When Sir Ian McKellen was offered the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, he admits he was “a bit vague as to what it was, really.” He wasn’t one of the estimated 100 million people who have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy and wasn’t aware of the avid following the books had generated.
Once it was announced that he would play the bearded wizard, however, “I rapidly realized on my Web site that there were thousands, possibly millions worldwide anticipating this film with considerable dread (because) it wouldn’t be their version of Middle Earth. Well it couldn’t be, could it? It was (director) Peter Jackson’s.”
Although the film has earned 13 Oscar nominations and turned into a box- office smash, the project was considered risky. “I thought the cards were stacked against it,” McKellen said recently in San Jose, where he was given an award by the San Jose Cinequest Film Festival. “Would (the book’s fans) approve of what they saw, and would the film appeal beyond them to people with no intention of reading the book?”
Last summer, when a 20-minute reel of Lord was previewed at the Cannes Film Festival, Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein watched the clip and dubbed the producers and distributors “very brave” for making such a huge investment. “I think that’s probably what most people’s feeling was,” McKellen says.
For McKellen, who spent a year in New Zealand making the film and its two sequels, Lord of the Rings has been a tremendous boon in more ways than one. He won his second Oscar nomination for the part, and according to GoldDerby.com, a Web site that polls Oscar prognosticators, he’s the front-runner for the award.
But McKellen, 63, also fell in love with New Zealand. “I had a bit of an epiphany,” he says. “A revelation that it’s possible perhaps in that country, more easily than others, to lead a good life.”
During his last days there, McKellen met his current partner, an art student named Nick who will also be his date at the Oscars. “We just met on the street,” he says, “which happens in New Zealand because people actually look at each other and smile and they talk to each other.
“Part of what I love about him is what I love about the country he comes from. Very honest.” Considering that he fell in love with New Zealand, met his partner there and worked on “this amazing material,” McKellen says his feelings about Lord of the Rings are inextricably bound with his personal fortune.
“I sum it up by saying it was the best job I ever had.” Although he’s been told he has a chance of winning an Oscar next Sunday, McKellen is dubious. “I was told by an awful lot of people three years ago that I was going to win the Oscar for (playing) James Whale (in Gods and Monsters). So when people tell me I’m definitely going to win for Gandalf, I don’t believe them.”
Nonetheless, McKellen is determined to enjoy the drama of the Oscar race. “Last time at this period I was doing three plays in the north of England and wasn’t available for the junketing which the studios like you to do.
“This time I thought, ‘I’ll do it.’ It’s very interesting to be let in and allowed to participate (and) not just be an outsider organizing my Oscar party at home watching television. I’m going to be there, and that’s an excitement.”