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Ian McKellen rules in remake of ‘The Prisoner’

Actor accepted role because the screenwriter "wasn't writing a fantasy, he was writing science fiction — something that might indeed happen, NOT something that could never happen."
/ Source: The Associated Press

A man named Michael from New York wakes up in the desert, much to his surprise.

Fortunately, a pleasant-looking village is nearby.

Unfortunately, Michael wants to get back to New York and finds he can't.

"That's not possible," the Village elder tells him. "There is no New York. There's only the Village."

"I want out!" Michael says.

"There is no out," insists the leader. "There is only in."

So goes "The Prisoner," a brilliant six-hour, three-night reimagining of the 1960s classic. It airs Sunday through Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST on AMC.

"The Prisoner" is a sometimes startling, always eye-popping meditation on freedom through the prism of mass thought control. Jim Caviezel stars as Michael, the addled detainee who finds that, on his arrival in the Village, he, like all the residents, is designated by a number, not a name. He is now Six.

Ian McKellen is the charismatic, delicately despotic boss, Two. With a suave, creepy-reassuring manner, he lords over this realm with its daunting sinkholes, huge white beach ball and compliant, seemingly contented populace.

Here wanderlust is out of the question, the solution to every problem is "More Village" and every home has a pig to somehow guarantee stability.

What's it all mean? That's up to each viewer, and it's fun (and mind-expanding) to surrender to the Village's enigmas and find out.

"He's running the Village with the best of motives," declares McKellen, speaking of his character, Two.

But Two embodies, among other things, the drawbacks of capitalism, McKellen says.

"Capitalism offers you freedom, but far from giving people freedom, it enslaves them," he says. "That's part of the show's message."

One of the greatsAt 70, the British-born Sir Ian (who was knighted in 1991) is deemed one of the greatest actors working today. He has triumphed with Shakespeare in his long stage career, while his many films include "The Da Vinci Code," the "X-Men" adventures and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (and, ahead for him, a pair of "Hobbit" films back in his role as Gandalf).

McKellen says he chooses a project based on whether it is something he would like to see himself. Another consideration: Can he learn anything from doing the role?

He accepted "The Prisoner," he says, because screenwriter Bill Gallagher (British TV's "Lark Rise to Candleford," "Conviction") "wasn't writing a fantasy, he was writing science fiction — something that might indeed happen, NOT something that could never happen.

"But I had decided I wanted to do this before I read the final episode," which mercifully clears up much of the mystery.

"Once I found all the questions," says McKellen, "I just took it on trust that Bill would come up with some good answers."

McKellen says he saw only enough "to get a flavor" of the original "Prisoner" series, which starred Patrick McGoohan as Six while shuttling numerous actors through the role of Two.

Filming took place in Capetown, South Africa, and in Swakopmund, a town on the Atlantic coast of Namibia. Hayley Atwell, Ruth Wilson, Lennie James, Rachael Blake and Jamie Campbell Bower also star.

Asked how difficult he found the role of Two, McKellen says, "I don't think I've ever played a part that I haven't really, really worried about, and thought, 'I shouldn't be doing this.' I'm never confident. But, perversely, I'll only do a part if I think I can't do it, because that will get the best out of me."

It was in Swakopmund where McKellen found a tailor who, furnishing Two's signature white suit, helped him get into character.

That costume, says McKellen, "became my favorite," but he cautions that the suit's on-screen spiffiness is oddly missing off-camera. "In life, if you saw it you wouldn't want to wear it."

Now, as he speaks with a reporter in a New York hotel suite, McKellen is fashionably rumpled in a dark striped jacket, vest, open-collar shirt and jeans. On his feet are a pair of rubber Calzuro clogs, a version of which he was issued with his prison costume as Magneto in "X-Men" and has worn ever since.

Charming and witty, he slouches back on the couch in thought when asked how performing any other part (Magneto? Gandalf? Two?) can possibly compare to a Shakespearean role.

"That's what Jude Law said to me," says McKellen, who has just seen Law on Broadway. "'What am I going to do after Hamlet? Everything is going to seem third-rate.' Well, it's true — it is," McKellen sums up with a laugh. "Because Shakespeare is FIRST-rate."

But then, referring to every other dramatist, he adds, "You can look for the good intentions, I suppose, with the understanding that even halfway up a mountain, the view can be pretty good."

Regular ascents to the summit with Shakespeare have certified McKellen's lofty stature. But he suggests his reputation is somewhat by default.

"If you're associated with great pieces, some of that luster rubs off on you. Besides, there are not that many great actors around. Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield, Guinness" — now all passed from the scene — "are major, major performers, and you can tell I sort of modeled my career on them, because I like the sort of things that they liked.

"But that's not to say I'm up there with them."

Whereupon, with perfect timing, his voice drops to a stage whisper: "But don't tell anybody."