When making The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, Ian McKellen was, at times, a little wilful. Sometimes he did not do as his director Peter Jackson asked. On such occasions, Jackson would resort to a default quip designed to prod the actor along the right path and to make him laugh.
"If I was being a bit obstreperous one day, or was not doing what was wanted, Peter Jackson would always say, 'Where is John Hurt?'," says the 74-year-old of the fellow English actor he resembles.
At this point, McKellen does an impression of his august friend, cracking his voice to mimic Hurt's throaty wheeze. "I would say, 'I am John Hurt. We got rid of McKellen years ago.'" His voice then returns to normal.
"Actually, I always thought John would have been a wonderful wizard."
McKellen is holding court in a hotel, chatting away as part of his promotional duties for the new X-Men: Days Of Future Past, the blockbuster in which he reprises his role as megamind Magneto. The conversation has turned to Hurt, courtesy of his recent assertion that McKellen, despite his highprofile roles in the fantasy film franchises, remains a theatre actor at heart.
McKellen has more than 50 film credits to his name, but more than 250 stage plays. He was knighted in 1991 for services to the performing arts long before he became a major film star in 2000 and 2001 with X-Men and The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring.
"It is what I do best, acting in the theatre," he concedes. "It is what I have been doing all my adult life and what I am most proud of, really. It is what I have learnt how to do and I have trained myself to be a good theatre actor. I am still learning how to act in movies."
It is easier for an actor to be passionate about the theatre, he says, "because when you are on stage in front of an audience, a live audience, the director is nowhere to be seen and the writer has gone, he or she may even be dead, but you are there in the moment. The story is happening now".