No Mans Land
Credit: Joan Marcus

Sir Ian McKellen has never long been out of the public’s eye (thanks, X-Men and The Hobbit!), but it’s been over a decade since we last saw the stage great on Broadway. This year, he’s teaming up with longtime friend Sir Patrick Stewart for a pair of plays in repertory — Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land — opening at the Cort Theatre on November 24. EW chatted with McKellen about Broadway, Stewart, Gandalf, YouTube, and why this opening night may be his last.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Welcome back to Broadway! How has it changed since you last tread the boards?

IAN MCKELLEN: I first came in 1967 in a play that had been a huge success in London with Judi Dench, and we brought it here and it lasted for 27 performances. Oh dear, oh dear, I never wanted to come back here again. Well, I did come back here again, and eventually I came back with Amadeus, which was the hit show of the 1981 season. And then you feel that you belong to New York and New York belongs to you, and that’s what you always hope for. But I’ve had my ups and my downs. What I particularly like about Broadway is the camaraderie and the friendship of other people in other shows. Everybody knows you’re opening and cares about you. There’s a real village atmosphere.

What excites you most about bringing No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot to Broadway?

I think New York audiences are some of the brightest in the world, and certainly the most enthusiastic. So if they decide to come see it, then you really have a good time. I think this will be my last outing to Broadway, probably, so I might as well go out with a bang doing two plays in wonderful company!

Why do you and Patrick Stewart get on so well?

You feel absolutely safe. There’s going to be no funny things going on behind your back — not that you would ever expect that from another actor, but we’re just very relaxed with each other. We make each other laugh. I think that’s always a good sign of a friendship. And inside that very stern exterior that Patrick sometimes has, there’s a very sweet-natured lad who I can get through to and we just enjoy it. The two other actors are wonderful Broadway stars, that Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley, so it’s not a two-man show at all, it’s the four of us.

Where do Estragon and Spooner fall on the spectrum of your favorite roles?

When we closed Waiting for Godot in London, I went into the wings and cried. I’d never done that before, because I thought I would never be so happy again. And so one of the reasons we’re here is so we can feel happy again! Estragon is one of the great clown parts, and as for Spooner, well, he’s never off stage. It’s a hilarious part, very funny and quite, quite different, and that’s fun for me.

Why do these plays work well together in repertory? Is it because the characters are similar?

They’re both on their uppers, that’s true. There’s a connection between them and they’re both roughly the same age, but they’re quite different. One is an intellectual and one is very much concerned with the state of his feet. Both plays are a little bit about old age, about how you cope with life when it’s not going your way. If I’m asked what’s my favorite part, I usually say the part I’m currently playing because I don’t want it to get jealous of other parts. Both are very demanding but they’re very, very rewarding.

How have audiences been responding so far to the plays?

Well, we played No Man’s Land in Berkeley, and they took to it with huge enthusiasm, but you can never tell. People are different in different cities, but I think we’re all right. The sort of people we’re going to get are people who really like the theater, or who want to see Patrick and me playing up against each other. Well, there’s plenty of that. They’re two great plays, and Broadway needs great plays up against these awfully great musicals.

You hosted the Only Make Believe gala in November. What about that event speaks to you?

The organization was the idea of a very close friend of mine, Deena Hammerstein, and it was when her dear husband died that she wanted to find some purpose in her life, and it’s brought her back literally to life. So that’s my main connection, and the work they do is so obviously worthwhile, taking entertainers into longstay hospitals where kids, in front of your eyes, revive their spirits! It’s such a simple, simple idea, bringing live theater, which we know is a wonderful restorative, to kids who are ill, and to watch them enjoying themselves, getting up and shouting out, in their ward, where they live all day…it’s terrific.

I also have to chat about The Hobbit. How did it feel to finally wrap after spending so many years filming those movies?

Well, you have to keep pinching yourself and saying, ‘This really is the last time I’m going to put on this beard, this mustache, this robe, this wig, this pointy hat, this costume.’ Mind you, I have thought it was the end on a number of occasions. It’s been a long and very, very pleasant journey over 13 years, and it will never be out of my life, because the films have become classics and people are always reminding me that they’ve seen them, so it isn’t a long-distance faraway job. It’s still very current. So I’ve not felt, ‘oh dear, that’s it, it’s over forevermore.’

You officiated the wedding between Patrick Stewart and Sunny Ozell. Did you see Patrick’s acting lesson on YouTube?

Oh yes, his quadruple take. I just warn him not to try the quadruple take during Waiting for Godot. We’ve got enough jokes!

No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot open at the Cort Theatre on November 24, 2013, with a limited engagement set to conclude March 2, 2014.