Blog | 20 August 1999 | Casting

There is a general assumption that the main professional concern of actors is the parts they play. That is not true of this actor.

To begin with I have never had a hit-list of characters whom I wanted to play. A friend has always wanted to play Abraham Lincoln - but "Where?" I ask him, and "Who will write your words?"  I have played some celebrated men like Lawrence of Arabia ( in "Ross" 1970), King Edward II (1969-70), and Adolf Hitler ("Countdown to War" 1980), but my authors were Terrence Rattigan, Christopher Marlowe, and Hitler himself (I used only the Fuehrer's own words translated into English natuerlich.)

I have landed on some of the most fulfilling parts by accident. It was a chance meeting with an old friend, as I puzzled what to cast myself in at the Royal National Theatre in 1990 that introduced me to the idea of playing Richard III. Before we talked it had never crossed my mind to challenge the great Richards of recent years.

It's rather that I invariably look at the job as a whole - who will direct, who will be cast, how long will it take,do I want to work in Leeds (or Toronto or now Wellington). So with "The Lord of the Rings," the whole venture across three movies and across the magical landscape of New Zealand, is as invigorating as the opportunity to embody a legend.

If it weren't the director of "Heavenly Creatures" in control, with a strong vision of all those precise, quirky, majestic locations, I should not much look forward to a full year away from my home in London. But Peter Jackson's designs, script and his unshowy dedication to the task are irresistible. Had I been unable to play Gandalf (because of an encroaching "X-Men" schedule), I should have hoped for another less time-consuming part later in the trilogy.

I am aware of the high expectations of Tolkien's fans - like myself. But, never having imagined that I would ever play any sort of wizard, I am ill-prepared. I just worked with a witch, however, a white one, whose spells are formidable. Her energy is impressive. I shall have to come to understand the nature of Gandalf's energy - what keeps him going. What keeps any of us going?

A big project. I wish them luck when The Lord of the Rings starts shooting (without me) in October 1999." Ian McKellen, London, 14 August 1999

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