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Interview with Ian McKellen

Aired January 28, 2010 - 16:49:00   ET


BECKY ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For many, he's Gandalf the Grey.




ANDERSON: For others, he's Richard III.




ANDERSON: And for theater buffs, he's Estragon in "Waiting for Godot."

Whatever role he takes on, Ian McKellen is one of the drama world's greats. With more than 40 years in the business and 34 acting awards, he is a sage and screen legend.


MCKELLEN: Let your indulgence set me free.


ANDERSON: His most recent production of "Waiting for Godot" was such a success that it's beginning its second run in London's West End this month.

McKellen is also an avid gay rights activist. He came out in 1998.

MCKELLEN: In every way my life has improved. Since coming out, I've played three gay characters and 15 straight characters.

I say we are the cure.

ANDERSON: From Marvel Comic villain to Shakespearean protagonist, he has fans all over the world and in every genre.

Ian McKellen is our Connector of the Day.

And to set the stage, when I met him at his East London home earlier today, I began by asking him, as an actor, what he thinks makes "Waiting for Godot" just so popular with audiences.

This is what he said.


MCKELLEN: I think what's special about this production is that we -- we realized very early on that it's about old people. All the characters in it have known each other for 50 or 60 years. So I'm just about the right age to -- to be doing it.

And I'm complaining about my feet. Dede is complaining about his prostate. I'm -- I'm losing my mind or beginning to forget things. And it's all rather familiar territory to -- to me.

And then it's people looking back on their lives and yet trying to survive in the present. It -- it's about the human condition and -- and how we -- we're all waiting for something -- Godot or Christmas or the paycheck or a bit of hope in our lives.

ANDERSON: I want to get some viewer questions in. Harry is an actor and wants to know if you think it is a bad move to try and move straight into film without doing any stage acting or not?

MCKELLEN: I came rather late to film. I've done an awful lot of theater before -- before I discovered the camera, you know, seeing everything, requiring much less acting and -- and much less presentation, much less projecting, more just being.

If you can do both, I think it's very useful. I find my work in film and concentrating on just being -- on that reality -- has helped me in the theater not to be too presentational, but equally, to -- to have worked a lot in the theater, where the actors were in control and the directors, where you tell the story from beginning to end whilst the audience is there, having that sense of the sweep of the part and -- and -- and of the script is very helpful when you're doing it piecemeal in -- in the studio.

So my recommendation to actors would be to do both, if possible.

ANDERSON: There you go, Harry.

That's your answer.

Pedro Silva wants to know how you go about researching and getting into character to play fictional, fantastical and supernatural roles and make them all believable.

MCKELLEN: Well, when I was playing Gandalf, I -- I -- I didn't think, oh my dear, I'm playing a 7,000 year old wizard, because I've never met one and I don't know what they're like.


MCKELLEN: So if you're playing a murderer, for example, like Macbeth, I've not murdered anybody, but I have to imagine what it would be like. So I have to imagine in myself the am -- the strength of ambition which drives Macbeth to do what he does, which is to kill the king so that he can get that job.

Ah, well, I do know about ambition. I've got some myself.

ANDERSON: David from New Zealand asked if there was a -- a type of character that you haven't played but that you'd like to play?

MCKELLEN: Well, I mean there -- there is an area that I haven't worked in, which is musical theater. And although I've done pantomime, I haven't actually been in a musical.

ANDERSON: Is there a musical that you'd like to be in at the moment?

MCKELLEN: No, because I can't sing.


ANDERSON: Right. So there's a reason for it.

MCKELLEN: Well, I can't sing. I can't sing well enough and I'm fed up with going to musicals where actors are saying, oh, I can put out, I can put across a number. No, you can't.


MCKELLEN: You can't hit the notes. You can't put across the number.

ANDERSON: Max Westgate wants to know generally what you think is the benefit of keeping Shakespearean acting alive in modern culture today?

MCKELLEN: Well, anyone who's ever worked on a Shakespeare play or anyone who has ever seen a good production of a Shakespeare play -- and they're -- they're thin on the ground, I admit -- has probably had their lives changed by it. When my cousin got married and -- and I said, would you like some towels, she said, no, no, I've got a towel. Well, we could all do with more than one towel. And we can all do with more than one production of "Hamlet." I don't think because you've seen "Hamlet" once that you've seen it.

And -- and so there is a great -- there's a great thirst, a hunger for -- for these palsy and -- and I'm not surprised he goes on doing them as popular playwright just -- just in terms of people reading him and studying the performance, as well.

ANDERSON: John Silba says that he's very excited about "The Hobbit" and asks what your favorite "Lord of the Rings" movie to be in was. Any secrets about "The Hobbit," he says, as well, that you can reveal.

MCKELLEN: Well, I -- I -- read "The Hobbit," I think, sitting in this -- in this room. And 12 hours after it had been delivered, it was taken away to be destroyed under supervision, it said.

ANDERSON: Kathy Li asks the crew and cast from "Lord of the Rings" seemed like such a close-knit family. She says: "Do you guys actually still talk to each other?"

MCKELLEN: The fellowship of nine said that we were going to have an annual meeting and I'm still waiting for the first one and it's 10 years later.

I -- I bump into most of the cast and -- and we fall into each other's arms and -- and remember that we -- we were each marked for life. I've got my little tattoo here that we all had done one Sunday morning down in Wellington in New Zealand.

It was not like filming in Hollywood or anywhere else in the world. It's -- the -- the pressure is much less than -- than the studio system elsewhere. It's -- it's all friends doing it together and all enthusiasts, the best of the amateur.

ANDERSON: B2 asks a lovely last question: ) "Who would win in a fight, Magneto or Gandalf?

MCKELLEN: Who would win in a fight between Magneto and Gandalf?



MCKELLEN: Because I like him best.


MCKELLEN: Gandalf saves the world and saves the soul of the world, really. Yes. I hope Gandi ) would win.

ANDERSON: Ian McKellen for you.