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.
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.
“In the theater it’s all pretend, cardboard and canvas. You make believe nothing is as it seems,” McKellen says. “But on scene [for LoTR], there it is. One day, we were lifted in a helicopter, dropped onto a high, snow-covered ridge, and then abandoned and filmed by the helicopter. It could only happen once because we would’ve left our footprints in the snow if we go longer. There’s a perilous drop on one side and the peak on the other, I could be on Everest… it’s as far from a green screen as you can get; it’s bliss.”
However, the franchise’s reliance on certain visual effects techniques took away one of McKellen’s favorite things about acting—the interplay and in-the-moment relationships between actors. When initially talking about LoTR in this documentary, he seems a bit sad describing how it felt to film some of the early scenes in Bilbo’s house. Much as a current show like Counterpart recreates a character through the use of stand-in markers and a robotically controlled camera capable of precise movements, McKellen would often find himself separated from his castmates with a machine taking his place on a duplicate set.
“Where should I look? Well, they put photos of each of the actors on a stand, and whoever was talking, their light flashed,” McKellen recalls. “These were photos of the actors, not the characters I just met. At the end of the day, my mouth was very close to the mic hidden in my forest of a beard, and I said to myself, ‘This is not why I became an actor.’ I was quite tearful… but this was accidentally broadcast across the studio.”
Obviously, McKellen found enough challenge and creative stimulation to soldier on. The documentary shows the actor later continuing to ask for character motivation directions even when filming what appears to be a simple scene like Gandalf riding his horse alone. In the end, McKellen appears to have adored this experience, too. It allowed the actor to learn and refine new acting techniques that have only become more prevalent in Hollywood (though McKellen still prefers, and participates in, live theater). And on top of that, embracing the role allowed McKellen to have a new and potent avenue to connect with younger generations.
Much of McKellen: Playing The Part deals with how, no matter his focus, the actor for a long time could never shake the feeling that he had to choose how to portray himself to the world: as a gay man, as an activist, as a capital-A actor, as a fun-loving Hollywood elder statesman, etc. But this documentary stands as evidence that, over the years, he’s become more comfortable showing himself no matter the role. And oddly enough, Gandalf has become a recurring part of that (as evidenced by a few viral clips from McKellen talking to students or the Oxford Union).
“[Talking with young students today], I play the part of concerned older gent, because when I was their age [an older generation of public LGBTQA individuals] didn’t exist,” he says. “Of course, I also go along as the guy who played Gandalf. So the first thing I say—I’ve polished this little routine—is if you don’t do your revisions properly, you know what will happen. You shall not pass!”
McKellen: Playing the Partis currently playing in select US cities. Local showings can be found on the film’s website, McKellenFilm.com.
Listing image by McKellen: Playing The Part
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