with lots of strangers. They’re unaware. And I say to kids, going down the street, busy talking to someone at home, a) why aren’t you at home talking to them? and b) the love of your life has just gone by. You missed her. And that’s grumpy.
M: Some of it is irrational, but then in 1885, someone would've looked at your youth and gone, “He doesn’t know he’s f*cking born, he’s got everything. He’s got this little box with the varieties on it.”
I: I’d been on Broadway for a year communicating with my boyfriend in London, through letters. When I got back I couldn't be surprised that he’d decided not to live with me any more. But if we’d had the internet, if we’d had Skype, phone sex, it would've probably been different.
M: But you had phones, right?
I: Yes, but you had to book your call!
M: Now let me ask you a question, which I believe I’m supposed to do. If I put a gun to your head, are you a film actor or a theatre actor?
I: I’m at home on the stage. I’m not frightened on stage. I would try anything on stage. And the scripts are so much better than you get anywhere else. You’re in charge, it’s a live audience, and their response is immediate. Film is the opposite of all of that. I’m nervous in the film studio, I lack confidence, I don’t know how it’s done – I’m not savvy.
M: Do you still look around a film studio and go, ‘What does he do? What does she do?’
I: Yes, although I’ve stopped wondering why all of these people are here judging me.
M: Is that what you thought?
I: Yes, and that I had to give a performance, I had to impress them. But you don’t. They’re there to help. There’s someone looking at your hair, someone looking at your make up, your costume, somebody else listening to you. Someone to do the lights. They’re all there to help.
M: I do still want to impress them.
I: And you do, Martin. You’d be impressing other actors.
M: No, but I think that’s the performing reflex. If there are other human beings in the room, you want to do it.
I: That’s what you shouldn’t be doing. You should only be existing for the camera.
M: You’ve done a lot of screen work, but you got into films quite late. Why do you think that was?
I: I loved doing the theatre, and I thought the only way I could do it was to keep doing it and get better at it. There was hardly time for film. But each time I changed my agent, I think I said to them, “I’m coming to you because I want to be in films”. But there was a big block for me – I couldn’t play a love scene with a girl. I could get away with it on stage, but on film it has to be more intimate. I hadn’t really said I was gay to the world at large. That flirty charm with women I quite simply couldn’t do.
M: But you felt all right with that on stage? You never felt like you’d be found out even wooing a woman?
I: No. I thought I could get away with that, but I much prefer playing the kooky parts.
M: But do you think, if the world had been different, you’d have been a romantic lead, just with boys? Or do you play romance less easily?
I: I’m glad this isn’t a psychiatric session. I think I wasn’t confident I could pull it off with a girl while everyone else was watching. If the world had been different, if there were love stories for men, maybe. You know, I did Bent on stage. My character and the other leading character have sex, without touching, actually. I wouldn’t have a problem orgasming on stage while talking to another man. People say that’s brave. To me it seems quite nice. When I did Scandal, my first film after coming out, my character, John Profumo, was a raging heterosexual. I said to Edward Petherbridge, “My first scene’s with Joanne Whalley and we’ve got to make love.” So he drew this little diagram. I’ve still got it. I was 50! I’m an expert on the missionary position.
SL: We should probably get on to The Hobbit. You spent a lot of time together, away from home. What helped you bond?
M: I think part of the reason we all got on so well was because there were so many of us. If there had been five of us, it would’ve been like being in a band – you’d go stir crazy. But we could spend some time together, or you could go off with him or her, so you had time apart. I think they also did a really good job of making it as fair as possible. It’s not as if he had a massive f*cking wagon. No one was staying in a hole; people were staying in nice houses, hotels.
I: It was a little bit like you were on holiday, and a little bit like you wanted to be home. Martin has his family and he pined.
M: It was easily the hardest part of the job.
SL: Did this become almost a surrogate family?
M: Almost. I’m always wary of that idea, but there’s no question, when you’re away from home, your home comforts and familiarity, you [Ian] become the reality then. The reality is the three people I love most in the world, I can’t see them, but there are 12 people here who are really nice and they become very important to you.
I: The best thing about this job is that you can make very close relationships that won’t necessarily last beyond the job, but there’s a shoulder you can cry on, there’s someone you can confess something to, someone you can ask for help from. I can’t see that happening in many offices. Maybe it does. Also, there’s not much of a hierarchy. There’s the boss, the producer or director, and the rest of us.
M: That’s one of the many things I love about plays. When you’re rehearsing a play, in three weeks’ time, you’ll be sh*tting yourself exactly the same. You will need me and I will need you that night. In film, even though the ideal is that we need each other, some people don’t operate like that. I’ve been lucky, I’ve not come across that many, but I know they exist.
I: The other thing about the characters in this job and not many others is that we were actually making films for an audience who were desperate to see them. Most screenplays never get made. Most that get made never make it to the cinema. Most that get to the cinema don’t make money. Most of them don’t win awards. In the case of The Hobbit, that issue didn’t exist because these were successful before we started filming. We just had to live up to the expectations. That’s quite a different atmosphere to, ‘What’s my part like? Is it going to make me a star?’. These Middle-earth movies make no sense unless you think of the millions around the world who love Tolkien, who love the films. And that love spills out on to us. When I meet kids, I, Martin – we’re part of their lives and they’re part of ours. That’s fairly unusual.
M: Oh yeah. I said at the time of doing it that I will never ever make bigger films than this, even if I live to 200. I hope I do better in things and I keep trying to be good, but in terms of the size and impact, it’s very unlikely.
SL: Is that reassuring?
M: Yeah, I think it’s reassuring because I know I will never not work at it. I will never allow myself to rest on those laurels. It’s nice to know that people will see it.
SL: Will you miss it? And each other, in a way?
M: I don’t miss the film, and if I want to then I can see people from it. Personally, I’m really proud to have done it, and I’m really glad to have done it, but I rarely miss jobs. I don’t know about you? Once I’ve done them I’m glad to move on.
I: Hmm. It’s a bit different for me, because I did the previous three. The end of my journey happens next month, in December, and it began in January 2000. A lot of the audience seeing The Hobbit part three wouldn’t have been born when we started filming it. It’s a wonderful bonus that we’re part of the culture. Reviled by many people, but millions know and care about Middle-earth. I hope Peter Jackson continues the Middle-earth journey and opens a museum or a theme park in New Zealand. He’d create a brilliant experience for those audiences. He owns all the props from all the films. And we wouldn’t have to be involved!
M: But somehow we would be. He’d say, “Could you stand at the top of that mountain?”, “Can’t it be an Ian McKellen lookalike?”, “No I want the real thing".
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies is in cinemas nationwide from 12 December