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"Gandalf is sent back by the powers that be to complete the job he has not yet finished."

It is a much different Gandalf who rejoins the fight against Sauron in The Two Towers. Leaner, cleaner and somehow younger, the revitalized wizard wields staff and sword with equal skill and fresh determination. Fortunately for audiences, it's the same Ian McKellen underneath Gandalf's new white robes. Now the legendary British actor, who snared an Oscar® nomination for his performance as Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, discusses changes in his character for The Two Towers, the power of Tolkien's tale and making movies that connect with viewers.

How does Gandalf the White differ from the Gandalf we saw in The Fellowship of the Ring?
Well, Gandalf is not human. He's sort of immortal, and he's been around for 7,000 years, so when the Balrog pulls him off the bridge at Khazad-Dum to what seems like a certain death, Gandalf doesn't die. He's sent back by the powers that be to complete the job he has not yet finished.

And what does he consider that job to be?
  When he goes back in The Two Towers, it's clear what has to be done. And what's needed is not the old academic--the Hobbit expert who is keeping an eye on things. What's needed now is a commander, a military point of view, a man of action, and that is Gandalf's position. He's going to be in the thick of it, helping lead the troops to victory in a series of mighty battles.

How does Gandalf change to fill that role?
The refurbished Gandalf has gone up one notch in the order of things. He comes back rather younger than before, trimmer, more organized, with clothes that won't get in the way when he's on horseback, with a sword and a staff in his hand, with hair that's not getting in his eyes. It's all shorter, it's all trimmer.

In what ways do we see a "younger" Gandalf?
The hair may be white, but Tolkien makes it quite clear that Gandalf is younger in spirit and physique than he has been before. He's no longer complaining about how old he feels, because he isn't as old as he was. He looks a bit different, he behaves a bit differently, he speaks differently, but it's the same spirit. But they're both Gandalf.

So, did you approach Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White as two different roles?
Well, two different aspects. I thought, this is Gandalf as he used to be before he got a bit decrepit. He's a man of action, he's a samurai, he's a warrior, he's a commander, and he's in control. Gandalf the Grey is more subservient than that. He may tell people what to do, but he's not really in control of what's going on. In the second two films, he's much more focused.

And about that new costume…
It's trimmer. It fits his body better. It's padded. It could repel a weapon or two. It's clean. He's just more on the ball.

You mentioned returning to New Zealand this summer for some additional work. What was it like stepping back into the Gandalf role?
It's funny, once you've done a part--even if there's been a bit of a break--you can slip back into it. On a number of occasions in the theater, I've played a part for some months and then dropped it for as long as a year and then come back to it. And you slip back into it almost without thinking. If they wanted me to do a little bit of Gandalf this afternoon, I could.

Is there a secret to reconnecting so easily with a role?
I'm aided enormously by the look, the makeup, the wig, the mustache, the nose, the costume. Once you put all that on and look in the mirror, you see not yourself, but Gandalf. When you stand up, you find yourself standing up as the wizard rather than yourself. As is the case with many things in acting, it's not as difficult as you might think.

Which part did you prefer playing: Gandalf the Grey or Gandalf the White?
To act, I preferred Gandalf the Grey. He's more complicated than Gandalf the White. He had enormous strength, resilience, intelligence and determination, passion and generosity. He was also very human, very frail, in the sense that he liked to drink, he liked to smoke, he liked to laugh, he liked to play. He also was human in the sense that he was worried he wasn't doing the job properly--that he'd somehow let Middle-earth down by not anticipating Sauron's revival. He had to really organize himself. That was a fascinating character to play.

And Gandalf the White is more straightforward?
When he comes back, there's no question he knows what he has to do. It's just getting on and doing it. I wouldn't like to suggest that Gandalf the White isn't an interesting person. He is. But for the actor, he's not quite as complicated or difficult a part.

But you do own both action figures, don't you?
Well, I think if they were fighting each other, there would be no doubt who would win. Gandalf the Grey wouldn't stand a chance.

How has the role of Gandalf affected you personally?
The odd thing for me has been that it seems wherever I go, people recognize me. How they recognize Gandalf, I'm not quite certain. But that's been the big change in my life. I'm suddenly a bit famous. I just went out for lunch today and met a guy in his late twenties who'd seen the film 10 times.

It must be very gratifying to generate that kind of reaction from people.
I think the film now belongs not so much to the actors and filmmakers as the audience. And that's why one makes them. This is one of those wonderful times when the work that you've done also finds favor with the public overwhelmingly.

Now that you have a bit of time and perspective on the project, how do you see The Lord of the Rings?
It's a wonderful film--I think of it as one film--and the shooting was immensely pleasurable. There was lots to enjoy in New Zealand, apart from the actual filming. I look back on it all with enormous pleasure, and I'm very pleased I was involved.