Forget busy summers. Ian McKellen has more big-screen action packed into the month of May than most British stage actors could hope for in a career.
In the adaptation of Dan Brown’s best seller “The Da Vinci Code,” McKellen plays Sir Leigh Teabing, the sinfully wealthy, polio-afflicted aristocrat who joins Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou’s characters on their quest for the Holy Grail.
A week later, McKellen reprises his role as Magneto, a villainous mutant who uses his ability to control metals to take on his heroic fellow freaks of nature in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” the third film in the franchise.
This from an actor who’s already got a monumental film project behind him as Gandalf, the sagacious wizard from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a role that earned him his second Academy Awards nomination after 1998’s “Gods and Monsters.”
McKellen — who turns 67 the day before the May 26 U.S. debut of “X-Men: The Last Stand” — is a latecomer to Hollywood after decades as one of England’s leading theatrical performers.
An outspoken gay-rights activist since declaring his homosexuality in the late 1980s, McKellen likens fear of mutants in “X-Men” with societal homophobia. In a chat with The Associated Press, he also discusses the detailed backstory he and “Da Vinci Code” director Ron Howard developed for Teabing and muses over his newfound film stardom.
AP: Were you one of the umpteen million people who read “Da Vinci Code” early on?
McKellen: No, no. It’s difficult to remember now, but I think I’d heard of it. I must have. I think I even knew a little about what it was about perhaps, but no, I didn’t read it. I read it after I’d read the script, which is the way rather to do it, because it’s a foolish actor who takes a part on the basis of the material on which the movie is based.
AP: Why did the book become the best seller of best sellers?
McKellen: He landed on a story that is genuinely fascinating. It’s the stuff of the Discovery Channel, isn’t it? What is the Holy Grail? Well, anyone can sit through an hour and a half of that on TV, even though you know at the end you’re not going to know the answer. But he gives you the answer! Dan Brown tells you what the Holy Grail is. As he goes along page by page, you just get caught up in it, and you begin to believe it. By the end, such is the wizardry of the storytelling, you believe something that if you were told it at the outset, you would say, ‘Rubbish.’
AP: The book’s suppositions about ancient secrets of Christianity certainly helped.
McKellen: Of course, the implication at the end of it all is that he’s uncovered something about an age-old institution and found it to be not quite what it says it is. The Catholic Church. I’m all for these old institutions being constantly challenged and having question marks thrown at them. I don’t think they get asked to explain themselves often enough, so I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to get too upset when someone writes a thriller which raises a few questionable assertions about Catholicism. Because the believers are going to remain believers, and the skeptics are going to remain skeptical. I think the world is pretty much not changed because of “Da Vinci Code,” other than people who have had an awful good time reading it. I don’t think it was Dan Brown’s intention to bring down the Vatican.
AP: Why is Leigh Teabing so obsessed over the Holy Grail?
McKellen: Ron and I pondered what it was like to get polio before you’re a teenager and what it would do to you, the disadvantages it would put you at, and the determination that he’s had to overcome that disability. The self-esteem he’s managed to retain was perhaps all being thrown into the work he’s particularly fitted for, which is sitting still, reading, studying, researching.
And then we had him married, and Lady Teabing appears in the movie, but only if you’re looking for her. Her portrait is there, and she’s not around anymore, so he’s had to deal with that, and there were no children apparently, so he’s a man who’s really thrown himself into his expertise. ... We even decided he hadn’t got his knighthood as I did for service to the nation, because we couldn’t see what the nation would be particularly grateful for in his case. So we decided he’d inherited the title, which you can do. There is a certain sort of “sir” that you get from your father, and probably he came from minor landed gentry, a sub-aristocratic strand of society and he married, as those people often do when they don’t have any funds, into money. His wife was extremely rich and could set him up with his French mansion and his plane and everything else. He hadn’t earned that.
AP: That’s a great backstory.
McKellen: But only you and I know it! Dan Brown doesn’t get into all that. You do it just to convince yourself and reference it throughout in the performance.
AP: What’s Magneto up to this time in “X-Men.”
McKellen: I do like this story, because this begins in the Oval Office with the president having just appointed a minister for mutants. It’s Kelsey Grammer painted blue, as it turns out. And then they discover a cure for mutancy. Think of the dilemma that minister is put in, at the heart of the establishment and the heart of the capitalist world. We’ve got to peddle the lie that we’re all the same so we all buy the same products. That’s why they don’t like openly gay people on TV. We upset the view that we’re all the same. What is Magneto going to say about that? Well, what everybody should say. Not on your life! There are people who think you can cure homosexuality. Scientologists will tell you they can cure you. They can CURE you! Well, Magneto suddenly became an easy part to play.
AP: Because you could relate to that notion, people saying they’re going to cure your “aberration.”
McKellen: Yes. And as he says, “We are the cure.” Great stuff.
AP: Your early career was largely on stage, with roles here and there in film or television. How odd was it to suddenly become a movie star in your 60s?
McKellen: I can’t really believe it, nor can anyone else, actually. It is an unusual thing to happen, because I’m not yet as old as people perhaps think I am. Gandalf was 7,000 years old. And I’ve got another 10 years in me, probably, of capering. So I’m just extremely lucky and grateful, and if it hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t have missed it, to tell you the truth.
AP: If “The Hobbit,” the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings,” were made into a movie, would you want to play Gandalf again?
McKellen: I would love to do “The Hobbit,” yes. Partly because I would hate to see anybody else playing Gandalf.