Ian McKellan: Shakespearean actor turned action star -- The ''X-Men 3'' and ''Da Vinci Code'' star tells us why studio roles are worth taking

By Josh Wolk
May 12, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

A person could get the bends bouncing from high to low culture like Sir Ian McKellen. Back in 1999, he began the year by performing Shakespeare’s The Tempest at England’s West Yorkshire Playhouse; he finished it by donning a silly helmet as a mutant leader in X-Men, with nary a patronizing sniff nor sign of slumming. When the classically trained thespian takes on one of those mammoth, special-effects-spackled roles, he does it with the gusto he’d grant a Strindberg play. ”I’ve always had very catholic tastes about what I’ve enjoyed as an audience member,” he says. ”My defining decision about whether to do a job or not is if it will be something I’d like to see.” And when it comes to popcorn fare, his preferences tend to match those of the masses (exhibit A: the Lord of the Rings trilogy).

This year, McKellen’s genre skipping continues with two of the most anticipated movies of the summer. First he plays the crafty Sir Leigh Teabing in Ron Howard’s adaptation of the unabating best-seller The Da Vinci Code (May 19), and then he reprises his role as the mutant demagogue Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand (May 26). His mainstream itch scratched, he’ll return home to London to rest up for a 2007 world stage tour of King Lear, by which time his voice work for DreamWorks’ animated movie Flushed Away (he plays a toad) will have hit theaters for the holidays. ”As an actor, I’ve drawn no distinction between being in a blockbuster or an independent movie, playing a large or small theater, doing a classic or new play, television, radio, it’s all the same to me,” says the 66-year-old McKellen. ”[X-Men 3 director] Brett Ratner is intrigued to have me in Rush Hour 3. … Initially my reaction was ‘Yes!”’

It’s a far cry from the first 20-odd years of his career, when U.S. directors weren’t exactly wooing McKellen. Preferring to stick mostly to the stage, both in England and on Broadway, he made only the occasional British movie, but he was always enamored of Hollywood pictures. In the early ’90s, he started taking small roles in studio movies like I’ll Do Anything, The Shadow, and Last Action Hero to prepare for starring in 1995’s Richard III, which he co-adapted for the screen and co-produced. The ecstatic reviews for the 1930s-set Richard III ensured that he’d be able to do many more. ”It was a great big calling card,” says McKellen, ”and everybody in the film industry knew about that film, whether they’d seen it or not. They saw that this resolute theater actor could manage the camera.” Over the next 10 years, the roles grew: Gods and Monsters (for which he earned his first Oscar nomination), Apt Pupil, two X-Mens, three Lord of the Rings (his second Oscar nom came for playing Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring).

Though McKellen achieved big-screen stardom much later than his theater-bred peers like Albert Finney and Anthony Hopkins, the delay was a relief. ”Suppose it had been me who played Tom Jones, not Albert Finney?” he asks rhetorically. ”There was never any question of me playing those sorts of parts. I was a frightened little gay boy” — he publicly came out in 1988 — ”who was putting his liberty in jeopardy every time he made love because it was against the law at that time. I wasn’t ready to be a big anything…. I’ve got the self-confidence now, nothing frightens me.”

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