Gandalf under Queenstown’s spell

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Queenstown has cast a spell over celebrated English actor Sir Ian McKellen who’s in New Zealand for The Hobbit filming. 

“I feel I know Queenstown quite well,” he says. “I’ve been to places that have the same sort of spirit elsewhere in the world but nowhere in quite such a magnificent setting.” 

McKellen, 72, first visited Queenstown in 2000 to play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, a role for which he received an Oscar nomination. The critically-acclaimed actor returned to Paradise, near Glenorchy, for The Hobbit shoot late last year. 

To fill up downtime now during shooting, McKellen is taking a one-man show on the road, arriving in Wanaka next month to help raise funds for the rebuild of Christ­church’s historic Isaac Theatre Royal. 

“If I’m not filming the night before I shall probably come [to Queenstown] and get acclimatised. I was back last month showing friends around and driving them to Milford.” 

McKellen says he’ll be making a point of popping into lakefront fish and chip shop Aggy’s Shack: “I don’t think I could go to Queens­town without that.” 

Before his arrival in Queenstown in 2000, McKellen says: “The first thing I heard was they’d had a dreadful flood in ’99 at the end of the year and they’d had to abandon filming because the streets were all flooded.” 

McKellen recalls staying at the newly-opened Blanket Bay lodge, near Glenorchy, while shooting at the head of the lake. 

“I think for a time I was the guest who’d stayed there the most.” 

Of his recent Paradise shoot, he says: “It went very well, we had lovely weather, and in between filming you were able to just sit back in a canvass chair and look at the mountains.” 

Another bonus of visiting here is dropping in on acting friend Sam Neill. 

“He’s a very nice man indeed, he always make me laugh. It must be wonderful to have your own private supply of wine and you know what’s gone into it.” 

McKellen recalls acting with Neill once in the King Charles period film, Restoration. 

“He played King Charles with a lot of King Charles’ spaniels and I was playing one of Robert Downey’s servants so I didn’t get to speak to the king.” 

Neill – who calls McKellen one of the “very greats of stage and screen” on his wine blog – recalls they also appeared together in the Meryl Streep film, Plenty. 

Surprisingly, McKellen didn’t predict Lord of the Rings’ runaway success: “I was one of the people enjoying himself so much, along with everybody else. I thought we were making the most expen­sive home movie that had ever been made. I just didn’t appreciate how much people were waiting for it – and when they saw it they liked it – and with what enthusiasm they kept revisiting it.” 

McKellen admits he was in two minds about reprising Gandalf a decade later. 

“I felt it was a part I had played. A friend said to me, ‘Why are you even hesitating, Ian, just think of all the fans that want to see Gandalf again, why don’t you let them?’ 

“That was the clincher and I’m very glad I did because there are some wonderful actors this time round who weren’t there before.” 

McKellen suspects The Hobbit will do as well as Lord of the Rings or even better. 

“The Hobbit was written for one of [J.R.Tolkien’s] sons and was very much a children’s story. There’s a lot of humour in it, some on the nose and some rather sly, which you don’t get in Lord of the Rings. 

“And the stakes aren’t as high – it’s not the end of the world which is being avoided. 

“It’s an adventure story, I think we can safely say with a happy ending – for most of the characters, at any rate.”
 
Ian McKellen on Stage – Shake­speare, Tolkien and You! at Lake Wanaka Centre, June 9, 7.30pm and June 10, 2pm. $50 adults, $25 students/children, www.festivalofcolour.co.nz