27 December 2018

Challenges remain, no matter your career stage

You may know this gentleman pictured at right. It’s Sir Ian McKellen.

This is a person who is pretty good at what he does.

Understatement aside, the word “distinguished” hardly begins to cover his acting career, including that he started to capture public imagination for his performances as Magneto in the X-Men movies and Galdalf in The Lord of the Rings films at a time when many others might be thinking it’s about time to pack it up.

It’s his role of Galdalf that I want to talk about. I was watching the bonus features for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Because The Hobbit movies were shot in 3-D, the perspective tricks director Peter Jackson and company used to make Gandalf look larger than the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t work any more.

To create the illusion of different sizes, director Peter Jackson and company literally created two linked sets. There was a fully dressed physical set where the actors playing the smaller dwarves and hobbits would act, and a rescaled green screen set that McKellen would act in, responding only to lines he heard the actors in the other set say, using an earpiece to listen in on the other set.

McKellen, literally alone on his set, got frustrated with not being able to have other people to act with. (He later explains that acting with people is the reason he became an actor in the first place.) And he had a moment where those lonely, difficult working conditions broke him. It made him stop, and cry for a little bit.

In retrospect, this shouldn’t be surprising, given how crazily complex and challenging a major movie like The Hobbit must be. But I was still kind of stunned by this moment.

Here is someone who is extremely experienced. Some would say this is someone at the top of his game, but certainly near the top of his profession. And yet he’s faced with a task where he is feeling like a failure, where he’s wondering if someone is going to have to have the awkward conversation with him that it’s time to stop, since he clearly can’t do his work any more.

To his credit as a professional, McKellen did not get angry. He did not throw a tantrum or a fit. He did not lash out at the crew.

The crew, fortunately, being a good crew, took some steps to make McKellen feel better. You can watch the appendices for the whole story. And obviously he carried on and completed filming of all three movies.

And the moral of the story is: No matter how experienced you are, you can run into challenges in your profession that make you feel defeated. That maybe make imposter syndrome flare up. You never stop needing direction, mentoring, and maybe some kindness to get you back on track.

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