Sir Ian McKellen visited San Jose, CA on Saturday to receive a Maverick award from the Cinequest film festival. More info is here and here.
After the brief award presentation, the main event was a conversation between Sir Ian and the host, former Mayor and "movie guy," the Hon. Tom McEnery of San Jose.
And what a delight the event was!
The conversation, attended by over 500 people at $20 a head, touched on Sir Ian's whole career, on stage and in film, as well as his stance on gay rights activism. Naturally, though, the huge surge in public appreciation of Sir Ian probably rests largely on recent film work, including Lord of the Rings. (A cry from the back of the room, "Gandalf!")
Sir Ian's visit was arranged by Bryan Singer, who directed Sir Ian in X-Men and Apt Pupil, with X2 starting filming soon.
The event lasted one and a half hours and including a performance by Sir Ian (with microphone removed; this was the real deal, highlighting stage skills) from "Sir Thomas More," co-written by Shakespeare but lost until the early 1960's.
The audience Saturday enjoyed a real treat. This was not an extended talk show interview with the latest movie idol. This was a thoughtful, albeit abbreviated, review of Sir Ian's career on stage and screen. Sir Ian was obviously taken with the spirit of the Maverick award itself and had prepared well, weaving references to being a maverick throughout his comments. And, of course, he had a performance piece ready with which to close the event, touching on the same "Maverick" theme and issues of humanity. He impressed the audience with his stories and his charm, intelligence, skill, humility, courage, and appreciation of his art and the other people in it.
A nice interview with Sir Ian, published just after the late-breaking announcement that he was to visit San Jose, is here. This includes some interesting comments on career choices, his conception of Gandalf, and more.
The stories Sir Ian told? In Part 2 of this report.
But some final thoughts in Part 1.
The session started with one of the festival officials announcing, "Good News, Bad News." Uh oh. Something like, "Bad News -- Sir Ian couldn't make it. But we got Billy Bob Thornton as a replacement!" Now, BBT is mighty talented and on a big roll right now and should have had an Oscar nomination this year, but we came to hear Sir Ian. The room was charged with stunned silence. Soon though, whew, Sir Ian joined the Mayor on a dais with two armchairs for an informal atmosphere. It took a while for the huge standing ovation to die down. A few of us did submit questions in advance, but there was no time for these. And if others somehow managed to catch Sir Ian later for conversation of for autographs, I did not hear about it.
At the end, the lines Sir Ian performed for us quoted Sir Thomas More, another maverick, standing tall for his principles and exhorting the troubled masses (and us, too) to treat others with the same humanity we wish for ourselves.
As we walked out, my wife, a stage actress, overheard something like, "You've got to be _____ing brilliant to do that," meaning the acting we saw from Sir Ian on stage. By adding a short stage performance to what most of the audience had probably seen only on film, Sir Ian received an even-more-deserved standing ovation at the end of the 90 minutes. My guess is that most of the crowd arrived for Gandalf and Magneto. Some knew of his other film work or had even seen him on stage in San Francisco, doing his one-man show on Shakespeare or his Richard III; but all of us walked out with a much deeper appreciation of a life in the art and craft of acting.
Comparing notes with my family later... Although my 12-year-old son was interested throughout, his initial curiosity was simply, "What does Gandalf's actor really look like?" He was prepared for Sir Ian not looking like Gandalf in real life, but he was quite surprised that the voice was different, too! Special moments for my wife were in comparing the opportunities for a stage career in the UK vs. in the US. And I was just a sponge, absorbing the details that give context to the little bits I have known or seen so far. My wife and I have read LotR aloud at least 3 times, so we have both had a deep attachment to LotR and related Tolkien works. Knowing Sir Ian's ability already, we were so jazzed when we heard he was cast as Gandalf. And now the first LotR movie with Sir Ian has come to pass, and wonderfully, too.
Saturday's event was a smash hit, in our book.
Mercury News Article
A magical guest
A SAMPLING OF MCKELLEN'S CHANGING FACES, CHANGING ROLES
By Glenn Lovell
After ducking more than one low-slung Hobbit ceiling, Gandalf (a.k.a. the big guy) is in the house.
In one of the nicest surprises of its 12-year run, San Jose's Cinequest Film Festival has recruited Ian McKellen for a Saturday chat/tribute. McKellen's visit -- arranged by director Bryan Singer, who directed McKellen in ``Apt Pupil'' and ``X-Men'' -- couldn't be better timed: The veteran British actor has just been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the good wizard Gandalf in ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.''
And now, at 62, McKellen -- who has trod the boards as Hamlet, Richard III and the embittered Salieri in ``Amadeus'' (for which he won a 1981 Tony) -- finds himself the idol of J.R.R. Tolkien enthusiasts of all ages.
``I knew it was going to be a huge hit right away,'' says the actor, recalling his first New York screening. ``Within 15 minutes I forgot I was in the film, and the people around me who hadn't read the books were crying.''
McKellen found midlife movie stardom after a distinguished career with England's National and Royal Shakespeare companies. He was nominated for a best-actor Oscar in 1998 for playing the anguished James Whale in ``Gods and Monsters.'' We caught up with the actor, who was knighted in 1991 and maintains his own Web site (www.mckellen.com), at a friend's home in Los Angeles. He's stateside for pre-Oscar interviews and talks with Singer about ``X-Men 2,'' which begins shooting in Vancouver in May.
Sir Ian, you may be the first knight with his own Web site.
You may be right. The site was suggested to me four years ago to publicize a show I was doing. I thought, ``This will be a good chance to put down everything I've got in the cellar, my comments on the last 40 years.'' It saves me the chore of having to write an autobiography.
Cinequest honors mavericks. Do you consider yourself one?
I rather like the word ``maverick.'' It suggests someone who has done what they wanted to do, stuck to their guns. The principles I've stuck to: Only do scripts I would like to see, and only do them if I feel the people involved, the director and everyone else, are going to help me do my best work. I've never gone for a job for money, and I think I've only done two jobs that I've regretted.
You didn't make your screen debut until age 29, and stardom came 30 years later.
The one big element that no actor can deny in their career is luck, chance. Whilst my contemporaries, -- Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates -- were regularly appearing in movies and having great success, that just didn't happen for me. Not having been to drama school, I felt I had an awful lot to learn as a stage actor. And then great theater parts started coming my way, with long-term contracts. It wasn't until quite recently, when I did the movie of ``Richard III'' (1995), that things began to change.
You appeared as Death in Arnold Schwarzenegger's ``Last Action Hero.''
I took any part I could get. I did walk-ons, tiny parts. Friends thought I was crazy. But over that period I began to treat the camera as a friend rather than as an intruder. The film of ``Richard III'' was my calling card in the grown-up film industry, and I began to get offered really good parts. So now, rather late in the day, I'm in the happy situation that those peers of mine were in 30 years ago.
Gandalf must have been a nice change. You've specialized in villains -- from Iago to Rasputin.
Yes, that's true. It's not often that you get to play a good man, because writers are more interested in human frailty. Goodness can be rather boring -- ``the devil has the best tunes,'' I suppose best sums it up. You don't find any Shakespeare hero who is totally good. Usually they're guys who have gone off the rails. But Gandalf -- though he has self-doubt and realizes he would be corrupted by the ring -- is firmly on the rails.
Was there one Tolkien passage in particular that provided the key to your characterization?
I saw Gandalf as a scholar, a man of the countryside . . . and yet a loner on a mission. You'll see that increasingly strongly in the next two films, ``The Two Towers'' and ``Return of the King.'' The fun of the first film is in Gandalf measuring up the situations: persuading Bilbo to give up the ring or handing over responsibility to Frodo, or riding off to face Saruman, his old friend who's gone wrong.
Do you find it ironic that after so much stage work you've found acclaim in digital-effects fantasies?
Oh, I don't look at them that way at all. I think the success of ``Lord of the Rings'' is that it isn't fantasy. The storytelling that director Peter Jackson has adopted is to make you think you are actually there and that this was at one time a real world.
What do you think your chances are for an Oscar?
No idea. It's certainly not a rejection of your work if your name is not called out. I arrive at the awards as a foreigner, an outsider, who, briefly, is allowed to be an insider. I'll participate in the fun of the Oscars.
What's next, Sir Ian?
I'm hosting ``Saturday Night Live'' on March 16.