Ian McKellen as Gandalf the Grey
Warner Bros.

“It’s not a franchise!” bellows Sir Ian McKellen to a Manhattan ballroom full of reporters. “They’re films!”

This Lord of the Rings Gandalf is the White, for the moment, pinpointing the seriousness of the entire extension of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit beyond the cynical that meets any ongoing cinematic story.

The 73-year-old Lancashire actor, knighted 21 years now and laden with Tony and Emmy Award nominations and statuettes for his lengthy work on stage and in television, is the natural lead hand for the New York City conferences trumpeting the arrival of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first of three Rings backstories set to hit theatres in the next two years. His portrayal of the much more playful Gandalf the Grey in 2001’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings earned him one of his two Oscar nominations – the other being for his portrayal of British film director James Whale in director Bill Condon’s outstanding 1998 drama Gods and Monsters – and it is that side of the wizened and storied wizard that he prefers inhabiting.

“Well,” Sir Ian begins, “Gandalf the White, who was in the second of the Lord of the Rings movies, is on a mission and he has to save the world – or help save the world. So, he’s cut his beard down to size and he’s gone white in the process, and he doesn’t have any jokes. No time for jokes. But that’s the story of where the hero doesn’t make it back home.”

McKellen turns his attention to the here and now of The Hobbit.

“Bilbo gets back home,” he says, “because he’s on an adventure. It’s different. So, he doesn’t need Gandalf the White to look after him. He needs the old, you know, the Grey, you know, who he can have a smoke with and a drink with. It can tick him off, maybe, but they gradually learn to like each other’s company and trust each other. It’s a much more humane level, as befits the quality of the adventure that they’re going on. So, there’s a bit more range for the actor with Gandalf the Grey, and it’s selfishly why I prefer doing him.”

In fact, it is Gandalf who instigates Bilbo Baggins’ perilous adventures. The somewhat scheming and affectionate hobbit we’ve got to know through the three Lord of the Rings movies, as played by Ian Holm, is the first we see in this new adventure from the past. But, soon enough, viewers are thrown back to Bilbo as relative youth, this time portrayed by Martin Freeman, best known for his work in the BBC version of The Office, and in the film adaptation of Douglas Adams’ beloved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Born in Burnley and raised primarily in the former Lancashire town of Wigan – one of many absorbed by Greater Manchester nearly 40 years ago in modern amalgamation – McKellen holds true to his upbringing, remembering the economic ups and downs of towns founded and prosperous in the Industrial Revolution, and left shattered into and through the severe days and nights of the Second World War.

For McKellen the Colourful, these are reasons why Bilbo’s journey – as an unwitting and, at first, unwilling burglar drafted into a David-and-Goliath re-taking of the Dwarf homeland of Lonely Mountain after being violently displaced by Smaug the Dragon – resonates very personally with him.

“I think there are limitations in Tolkien’s view of the world,” McKellen says frankly. “I mean, where is sex? Where are women? But in other aspects he is absolutely bang up to date. He takes old people very seriously and gives them their full weight and due. Young people, he’s very keen on.

“I think the message that I think has resonated with everyone who has read the books or seen the films is that, yes, the world is organized by people who are extremely powerful and have an overview, and are concerned for the preservation of Middle Earth – but they are entirely dependent on the little guy. And for someone who has been through two World Wars, to accept that – it’s not the great people we build statues to that the world is changed, it’s the foot soldiers who measure up to the moment. And we can all understand that, because that’s the level we are all at, really.”

McKellen made those connections himself while filming The Hobbit, both with co-star Cate Blanchett – who returns as Elfin ruler Galadriel, in a move prompted by Jackson’s absorption of The Lord of the Rings’ fulsome appendices into The Hobbit story – and by an unexpected turn babysitting Freeman’s children.

“Well, I only was allowed to do that once,” Sir Ian says, “and it was a very enjoyable evening. I don’t babysit as a rule, and to be allowed to be in loco parentis for just a couple of hours was wonderful. I’ve not forgotten it.”

“Neither have I,” Freeman, sitting to McKellen’s right, says affectionately.

“Awww,” responds McKellen in a voice that somehow manages to make even the gushy sound stately and authoritative.

As for working with Blanchett, The Hobbit is the first time it all became real for Sir Ian.

“The beauty of those few days was working with Cate Blanchett, who I hadn’t done before,” he recalls, “we had appeared in the same scene at the end of the final Lord of the Rings movie, but we hadn’t met. We met at a party. But they just photographed us separately. But for this two weeks, there she was in person.

“We had such a congenial relationship, because she’s running, practically, the National Theatre of Australia in Sydney. We had so much to talk about: plays and everything else, as well as the fun of making a movie. And we got extremely close and affectionate with each other.”

McKellen takes a slight pause: “Her husband wasn’t around.” Just as quickly, he picks up the thread again.

“And there was a moment when she just adjusted my hair, but I think it was Cate rather than Galadriel.  And I think it’s made it into the movie. And I’m still rather shaking. So, I think that there was a lot of love – innocent love – and dependence there going on, and we were talking about something that Gandalf feels very strongly, which we touched on before. It’s the little guy we need, and who may be expendable and who may not come back.

“That’s one of the things I remember most about us working together,” he continues, “when Martin said ‘Am I going to come back? Can you promise that?’ And I had to say ‘No.’ Not many commanders would say that to their soldiers, would they? I don’t know. It’s a chilling but heartwarming moment, that.”

These are mammoth films involving a lot of actors, heaps of technology, and an almost impossible amount of co-ordination and co-operation to get off the ground. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey clocks in 10 minutes shy of three hours just on its own.

This is where, McKellen says, it’s not so much the technical virtuosity involved but the focus that makes the whole range of the six films such a challenge.

“If you’re acting a way for a film, it will be with a certain intensity,” he says. “But what you might have difficulty shaking off when you remove the costume and the makeup is not the character, but the effort that you put into it – and the fact that it was difficult today, or it was joyfully easy, or there was something you didn’t quite get right or were struggling over. And I think that effort will remain with you. That’s what you’ll be thinking of, rather than being lost in the world of Middle Earth.”

And, as he barked out to the assembled in New York, anything approaching a disrespectful sidelong view has no room in this adventure.

“Anyone who thinks Peter Jackson would fall for market forces rather than artistic imperative doesn’t know the guy and hasn’t really examined the body of his work,” McKellen says. “And, you know, if we’d just made one movie of The Hobbit, the fact is that all the fans – and I’m thinking now of the eight-, nine-, 10-year-old boys and girls – they would watch it a thousand times. Well, they’ve now got three films they can watch a thousand times. It isn’t enough.

“And if you don’t quite plug into that, I’d sympathize with you. But these movies are not for you. But talk to any nine-year-old: They haven’t just seen Lord of the Rings once. They’ve seen it twice or maybe three times in a day. And how much better they should be seeing that. Great film, I would say, with huge artistic endeavour and achievement, rather than other things they could be watching.”