Sir Ian McKellen peers over his spectacles with schoolmasterly seriousness and says he doesn't believe in evil. "I don't accept Stephen King's notion that there are people who are evil, there's no evil lurking in every cellar . . . evil is what some people do, but I don't believe it exists."
The point he is making is not lost on the meeting of the Gay Association of Professional People he is addressing in Wellington.
McKellen is in Wellington to play the part of the wizard Gandalf, a character embroiled in battles between good and evil, in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. But McKellen is not talking about wizards and hobbits tonight . . . The man who has played Romeo, Macbeth, Leontes, Iago, Richard III, Salieri, as well as a Nazi war criminal, a homosexual film director and a comic-book character, is speaking to Wellington's professional gay men and women. He says there is still plenty of homophobia and prejudice in the world. But, nodding his head toward his "old friend", gay Christchurch MP Tim Barnett, he also expresses optimism.
"It's heartening to see the advances being made . . . as a symbol of what's happening here, you can link Tim's achievement with others all over the world."
Referring to the effect on gays in Britain of Margaret Thatcher's "Section 28" legislation, forbidding local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality in schools, he says it was a law that made it impossible for young gays to learn about their own sexuality. It was "an absolute disgrace."
In response, he and a group of friends set up Stonewall, n organisation dedicated to fighting injustices against gays, "to make sure that it never happens again".
"But look at South Africa," he says. "Out of the mayhem and misery and horror . . . that such a man [Nelson Mandela] and a determination to treat everybody the same should emerge with such a liberal constitution . . . Out of the worst, some good may come."
After his speech, he says things are definitely improving for gays, "but it depends who you are and where you are. I wouldn't like to be stuck in an Islamic country with fundamental leaders".
Mckellen speaks sadly of the great actors who felt unable to admit their homosexuality, or refused to talk about it: Dirk Bogarde("how magnificently he could have written of the gay experience") and Sir John Gielgud ("we all know he was gay because he was arrested for talking to another man in the street"). "And pity Sir Nigel Hawthorne, who's out, but doesn't want to get involved."
Last year, McKellen threatened to use the Oscars ceremony - should he have won for his role as the homosexual movie director in Gods and Monsters - to make an impassioned plea for gay rights. To the almost audible relief of the Hollywood hierarcy, he didn't win.
he was not too disappointed. Hollywood, he says, is a "fantasy land", too caught up in commercialism to have the courage to confront homosexuality, or any other aching issue, such as racism and the plight of American blacks.
Earlier this year there was criticism on the Internet, calling him a "gay Gandalf". Overwhelmingly, however, reactions to the casting were positive, he says. "My mail - M A I L - is a nuisance, it's so nice. I get death threats only about once a year . . . It's disarming if you get into a debate with someone who doesn't accept that we should all be treated the same, and you find the same person fervently believes in Adam and Eve . . . there's nowhere to start a discussion."
Regarding Lord of the Rings, he says: "This is the craziest film ever made. It's the most ambitious film ever made anywhere in the world, technically. On any one day there are four camera crews with Jackson,
dashing around the sets. He's absolutely calm. If you want to know what a hobbit is like, meet Peter Jackson."
Jackson, he says, comes close to matching the bare-footed creatures. "He only owns one pair of shoes, sneakers . . . but that's the way it is in New Zealand, isn't it?
"Seriously, you should be proud of Peter Jackson and this film. It isn't an American film that happens to be made here because it's cheap. It's made here because the whole project was invented by people who want to make films in Wellington, and who know it's suited to be here because of the topography and the
New Zealanders should also be proud because the bulk of the people working on the film are "born and bred here". "If the film works, it will be because it is a New Zealand film and not because it was shot here."
On his Internet Web site, McKellen writes of the "congeniality" of his hosts and says of Hobbiton, the purpose-built hobbit village near Meremere, that it is "settled in and cosy. it has been tucked in and around the curving farmland, surrounded by green low peaks and gentle valleys. The lone poplars on the horizon look as if placed by the art department, but I'm told they were not. You can never be sure."
He also reveals that there was debate over Gandalf's appearance. "We agreed that [John Howe's] cover
illustration of Gandalf on the HarperCollins edition of The Lord of the Rings had captured too much of our collective imaginings to be ignored."
But at the first screen test, he writes, the beard proved too long and cumbersome for a man of action. "He is forever tramping and riding and on the move. I didn't want a beard which hampered me, with a life of its own once the winds blew . . . Once it was tremmed back, I saw a glimmer of the old wizard's sternness."
Even then, the "look" had to be refined. A droopier moustache, suggested by Jackson, left him "looking like a double for the Beatles' maharishi". This image was softened by plucking his eyebrows, thinner and shorter.
Asked if he feels an affinity with Gandalf, he says: "Well, I like travelling, he likes walking and getting about. he likes people and he certainly likes hobbits. I think he also likes the settled life, the cosy life . . . so I'm for that.
"He's ordinary and, at times, rather frail. He loses his temper and he smokes, which he probably shouldn't.
"I go for that side of the man."
Looking suddenly tired, McKellen offers the view that at 60 he might be becoming a little too old for the energy-sapping stage work which earned him his fame. But his fight for gay rights will go on. "We've got to come to terms with it," he says fiercely. "If we want to have a part in public life and a say in our future, we have to come out in every aspect."
Such honesty might be difficult for many gay men and women, "but I can honestly say that every change [since he came out] has been for the better".
"You would think life would collapse. On the contrary, it took off, entirely for the better," he says.
To criticims that he has since been typecast in gay roles, he responds: "Rubbish . . . since coming out I have only played three gay parts. I don't want to cut myself off from heterosexual parts, they do such extraordinary things!"
Will the lot of gays improve? "I cling to the truth that they won't till every gay person is prepared to, and feels safe to, say simply, 'I am gay'. Till then, there will be opposition and misfortune."
He abruptly assumes a Shakespearean tone and begins quoting from the bard. In a stentorian voice, he repeats Thomas More's dramatic defence of freedom, then looks up smiling.
"Shakespeare was on our side."