Ian McKellen has added an entry to his Lord of the Rings journal , The Grey Book, on his website. Reflecting upon the constructs of how he approaches a character, we find that he has yet to “inhabit” Gandalf… Overall it’s quite a revealing entry, especially the part that says Hobbiton has been up for one year already to allow the “vegetation to grow round about!” One year?! Wow… it must be tucked away in some obscure hillside…!
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The Grey Book
October 14, 1999
So the journey has begun without me. On Monday 11th October, Elijah Wood et al
gathered in Hobbiton — and I hear they are behaving themselves! I have been in
Toronto, masquerading as Magneto, the master of magnetism, on the set of Bryan
Singer’s “X-Men.” I have just sent Peter Jackson an e-mail of good luck. I don’t
expect an immediate reply — directing a film is totally time-consuming.
Meanwhile, Tolkien aficionados are mailing to the “Grey Book.” From teenagers
and readers old as wizards come the advice, the demands, the warnings – united
by the hope that the film’s Gandalf will match their own individual interpretations
of the Lord of the Rings. I take comfort from the general assurance that they
approve of the casting (not just of me but of all the other actors so far announced –
thrilling news that Cate Blanchett is joining us.) Yet how can I satisfy everyone’s
imagined Gandalf? Simply, I can’t.
I recognise the responsibility of course. It’s not as if LOTR were a play that could
be revived over and over, each new cast adding to the discoveries that their
predecessors have made. The Jackson trilogy will be unique. It is, after all,
unlikely that there will be a re-make any time soon – although there have already
been the cartoon “Hobbit” (which I have yet to see) and the BBC’s radio LOTR
(with Ian Holm as Frodo). But some of my correspondents seem to think that
actors are essayists or critics who analyse a character’s complexities and then
parade them, like sticking on a false beard. It’s just not like that.
It bears repeating that, as with Richard III or James Whale or Magneto, I must
discover Gandalf somewhere inside myself – and that process depends on
absorbing the words of the script and its story, listening to the reactions of the
director and responding to the performances of the rest of the cast. So now, still 3
months away from shooting (for me), my Gandalf doesn’t exist, not even in my
mind. He will only come to life as the camera turns and discoveries are made in
the very moment. Even when I am in the thick of it, in costume and make-up and
speaking Tolkien’s words, I’m not sure I will be able to describe the character to
you. Actors don’t describe – they inhabit.
So these Grey Book notes may be more about me than about Gandalf and may
disappoint the experts who will have to be patient and wait for the finished movies.
I’m sorry if 2001 seems a long way off.
I do know a few things of interest however.
I’ve tried on some preliminary costumes from Ngila Dickson’s designs and had my
head measured by Peter Owen whose workshops in Bristol UK are in charge of
wigs. He came to my home in London just after I was back in August from a visit
to Wellington, where the LOTR studios are.
It is fortunate that there are so few illustrations of the novels that have impinged on
the readers’ eyes. Otherwise we might get trapped into simply copying them. A
2-dimensional, painted Gandalf who looks good on a book-cover might be
impossible for a flesh-and-blood actor to reproduce. Rather, Ngila, Peter and I
have started as Tolkien does with “a tall pointed blue hat, a long grey cloak and a
silver scarf: a long white beard” but how tall is “tall”, how long is “long” and how
practical in a high New Zealand wind, are “bushy eyebrows that stick out beyond
the brim of his hat” ?
Answering these and weightier puzzles is the responsibility of the designers and
their craftspeople who have been in training for 2 years at the WETA workshops in
Wellington. I have seen the results of their deliberations – and been overwhelmed.
Their work on masks, armoury, weapons is almost complete and it is
complementary to that of the visual effects experts who will enhance the New
Zealand landscapes. They have solved how to make the Hobbits appear to be the
right size, in any number of ways, most too complicated for me to understand. They
know whether Gollum be an actor or a puppet or a computer effect or all three.
They have designed Hobbiton and built it — a year ago so it has weathered — and
allowed the vegetation to grow round about.
As a child I was fascinated by books about theatre and cinema magic, so I
sympathise with those who want advance information from the LOTR magicians. It
will be up to Peter Jackson to decide if and when the secrets are made public. —
Ian McKellen, Toronto, 14 October 1999