Actor Ian McKellen, who played Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, explained how he prepared to take on the character every night before he filmed.
In an interview conducted back in 2003 ahead of the release of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and recently uploaded to The One Ring channel, McKellen is asked, “Because your character is the one that everyone turns to. You are the wise man. You are the sage. Was it like that on the set?”
McKellen responded, “Certainly not. No, no, no. No. No. I think that would be answer to that.”
He then elaborated, “The wise man was Jackson. I mean, every morning you would arrive on set, no matter how early you got there, you got down in costume, and Peter would be sitting down in his chair — there’s video monitors that he watched the proceedings on — reading a book. It was always the same book, Lord of the Rings, always.”
McKellen then shared, “But I could match him because I had a pocket in Gandalf the Gray’s costume that I kept my The Lord of the Rings in. So the night before, I’d look up the scene we were going to do and see if there was anything in the Tolkien that I thought had been missed, or overlooked, or could enhance what we’d got.
He continued, “And if you could point to a particular line and say, ‘Could we not have this back in the script? And it was written by Tolkien, Peter almost always said, of course.”
Returning to address the question, McKellen said, “But he was the authority, and it’s his movie. It’s his vision of Tolkien. Every basic decision passed across his desk. But he ain’t a tyrant. And like all good directors he casts well. I don’t just mean the actors, but heads of departments, so people he could totally rely on.”
“No one was sacked during this. He picked the right person right along the line. And you cannot overestimate Peter. Total mastery,” he praised.
In a follow-up question, McKellen discussed the main disagreement that he and Jackson had concerning Gandalf, “The main argument that we would have, discussion, or disagreement. What’s the word? Different point of view was that if the character was angry, let’s say, Peter wanted you to be angry.”
“And I thought, I’d say, “Well, Peter, sometimes when people are angry they turn very charming and smile. They get very quiet. They’re seething inside,” he explained. “That’s a lifetime of looking for the subtext from this actor. What is really going on. Peter, in this story, didn’t want any doubts about what was going on. He wanted it upfront.”
“So despite all the beautiful pastel shades of the tinting of the– And, you know, every single frame has been specially colored. Technology on this film. But he wanted the emotions to be primary colors,” McKellen relayed. “He didn’t want any doubts what was going on. If you’re angry, you’re angry. If you’re in love, you’re in love. If you’re worried, you’re really worried. All that.
The actor further elaborated, “What would happen is we’d have this, not argument, but discussion, and if he didn’t persuade me or vice versa then what would happen is that we’d do it both ways and then he could pick which he wanted to use.
When asked if he often picked McKellen’s the actor responded, “Well, I would have to go back and have a look and try and assess that. But I do trust his taste so much. I think he’s got wonderful taste. I’m happy to say he made the right decisions. But I think sometimes there’s subtlety in my performance. So maybe I did win out every so often.”
McKellen and Jackson’s practice is something that the creators of The Rings of Power and War of the Rohirrim should have done. Unfortunately, they chose a different path. In the case of The Rings of Power, they decided to write the novel that Tolkien never wrote and ignore what he did write about the Second Age.
As for the War of the Rohirrim, it appears they completely ignored what Tolkien wrote in favor inserting current day feminism.
What do you make of how Ian McKellen prepared for the role of Gandalf?