“Give my love to Chicago,” Ian McKellen instructs just before we hang up. “I’ve worked in Chicago, you know. We played the Black, Black—what’s it called? Blackstone Theatre. The lake was icy, but I heard some great music.” Before recalling his mid-’80s stint at the Blackstone (now the Merle Reskin), McKellen discussed his latest endeavor, The Hobbit. In May, he returns to New Zealand for five weeks of shooting the trilogy’s final installment. The actor and gay-rights activist spoke from London—in lengthy, thoughtful paragraphs.
When you mentioned you’d considered not reprising Gandalf, a lot of sites picked up the story. Just the idea that you almost didn’t play this role really energized people.
[Laughs] Well, I’m 73 years old, and so I’m very careful about the work that I do. Part of me felt, well, I’ve played Gandalf now. Another part of me felt, well, I don’t want anybody else to play Gandalf. But the film was on and off so many times. Peter Jackson said, “No, I’m never going to do it,” then he said he would, then he said he wouldn’t. Then it was Guillermo del Toro going to direct it. And then he dropped out. And then, oh, Peter came back in again. But the clincher was when a friend said, “Look, all those people who’ve enjoyed Lord of the Rings won’t care that you have to be away from home for 18 months on the other side of the world.”
Given those ardent fans, any memorable ones?
A kid will see me in the street and have a little heart attack. [Laughs] A parent will say, “My son has watched Lord of the Rings 30 times and wants nothing more than to watch it the 31st time.”
What’s been different between filming the Hobbit and Rings trilogies?
This time we knew the audience was waiting for us. But day to day, it was the same beautiful country, same lovely people, same amazing technology and craftsmanship. People think that we’re working against green screen. It’s not true. If we’re not on location, we’re in the studio with trees and vegetation and buildings that are so real you don’t have to use, as an actor, your imagination. You are there. I have been to Middle-earth.
When the first Lord of the Rings film opened, Advocate called you perhaps the world’s best-known gay man. Eleven years later, do you think being out while starring in this hugely popular series has had significance?
If it has a significance, I’m glad about it. The only way the world is gonna change for the better with regard to homosexuality is if gay people are confident to be able to be honest. Then those around them will understand there’s nothing to fear; gay people just want to get on with their lives. But an interesting thing is, on Lord of the Rings, of all the hundreds of people working on that film, the only openly gay ones were myself and Rick, who’s my makeup man, and somebody in the wardrobe department. This time six members of the cast are openly gay. That isn’t because Peter Jackson has changed his view about employing gay actors. It’s that the world has changed. And to have been a part of that is very satisfying. However, I dare say things are okay in Chicago but not in every area of the United States, and in other countries gay people live miserable lives. There’s still work to be done.
You’ve noted your coming out in the late ’80s didn’t hurt your career. Do you think because you were older and British, your sexuality was less of a threat or concern to Hollywood?
That may be part of it, but what happens when you come out is that you gain a confidence in yourself. I became a better actor as a result of coming out. Acting is about telling the truth, you know.
Does your gay-rights activism have any connection to your family’s religious activism? Your grandparents were preachers; your father was a lay preacher. You often mention the Bible and religion.
My grandfather was a pacifist who refused to fight in the First World War, and my father refused to fight in the Second World War, so they were radicals to that extent. What they would’ve said if they’d known I was gay I don’t know; I never told them. I was growing up at a time when it was illegal to be gay in the United Kingdom. But religion—I only get concerned about religion because religious people get obsessed, or some of them do, about frankly misreading the Bible and saying, “Oh, God doesn’t approve.” Well, I don’t believe in God. So [Laughs] we can’t really have a conversation. It’s so obvious to me that humanity demands that we recognize each other’s differences and accept them and are interested in them. That’s why I go on playing heterosexual characters. I find heterosexuality extremely interesting.
Are you romantically involved? Happily single?
I’m in love with the world. [Laughs] I’m single. It doesn’t make me unhappy.
After playing Shakespeare your entire career, is there a Shakespearean character you identify with at this point in your life?
There never has been, really. I’ve a bit of a yen to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, who’s a single man who hangs about with the boys and is rather disparaging about their love affairs with women. A gay, older Mercutio would be quite interesting. I’ve pitched that to people, but they don’t really get it.
You’ve said you’re well aware that when you go, the London Evening Standard billboard will say, “Gandalf dies.” What would you like the second sentence to say?
“He came out.”
The Hobbit opens December 14.