September 17, 2000
Having a Wizard
Time, Wish You Were Here
Sir Ian McKellen, the British actor playing wizard Gandalf in a movie version of The Lord of the Rings, is enjoying his year in New Zealand and seems especially fond of the South Island. Rubber overshoes suggest rain is no stranger.
Sir Ian is said to be among the greats one of the select group of talented stage actors whose skills also command Hollywood's devotion.
He rose with Shakespeare, was made a knight in 1990, and has done more than 50 films, including And The Band Played On, Richard III, and Gods and Monsters, which brought an Oscar nomination.
His latest New Zealand movie release, X-Men, is doing good business around the world. He plays a rebellious mutant leader.
He was in Christchurch this week on a rare day off from shooting the Peter Jackson adaptation of J. R.R.Tolkien's epic.
His friend Tim Barnett, the Christchurch Labour MP, had set up a meeting between the actor and the Christchurch Wizard. For an actor used to transfixing an audience, Sir Ian slid easily into the minion role assigned him by the Wizard, who dug deeply into his bag of topics and beliefs.
By turns, Sir Ian, standing in a damp Cathedral Square, admired the Wizard's car, staff, horn, and dress. He listened well. His interjections were to the point.
Tim Barnett and Sir Ian met in England. Mr Barnett was the first full-time employee for a lesbian and gay lobby called Stonewall Group, of which the actor is a founder member.
"Tim was first. He set the whole thing going," McKellen says. Together they battled through the Thatcher years, pushing for improvements.
In New Zealand, the actor has little time for activism. Today, all being equal, will be another day of work. Simultaneous production over 16 months of the three multimillion-dollar Lord of the Rings films means six-day weeks, 12-hour days. Only Sundays are free "and you tend to want sleep".
This week's day off was a rare thing. He had been at work near Queenstown, and was en route to Wellington for a day of studio work.
Despite having little time for gadding about, Sir Ian has become fond of the country. This week he saw Dave Dobbyn, Bic Runga, and Tim Finn perform in Christchurch "tremendous" and has caught a few plays in Wellington.
One thing he can do while working flat out is admire the scenery. The South Island has made a big impression. From a diary posted on his website, www. mckellen.com, Sir Ian says he looks forward to coming south. He loves the north, he writes, "yet each time I spy the interisland ferry chugging past my Wellington window for the two-hour sail south across the Cook Strait, which separate the islands, I envy its passengers".
Sir Ian's website is good publicity for New Zealand, and it recently peaked at about a million visitors a day. His diary has tidbits about the shooting schedule and other stars, woven around bits of New Zealand history, descriptions of the countryside and Kiwis he meets, and photographs of his travels.
An August 8 entry includes this line: "In New Zealand there really is a natural untouched wilderness and it is overwhelmingly spectacular and moving."
Sir Ian believes Lord of the Rings will be a record-breaking movie, bigger than Titanic, when it opens. And that will draw attention to New Zealand. "The people will want to come and see the landscapes," he says.
His website has been helping reporters, too. While the movie managers have been trying hard to keep it under wraps, Sir Ian thinks it is a bit over the top.
"I suppose the Internet has made a difference. A photograph can be all over the world in a matter of minutes. That's anathema to a film company that wants total control of how it releases its publicity. But with this film they're probably being a bit precious about it."
One such recent picture showed a body impaled on a huge wheel, with stories asking if that was how the Gandalf character dies.
The McKellen website answered that one. "No, it's not me," Sir Ian wrote, "although I was filming on the same location ... Nor, as some have speculated, is it Christopher Lee (who plays another wizard, Saruman)."