It's hard to remember a time when Ian McKellen wasn't a hero to nerd culture, owing to his unforgettable portrayals of Gandalf the Grey, in "The Lord of the Rings," and Magneto, in the "X-Men" series. But McKellen's journey to the multiplex was far from inevitable -- he got his start on the English stage in the early 1960s and didn't tackle Hollywood in earnest until three decades later. And yet, he's not one of those stage actors who look down on movies even as they exploit them for a buck. To hear Sir Ian talk about his action-hero status is to discover that it means a great deal to him -- more than most people might imagine.
This weekend, McKellen will reprise his role as Gandalf in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," the first of three Hobbit films, all of which take place many years before the events of "The Lord of the Rings." I spoke to Sir Ian about his off-again on-again participation in "The Hobbit," his emotional investment in the themes of the X-Men story, and his perspective on the same-sex marriage laws that passed in three states this past November.

When you finished "Return of the King," did you always know that you hadn't seen the last of Gandalf? I know you were a little concerned with the delays at one point.
No, absolutely not. And when Peter was asked if he was making "The Hobbit," "No," he said. "No, no, I'm not going to make 'The Hobbit.'" Then, suddenly, out of the blue a few years later, he said, "We're going to make 'The Hobbit'!" "Oh," I said, "Who's going to be in it?" And he said, "Well, maybe it's you." I said, "fine." And then he dropped out. And the day he announced -- because of his arguments with New Line -- that he wasn't going to make "The Hobbit," he sent me an email that said, "Ian, this doesn't mean that you mustn't make 'The Hobbit.'" And I would have thought twice if it would be appropriate for me to play Gandalf with another director. And he said, "Absolutely. You must do it. Because 'The Hobbit' can't manage without the original Gandalf." And that was lovely. And then along comes Del Toro and he said the same thing. Terrific! But then he dropped out. So then Peter was going to do it, then he was ill -- ups and downs. After this had been going on for two or three years -- and I had kept myself free -- I felt the film wasn't going to happen. And I thought, Well, frankly, does it matter personally if it doesn't? There are other things that I can happily do and that I had been doing. But, in the end, [laughs] when the call came and said, "Look, are you going to come and join us or not?" -- it was irresistible, really.

It would be hard to imagine people, myself included, accepting anyone else as Gandalf. Do you agree with that?
No, I don't. I mean, who remembers Richard Harris ever played Dumbledore? 

Full story