The host for the interview was the former Mayor of San Jose (in Silicon Valley, near San Francisco), Tom McEnery. He thanked Sir Ian for his graciousness in the "backstage" area for the hotel ballroom. An event handler had just hit Mr. McEnery with a lot of instructions, "Stage Left," etc. Sir Ian defused the anxiety with, "What is Stage Left?" Of course, Sir Ian knows all of this like he knows breathing, with his experience on stage. Anyway, they finally were seated in two armchairs with Sir Ian on Stage Left (that's the actor's left hand side when facing out toward the audience; Stage Left is the audience's right-hand side when viewing the stage). After TM said his thanks for Sir Ian's rescue of him backstage, Sir Ian riffed on this and on himself at the same time. He pointed out that in the theater form known as Pantomime (a traditional form with well-defined stock characters and performed much more frequently in the UK than in the US) Mayor McEnery on Stage Right was in a special position always occupied by the force for good, the Fairy Queen! (Big laugh.) Sir Ian's Stage Left was always dominated by the force for evil, the Demon King. And the Demon King always has a much better part in the Pantomime. (Another laugh.)
We've all heard plenty of stories and comments on just what a special experience it was filming LotR. Hey, New Line -- I hope you have hired a film historian to document this for the industry as well as for the fans. From what we can read it seems the experience was certainly unique in many ways and quite different from the usual Hollywood adventure -- in the overall friendly feeling on site, the length of the shoot, the mutually supportive team effort, the many units shooting simultaneously, the special techniques and technologies used, etc. Anyway, Sir Ian added a bit more drama to the logistics of shooting in the old paint factory near the Wellington airport. "OK, Emma [on the radio], four minutes? OK, three minutes? ...Two minutes, Emma? ... Only one minute?" (Big laugh.) Still referring jokingly to filming between nearby takeoffs and landings, "At times it felt like we were making the world's longest, most expensive home movie." (Another big laugh.) Asked about the outlook for an Oscar for his performance, Sir Ian seems to just take it all in stride but had another comment about the atmosphere on set in New Zealand. On most movie sets, viewing the results of each day's filming, actors in Hollywood are often approached with a breathless gush, "That's Oscar," referring to their performance that day. In New Zealand, the focus was rather just on the best possible results and the collaboration. There was no daily gushing about Oscars in NZ. Sir Ian never heard, "That's Oscar," once. [Well, OK, but maybe the Kiwis are just harder to impress? Heh.]
Also, Sir Ian had really been looking forward to working with Christopher Lee. Sir Ian seemed quite taken with CL's experience in over 200 films, and especially one of CL's most famous roles. Sir Ian told Peter Jackson once a bit impishly, "I get to act with Dracula today!" PJ replied, "No, no. With Saruman, not Dracula!" Ok, so one day as Sir Ian and CL finished a take, suddenly CL whirled closer, bared all his teeth and hissed. (Biggest laugh of the day, as Sir Ian demonstrated a bit. "HHHhhh!") Sir Ian was quite shocked, of course. And scared for a moment! It was Dracula! After Sir Ian recovered a bit, with his heart still pounding, and CL chuckling, Sir Ian heard another muffled sound. He turned, and there was PJ, doubled up and about to explode from stifling his own laugh. (Another big audience laugh.) PJ had put CL up to the gag in advance.
Early in his life, Sir Ian fell in love with the magic of live theater, especially the "crossing into the light." In the wings (side areas) of a theater, especially near the stage itself, all is darkness, tension, and confusion. Sir Ian commented particularly on backstage at vaudeville shows, where the cramped spaces are filled not just with actors and stage crew but with all sorts of acts including their various props, animals, etc. But when an actor crosses that boundary into the light, that's when the magic transformation happens and the actor tells their story to the audience. Sir Ian pointed out that it was in acting he first found he could be really brave, exposing himself psychologically -- instilling life and placing himself into whatever character he was portraying. And, though there are many differences in working in film vs. working on stage, Sir Ian feels much of that same "crossing into the light" when stepping in front of the cameras, too.
Sir Ian's web site, www.mckellen.com, has been a huge hit. And a surprise. The site receives almost one half million hits per day. In part, Sir Ian views it in part as a living autobiography. He continues to add to it, but apparently it can be quite a burden sometimes. He joked that with the attention needed to the web site, his last words [far in the future] just might be something like, "Make sure that you tell them on the web site that I have died." (Yes, BIG laugh.)
Finally, sometimes you just need to be lucky. Sir Ian's visit to San Jose was arranged by Bryan Singer (Director of X-Men, Apt Pupil, X2). Before Apt Pupil, the two had met for lunch and discussion of a role in that film. After Mr. Singer considered it, he informed Sir Ian that frankly he was looking for an older actor to play the 75-year-old character and would not be casting him in the role (Sir Ian was 55 then.) Sir Ian took it matter-of-factly. ("Well, I WASN'T 75, after all.") Then, Mr. Singer asked something like, "Hey, did you see Cold Comfort Farm? There's an old man in that film who ..." and starts imitating that actor's performance as an idea of what he had in mind for the role in Apt Pupil. You can guess the punch line -- that role in CCF was played by Sir Ian! And he so informed Mr. Singer, and got the role in Apt Pupil. Sir Ian philosophically and modestly attributed this to luck, "being in the right place, at the right time, ..." but of course his own preparation and experience had a part in this, too.
The event was a rich and memorable 90 minutes with Sir Ian. Very special.