Interview: Ian McKellen of 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey'
'You have to be careful not to hit the 3D camera with your sword ...
Sir Ian McKellen prefers that you simply call him 'Ian,' but if the privilege of the parts they've played has rubbed off on any actor, with his resume of Mutant aristocrats and spell-wielding wizards and Shakespearean Kings -- and witty activism off-camera -- it's him. We spoke with McKellen in New York about returning to Middle Earth, technical wizardry and finding humanity in among special effects.
MSN Movies: When you knew these films were happening and that they were happening with Mr. Peter Jackson back as the director, how exciting was that to know you were going back to this world with your traveling companion in the director's chair?
Ian McKellen: Well, when Peter determined the films were actually happening I said, "Yes, but you told me that two years ago." They'd been on and off and on and off, and I was having to prepare myself to the possibility that they weren't going to happen. So when they were it was a jolt, and I had to readjust and admit that I couldn't bear anybody else playing Gandalf in my stead. That I knew there were millions of people who actually wanted this film to be made, that's an unusual situation for an actor to be in, to be part of something that's needed and wanted. We weren't going to have to go and chase the audience. They were going to be waiting in line ready for the first screenings. So it was like going back home. It was a lot of familiar faces, people who had worked on "Lord of the Rings," most of them behind the camera. The crucial, the key people -- the director and the screenplay writers, the cinematographer, the costume, the makeup -- they were the same as now. We all are where we were. Then came 13 dwarves. And a hobbit!
There's a great scene early on when you're convincing Mr. Freedman's Bilbo Baggins to join you. There's a great joke, which I won't spoil. It's a very funny aside. Is part of the pleasure of these films finding the human moments in between the wizardry, and the spectacle, and the wide-screen visions?
Yes, and I think the line you're talking about had been cut by the screenplay writers, and I went back to the original and said, "Look, it's a very good joke here that Tolkien's written." And in the sort of adventure story which "The Hobbit" is opposed to the epic tale of -- well, a world war, really, which is what "Lord of the Rings" is -- any lightness is welcome, and Peter immediately recognized that and I was glad to see that joke made it into the final cut.
It is a lighter film more than an adventure film. Are shooting things that essentially boil down to musical numbers -- is that fun? Are those fun things to do when you're on set with dwarves hurling plates?
No, not particularly because of course they're not really hurling plates; they're pretending to hurl plates. So the plates are put in later by the computer, so all is not what it seems in this sort of filmmaking. No, I didn't particularly enjoy those sequences because it was a question of hitting marks and looking in the right position and pretending to catch a plate that didn't exist. So no, I preferred the actual dramatic scenes, of which there are quite a few.
It's a bit confounding trying to rehearse to pretend to be spontaneous with all the miracles of special effects?
Yes, but that's sort of what acting is about isn't it? Pretending that you're making up the lines just before you speak them. (Laughs) The technology doesn’t really get in the way very much, and the 3D effect and the 48 frames per second that people were interested in and wondering about, this new look that you're getting in the cinema all begins with Peter Jackson's pioneering spirit doesn't really affect it. It's a big camera. It's got two lenses in it and we have to be careful not to hit the mirror with your sword on the front of the camera. Otherwise it's as much as normal, except when it comes to shrinking down the dwarves and making actors my size look half my size. That involves often not even being in the same studio as them while pretending to talk to them. But that has nothing to do with technology. That's to do with the particular needs of the story. Those are the tricky bits ...
For more on "The Hobbit," watch our two video interviews with the cast and crew: