In new documentary, Ian McKellen reflects on Magneto, Gandalf

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The trailer for McKellen: Playing The Part

McKellen: Playing The Part, a new documentary focused on the life of beloved actor Sir Ian McKellen, covers dense topics like acting, activism, and aging. And the nearly 80-year-old McKellen seems to have thoughtful perspectives on all of it, drawing upon his dedication to live theater, his groundbreaking advocacy work for LGBTQA rights in the UK, and his now generation-spanning appeal.

With so much to work with, the film manages to stay interesting even when it’s not perfect. Things go chronologically, and McKellen’s pre-university days feel slow compared to his later life. Director Joe Stephenson also made the unorthodox decision to rely solely on an extended McKellen interview, which delivers great insight but occasionally leaves audiences wanting a broader perspective on important moments (like the actor’s high-profile opposition to a 1988 anti-LGBTQA UK policy proposal called Section 28 or his embrace of big US blockbuster film franchises).

Still, for fans of those blockbuster roles in particular, the final third alone likely justifies a trip to the theater (or an eventual VOD rental). That’s when McKellen finally offers direct insight on X-Men’s Magneto and Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf. And by this point in the documentary, it’s clear each role felt like a logical extension of specific experiences in the actor’s life.

Why again would an acclaimed theater actor want to play a comic book villain?
Enlarge / Why again would an acclaimed theater actor want to play a comic book villain?

Magneto magic

Back in 2000, Ian McKellen didn’t need the X-Men. He’d already found professional success and acclaim both in the UK and stateside, earning a Tony award, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award, and an Oscar lead actor nomination off his performance in 1998’s Gods and Monsters. But flipping through the comics surprised him.

In the new documentary, McKellen describes an initial apprehension after really learning about the character. “I thought at the time I wasn’t very good as Magneto, and I’ve had that confirmed,” he says. “If you look at the comics, Magneto is usually drawn from a low vantage point, his legs wide apart, a superhuman body of muscles and power… then there’s me, Ian McKellen.”

He eventually asked the props and costuming team to rectify that situation, coming up with a false muscle suit to beef up his thighs, cavs, and pecs a bit (“Becoming a cartoon character isn’t easy,” he recalls). What pushed McKellen to ultimately embrace and pursue this role despite the external limitations had everything to do with what’s inside Magneto, however. The actor saw this character as the exception, not the rule, when it came to superheroes.

“These stories mean something, and that’s what separates X-Men from the other comics,” McKellen says. “Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, even James Bond, they’re all the same people—wimps who change out of clothes and become superheroes, discovering their inner light. That’s not Magneto. He’s political, a warrior, clearsighted, pained, anguished, determined. That’s a part really worth playing.”

Given his life to that point, McKellen could draw a clear analogy. He saw Magneto and his counterpart, Professor X, as familiar types of people from his activism experiences. After all, both of these mutants do ultimately want a world where their peers can be themselves without fear, but they take distinct approaches to that goal. McKellen sees Professor X as a Martin Luther King Jr.-type of leader, someone who wants people to take pride in who they are, to care about others, and to work together to create a better society.

“In any civil rights movement, there’s an argument between that and the Magneto character,” the actor says. “[Magneto] says we’ll fight to the bitter end, we’re proud of our differences and may be violent in our defense. Our difference makes us superior—maybe that’s like an extreme version of a Malcolm X leader.”

Gandalf, slightly less magic in the moment

The first of McKellen’s trio of X-Men movies arrived in 2000, and the very next year he embraced what would become an even more iconic role: that of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While he found some interest in the character itself, McKellen liked the idea of participating in one of the world’s most famous stories even more. “There isn’t a nationality in the world where children aren’t told stories,” he says in McKellen. “Stories bring human beings together.”

Compared to the X-Men franchise, these films proved a very different experience for the actor—particularly when it came to the craft of acting itself. On the positive side, the big-budget nature of it all allowed McKellen to have unforgettable life experiences. As a theater actor primarily, for instance, he had grown comfortable with only his fellow actors being “real” during a performance.