We all know that Sir Ian McKellen can act, but what makes him a great actor? And more specifically, what makes him great on film? There are a lot of answers to this question: His mastery of the material, a grasp of interpersonal relationships, An ability to listen and be at ease in the awkward zone of a film set. But acting, I think, is more than just putting yourself in the shoes of the character. It’s a craft, and part of that craft is understanding and gaining control of all the involuntary things we do. Inflections of the voice, the gestures of the body, and the expressions of the face. In the Lord of the Rings, Ian McKellen’s eyes, in particular, carry a heavy load. Gandalf is the moral center of the story. He’s also the one who understands the significance of events in the broadest sweep. This means that Gandalf has to broadcast a whole lot of story information to the audience. Gandalf: The Ring has awoken. It’s heard its master’s call. But there’s always two levels to any piece of exposition: the information itself, and how the character feels about it Or its importance to the main story. Getting across that second level is important, especially in fantasy where info is often obscure. Now, you can write it into the dialogue itself, Or, if you have Ian McKellen, you can just cut to an extreme close-up. It’s McKellen’s eyes that are communicating the gravity of the situation. It’s something beyond worry, beyond concern, beyond even fear. Gandalf widening his eyes, but glazing them over looks crazed, desperate, Like the very possibility of Sauron obtaining the Ring threatens to paralyze him with hopelessness. McKellen dials in the look just right, And, in doing so, establishes the stakes for the entire trilogy. What’s even more impressive is how he builds to this wild look All across the first part of the movie, Gradually trapping us inside Gandalf’s mind Carrying the audience through the stages of unease So that his agitation is ours too. Again and again, Peter Jackson turns to McKellen to guide us, To bring us deeper into the story and the peril. It’s a great gift for a director to have an actor whose reaction shots say just as much As his dialogue, sometimes more. In fact, reaction shots are often the thing that activates a line of important dialogue. Sometimes, in film, we don’t really hear something until we see someone hear it. Take this moment at the Council of Elrond, When Frodo makes the momentous decision to carry the ring to Mordor. I always tear up a little at this part, But not when Frodo says his line, Just after it. It’s the simple act of Gandalf shutting his eyes That brings it home for me. The emotion is almost indescribable: A mix of love, fear, resignation, pride — Really, putting it into words defeats the purpose. It’s all the significance of that choice in the look. So much of Lord of the Rings is reaction. So much of it is eyes. The scene where the Fellowship meets Galadriel, for example, is basically all eyes. As I watch McKellen’s performance, I’m fascinated by his choices. When he returns as Gandalf the White in the Two Towers, He emerges with these eternally calm eyes, But then he widens them, And his face takes on this odd, trance-like quality, Indicating, with a subtle change, that a move closer towards divinity Is also a move further from humanity. I wonder if another actor would have made a choice like that. There are about 40 muscles in the human face, Because I don’t think that it’s the obvious one. And they all work together to create a variety of expressions. In real life, we’re not always aware of the faces we’re making. But an actor has to be Because that’s where the audience is looking a lot of the time to read the emotional arc of the story. To appreciate how hard this is, I invite you to try replicating some of Gandalf’s faces in the mirror. See if you can key into that same conviction that McKellen does. See if you can key into that same conviction that McKellen does. See if you can make your eyes literally travel, As Gandalf’s do, when he describes the afterlife to Pippin. Gandalf: And then you see it: Pippin: What, Gandalf? See what? Gandalf: White shores, And beyond, A far great country and a swift sunrise. Narrator: Looking back across the series, I was amazed by the range of expression in McKellen’s eyes. It’s not the only tool in his toolbox, And it’s not the only thing that makes these films work so well. But that range expands and deepens the emotional universe of the story. It’s a layer of performance that eliminates the need for bad dialogue. 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