It’s hard to even fathom the idea of Peter Jackson making The Hobbit without Ian McKellen. Beyond the fact that Gandalf plays an incredibly important role in J.R.R. Tolkien’s first novel, McKellen’s performance in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy was nothing short of iconic and he was a major part of what made the movies so iconic. Thankfully that’s not a world that we have to live in.
As I first revealed yesterday, earlier this year I had the mind-blowing opportunity to visit the set of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit with a group of fellow journalists, and during our first day on set Gandalf himself was gracious enough to spend a few minutes with us to talk about his return to Middle Earth. Check out the conversation below in which the legendary actor talks about the difficulty he had during the start of production, playing with the wizard’s more mischievous side, the need to expand beyond the pages of Tolkien’s novel, as his preference of playing Gandalf The Grey over Gandalf The White.
Could you describe what it was like the first day you got back on set and realized you're back, the universe is going to continue with The Hobbit?
Well, it wasn't quite like that. I came back and I was immediately-- After we had rehearsed the scene I was doing with thirteen dwarves and a Hobbit, because I, a wizard is taller than them, I had to then move out away from them, into my own green screen set, so that my figure could be transposed onto their picture for it to be off by two enslaved cameras working in exactly the same way, at the same point. So the thirteen dwarves are over there in their set, and I'm over in my set, which is a little green screen cutout to make me look tall. With nobody else, because my camera's enslaved to the other one, there isn't an operator. I can't see the people I'm talking to, so they're represented by pictures on top of poles, which light up when they're talking, and I hear them through a sound piece in my ear. I didn't feel like being back, I wanted to go away. I was very, very unhappy, miserable. But fortunately, we haven't had to do-- I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter has managed to cut down the number of times we've done that since.
But in the more general sense, it was the sort of feeling we had by the time we were making The Return of The King, that there had already been two films gone out, which had been much enjoyed. So we felt, which you don't often feel when you're doing a job, this is a job that the audience want me to do. But most of the time when you do a job, a play or a film, you're wondering, "Will there be an audience?" We know with The Hobbit, there's going to be an audience. Millions of people are going to want to see it. So we fear we're not on our own. The audience's expectations are ever-present. So it's a more comfortable job than most. There's not that worry at the back, "Are we all wasting our time?" Which you can feel even when you're doing King Lear. So the difference, I suppose, the main difference between the two films, was the personnel. Everybody beyond the camera was familiar, from the director through to Emma who does my costume and Rick who does my make-up. It was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn't met before here, although I knew some of them from England. And they turned out to be a very friendly bunch.
So talk a bit about the character in this film. In the book, it's never really clear why Gandalf is helping the dwarves get the gold. It's never clear why he picks Bilbo as the burglar. I'm curious if those are questions that you as an actor, answer for yourself, even if they're not going to be explicitly said.
No, I think that's a very good point. Once the decision was made to make two films [Note: the set visit was done before it was announced there would be three Hobbit movies], I don't know how that arose, there was room within the confines of a thin book, as opposed to the three Lord of The Rings, to answer that question, which does occur to you, certainly, if you're playing the part and if you're writing the script. And so when Gandalf leaves the dwarves to get on with their job, you get to discover why he is supporting them. And that involves an overview of Middle Earth, which Wizards and High Elves get involved with. So I think that will lead on very well, out of the story of Lord of The Rings, because when it's quite clear that Middle Earth is at stake-- The Hobbit is an adventure story for kids, and told in the first person by someone who might read it to you before you go to bed. Tolkien's in the story, "I, I, I"... Lord of The Rings is about the end of the world. So the tone is clearly very, very different, and that will be reflected. It's reflected in the script, it's reflected in the casting, and it will be reflected, presumably, in the finished film. But alongside that, there's that lighter feel, or a more adventure-story feel. There will be the politics of Middle Earth going on in the background as a support.