If you’ll allow us to indulge in a shamelessly ironic metaphor — the term "nerd" is not the social and cultural scarlet letter it used to be. For that, we have the mainstream success of nerd media to thank. But before we get MCU shows on Disney+ and Zack Snyder’s Justice League dominating water cooler conversations — or maybe we mean Slack channel chats, depending on your circumstances — we have to get through the turn of the millennium.
That’s when the staggering box office returns of The Lord of the Rings trilogy forced movie studios to see serialized storytelling and fantasy characters as bankable aspects of blockbuster cinema. Likewise, the first two X-Men films salvaged superheroes as viable candidates for movie adaptation — a reputation that had been damaged a few years earlier by a pair of unfortunate Batman films. Neither the LotR nor X-Men franchises turn out the same without Ian McKellen; a proven talent in showbiz circles, but at the time, hardly a celebrity among the Marvel and Tolkien fanatics who might attend a 1999 Comic-Con.
Maybe you’ve found yourself wondering why McKellen’s not exactly the ubiquitous presence at the multiplexes he seemed to be during the George W. Bush administration? Well, let’s consider the factors involved…
He’s 81 years old and rich as heck
When actors are young, they’re hungry for creative and professional validation; they have to bust their butts to establish a career; and they have to scramble and claw for every part they can get in order to do things like pay rent and not starve to death. When actors are financially comfortable, they might have different priorities.
We would advise against taking an estimation of Ian McKellen’s net worth available online at face value; but considering the number of major films he’s starred in during the past 20 years alone, it’s safe to assume he’s a millionaire several times over. McKellen doesn’t have to take every part offered to him. If he has no outstanding financial obligations, it’s possible McKellen doesn’t have to take any parts at all, and can simply spend his time however he sees fit.
In addition, we’ve heard rumors that individuals of his age encounter varying degrees of physical and mental decline. It’s possible, though totally unconfirmed, that the travel and rigors involved in film and television production are simply more difficult for him than they might have been 20 years ago. But we can’t say for sure to what degree any of that speculative thinking applies to McKellen. He might have scaled back his movie work because it’s too much for him these days, or he might be taking it easier because he feels like it…and he can.
He’s an elderly cancer survivor in a pandemic
Here in the world of film and television-adjacent media, it’s easy to forget that not everything revolves around our personal amusement. But as a senior citizen with a history of low-danger prostate cancer, Ian McKellen is part of a segment of the population that’s more susceptible to serious COVID-19 reactions than younger folks with no additional health issues. If McKellen seemed like he kept a low profile during much of 2020, he had an excellent reason.
Fortuitously, CNN reports McKellen received his first shot of the COVID vaccine in December. As a senior citizen — and one of the biggest celebrities currently residing in the United Kingdom, which couldn’t have hurt — McKellen was among the first in line for a syringe full of metaphorical anxiety-reducer.
"I feel honored to have received the COVID-19 vaccine and I would urge anyone who is offered the vaccine to take up the offer — it took a few minutes and then it was done," he says in a press release.
"I really hope that, as more people get vaccinated, we will move further along the path back to a more normal way of life, particularly for the arts which have suffered so much this year," he added. "We all have a part to play in the fight against coronavirus and doing our bit and getting vaccinated will save lives."
He still shot a movie during lockdown
Infinitum: Subject Unknown sounds like the kind of film that could only have been produced during the 2020 lockdown. Willed into existence by the husband-wife team of Matthew and Tori Butler-Hart, Infinitum tells a time-loop story in the vein of an ominous sci-fi spin on Groundhog Day (1993)…or perhaps Palm Springs, the 2020 Hulu comedy that resonated with an audience that, just like its two leads, also felt like they were reliving the same day indefinitely. Infinitum was shot with an iPhone, of course; and if we can surmise accurately from the trailer, Tori Butler-Hart carries most of the story pretty much all by herself. How else do you expect them to make a mind-bending sci-fi movie during a pandemic?
Infinitum seems very much like a product of its time and place…which isn’t necessarily a reason not to watch it. Ian McKellen appears in what IMDb describes as a "cameo." From what we can gather, his character principally appears in aged in-story documentary footage, sort of the like the DHARMA Initiative instructional films from Lost – a network series with its own reputation for bending minds.
So if anyone tells you McKellen spent his lockdown sitting on his hands waiting for science to cure COVID, we’ve got evidence to the contrary.
His Lord of the Rings movies are all finished
Although Ian McKellen’s film and television acting career started in the mid-1960s, if you ask the average American media consumer what word pops to mind when they hear the phrase "Ian McKellen," odds are excellent that they’ll answer, "Gandalf."
The modern series of films based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien — especially director Peter Jackson’s first Lord of the Rings trilogy in the early ’00s — left a Mordor-sized impression on blockbuster cinema and pop culture. It seems fair to suggest that HBO would have been far less likely to greenlight a series based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire had The Lord of the Rings not been a runaway smash hit.
As the wizard Gandalf the Grey, and later Gandalf the White, McKellen serves as a mentor to the LotR protagonists; more importantly, he takes center stage in a righteously badass sequence where he tells a humungous fire monster known as a Balrog, "You shall not pass!" in 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first film of the batch.
Of course, that movie came out 20 years ago, and the onscreen adventures of Gandalf came to a close with The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies in 2014, more than five years ago. Since McKellen’s signature role has effectively done everything it’s going to, he simply isn’t going to be as visible in the mass media as he once was.
He’s been through playing Magneto for quite a while
It’s funny how often actors in comic book movies get swapped out. Since 1989, six big name actors have portrayed Bruce Wayne, and four have gotten painted up to play The Joker. So is it really that surprising to see Magneto, the X-Men’s quintessential frenemy, carry on his big-screen adventures without the actor who first brought him into cinematic prominence?
Due to the limits of age-decreasing special effects — and, perhaps, out of the studio’s perceived need to distance the franchise from the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) — Michael Fassbender officially took over as Erik Lehnsherr in X-Men: First Class (2011), which is set during the 1960s. Fassbender remained the primary actor associated with the role until a corporate buyout necessitated that X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) be the final film for Fox’s version of the X-Men. A time travel-oriented storyline made McKellen’s return briefly possible in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), but for all practical intents and purposes, he finished working on his signature superhero back in the mid-’00s.
For whatever reason, the extremely-capable Fassbender never managed to inhabit The Master of Magnetism the same way McKellen could. Fassbender always felt more like the young version of Magneto, rather than the "real" or "authentic" Magneto. Hopefully Disney gives Magneto’s next actor the caliber of material he’ll need to step out of McKellen’s shadow, along with an anti-telepathy helmet and totally awesome cape.
Doing sci-fi fantasy franchises can be exhausting
When we sit down to watch a movie, it only eats up about two or three hours of our time. So it’s difficult for us to comprehend how much time and work actually goes into producing and promoting these flippin’ things.
To put it in perspective, films with the budget and scope of an X-Men movie generally require about six months to shoot. Once we add all the contractually-obligated promotional appearances typically required of a major actor, we can estimate that’s about a year in total they must devote to such a project, right? So if we add the X-Men trilogy, plus Days of Future Past – McKellen’s fourth and (presumably) final time playing Magneto — we can guess that makes four years he dedicated to, essentially, a single character.
The Lord of the Rings might have required an even stronger commitment. McKellen recently told British GQ that he sometimes wonders if he was only offered the part of Gandalf because the studio’s other choices were "rather put off by the idea of having to live in New Zealand for a year," as production demanded.
So let’s once again add up production time, plus the media appearances The Lord of the Rings demanded of McKellen from 2001 to 2003…Then let’s consider he did the whole thing all over again for The Hobbit trilogy about 10 years later.
If anybody’s earned a break from sci-fi/fantasy franchises, it’s this guy.
You didn’t see either of his 2019 films
So it’s not the mid-’00s anymore, which correspondingly means Ian McKellen’s tenure as literally one of the most visible movie stars in the world has come and gone. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t been getting any film work.
Along with Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, plus a handful of other big names who either didn’t known better or absolutely knew better but figured "screw it, this looks fun" and did it anyway, McKellen shows up in 2019’s widely and colorfully criticized Cats. While it isn’t enough to save the film, his performance as Gus the Theater Cat is guaranteed to delight ironic stoners during post-midnight viewings — literally the only context in which it makes any sense to watch Cats – until the sun explodes billions of years from now.
McKellen also pops up in 2019’s The Good Liar, a modestly-budgeted con artist thriller directed by Bill Condon, also starring Helen Mirren. Though hardly a smash hit, The Good Liar racked up a 63 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating, which means critics liked it quite a bit better than Cats. McKellen plays a grifter who attempts to liberate a large sum of money from Mirren’s character via a disingenuous romance. As exciting as all that sounds, when it gets to be 12:15 a.m. and we’re still having too much fun to go to sleep, we’ll still reach for our Cats Blu-ray, thanks.
His LGBT activism keeps him busy
While we associate Ian McKellen mostly with fantasy characters, a major aspect of his life’s work is entirely focused on reality.
As recently noted by British GQ, McKellen has been an essential activist for LGBT rights in the U.K throughout the last handful of decades. Back in the late 1980s, the Section 28 law made talking about homosexuality in schools potentially illegal, and McKellen — a famous U.K. actor even before Marvel Comics or J.R.R. Tolkien entered the picture – came out in the media in protest. Since then, he cofounded the Stonewall charity organization, and serves as a patron for multiple other LGBT rights groups.
Section 28 remained on the books in England until 2003, which means British schools essentially had to pretend gay people didn’t exist throughout the ’90s.
"I do hear people say, ‘When I was growing up, there were never any transgender people about,’" McKellen told British GQ. "Well, there were, you just didn’t notice them. And that was exactly what they used to say about gay people."
He does quite a bit of theater work in his home country
If we’re used to seeing an actor in films routinely, and that actor becomes less of a constant movie presence, we might assume that actor is having difficulty getting work. Sometimes that’s true; but in this case, such an assumption would be way off base. For McKellen, recent years have seen him spending a lot of time on legitimate theater stages, which has been fairly customary throughout his career.
According to About the Artists, McKellen played the lead role in multiple productions of King Lear, co-starred in a production of No Man’s Land alongside BFF Patrick Stewart, plus pulled off a spoken word comedy show of some kind, and that’s just between 2015 and 2020.
While American moviegoers might mostly believe Ian McKellen begins and ends with Gandalf and Magneto, it’s quite a different story on the other side of the proverbial pond. In the U.K., he’s more like an actor who begins and ends with the theater…but makes some room in between for Magneto and Gandalf.
Supposedly, he’s got a Hamlet movie in the works
This project was announced in 2017, and it doesn’t appear as though a ton of progress has been made since; but Hamlet Revenant nevertheless sits on the top of Ian McKellen’s IMDb page — which cites the film as officially in its pre-production stages. According to Variety, Hamlet Revenant is an "original adaptation" of the historic and indispensable play. McKellen’s role is unannounced, but Connie Nielsen of recent Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021) fame is signed on as Gertrude, alongside Mikkel Boe Følsgaard as the titular angst-ridden contemplator of revenge. Ken McMullen writes and directs.
Hopefully, Hamlet Revenant comes together and takes off. Hollywood hasn’t invested in a real onslaught of modern Shakespeare adaptations since the ’90s, and the world is long, long overdue for new iterations of some of the Bard’s classics. And who better to lead the charge than one of the great Shakespearean actors of his time?
McKellen may be playing an age-blind version of Hamlet
Halmet, the character, is generally depicted as a younger man; in fact, he’s occasionally cited as a metaphor for adolescence. Is that going to stop Ian McKellen from picking up poor Yorick’s skull and asking the famous question about whether being or not being is the better call? Heck no! Should it? Probably not!
Originally delayed by the COVID-19 lockdown, the Theatre Royal Windsor’s production of Hamlet is scheduled to run from June to September of 2021, which should keep McKellen, in his capacity as the titular depressed prince, very occupied. The Sean Mathias-directed production is one of the first that plans to open without COVID-mandated restrictions, so as far as the London theater scene is concerned, it’s a bit of a big deal.
Maybe McKellen’s comparatively-advanced age might make Hamlet’s unresolved daddy issues harder for the audiences to accept as authentic. Then again, maybe McKellen’s age will enhance the existential dread that’s equally crucial to a proper performance of Hamlet. Whatever the case, McKellen sounds optimistic in the press release: "How can Hamlet be played by an 80 year old? I hope theatre-starved audiences will want to find out!"