Sir Ian McKellen: Filming The Hobbit made me think I should quit acting

The veteran actor, who plays Gandalf in the Tolkien films, reveals that the isolation of “green screen land” was so “distressing and off-putting and difficult” that he considered leaving the production - and even his acting career

Sir Ian McKellen has admitted that being plunged into “green screen land” for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was so distressing that he considered quitting acting once and for all.


“I felt pretty miserable,” reveals the 74-year-old star, “and thought perhaps, has the time come for me to stop acting altogether if I can’t cope with these difficulties?”

Sir Ian became upset after finding that he would be shooting many of his scenes as Gandalf the wizard in isolation.

The problem arose due to the need for Gandalf to be bigger than the other characters in the film – specifically, the hobbits and the dwarves – which meant the crew had to devise an entirely new filming technique.

In the Lord of the Rings films, Sir Ian was simply positioned closer to the camera in order to appear larger. But director Peter Jackson admits that with the development of 3D this wasn’t possible for the prequel series: “With 3D it tells you exactly how far away they are and it tells you the whole thing is a cheat.” 

So in order to make Gandalf the necessary 25% bigger for scenes such as An Unexpected Party (where Bilbo first learns of the part he will play in the dwarves’ mission) two sets were built.

A member of the crew explains: “We have a camera that looks at the dwarves and Bilbo in a set that’s built to their scale and a camera that looks at Gandalf on a green screen which is 25% closer, which makes him that much bigger.”

The cameras are locked together, so the green screen camera does exactly the same as the camera capturing the actions of Martin Freeman (aka Bilbo Baggins) and co, just scaled down.

However, with both sets nowhere near one another, Sir Ian was playing Gandalf alone, responding only to the other actors’ voices via earpieces.

The veteran actor says, “I got absolutely miserable and had a little cry to myself. I didn’t realise that the microphone I was wearing was open so everybody could hear me muttering to myself about how I wanted to go home and so on.”

And Jackson admits, “He truly had such a miserable time on the first day or two of the shoot, we felt sorry for him being dumped in green screen land.”

In fact, Sir Ian tells behind-the-scenes cameras, he actually considered leaving the production.

“It was so distressing and off-putting and difficult that I thought ‘I don’t want to make this film if this is what I’m going to have to do’. It’s not what I do for a living. I act with other people, I don’t act on my own.”

Sir Ian even sent Jackson an email expressing his concerns. However, the director had already sent his own message reassuring the star that everything was fine and that the scene was coming together nicely, while producer Zane Weiner had a suprise up his sleeve.

He gathered together some of the crew to re-decorate Sir Ian’s chill-out tent using relics from the Lord of the Rings film, to make it feel like a special return to Middle-earth.

The star admits, “I was made to feel, as so often happens when you’re working with Peter Jackson and his colleagues, that you belong and you’re to feel at ease and at home and happy.”

Although he jokes, “However, once the flowers faded I noted they weren’t replaced and I think I was meant then to get on with the job.”

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition is available on Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Bros UK