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Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen on Being Besties and Waiting for Godot

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Within the theatre, they are master British thespians, knighted for their contributions to the craft. Within fan culture, they have geek god status -- one as a Starfleet captain, the other as a fierce wizard and friend to Hobbits, both as powerful mutant leaders. In social media, they are something of a viral Internet phenomenon as they adventure throughout New York City and send holiday greetings to fans.

But really, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen are perhaps most beloved for being best friends and collaborators who have used some of the combined might mentioned above to create one of the more buzzed about and compelling theater experiences around. Even before beginning previews last October, Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land -- the duo's two plays in repertory at Manhattan's Cort Theatre, directed by Sean Mathias and also starring Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley -- the two big actors in the Big Apple were causing a stir. Not only were they reteaming on stage following their Godot performances in London in 2009 and 2010, but they seemed to be having so much fun doing it. Here was Stewart and McKellen eating hot dogs on Coney Island; there they were posing with Elmo in Times Square -- or sitting on Santa's lap or handing out hot chocolate on Super Bowl Sunday. McKellen even performed the ceremony for Stewart's wedding last September.

Meanwhile, fans of the classically trained Shakespearean actors were coalescing with the pop culture fans of the men from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies and the X-Men franchise (in which they appeared together four times, including The Wolverine, and are about to do it again with this summer's Days of Future Past installment). And not shockingly, when the two plays in rep actually opened, it was as masterful as both sets of fans hoped.

Now, with less than two months left in the run, before the shows closes March 30, the following is a conversation with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen about their work, and a friendship that extends to the characters they're playing.

Aaron Sagers: Why choose these two plays to perform together, especially since you've both already done Godot?

Ian McKellen: When we had our last night in London -- we'd done a Godot tour of the UK, to quite large theaters, and had been astonished at the audience's reaction. People outside London thought Waiting for Godot was a gas. When I'd seen the tour of the original production, in the provinces in London where I lived in Manchester, I remember there were about 10 people in the audience. That was until intermission, then there were five. It baffled people. Then we toured it, packed houses, and came to London. That was the same reaction. When it was over that night, I went into the dressing room and cried. I was sobbing and Sean put his arm around me and said, "what's the matter?" and I said, "I despair if ever I'll enjoy myself as much again." So we went on doing it without Patrick. We did a tour of Australia and New Zealand and South Africa. Even then, after 340 performances, I didn't think I'd had enough of it. So I was keen to do it again and the possibility of doing it in New York appealed to Patrick and me. In the meantime, he'd been lobbying the director to say, "Why couldn't we do No Man's Land?" a play I'd never much cared for. I'd seen it a number of times, including seeing Harold Pinter play Patrick's part...

Patrick Stewart: That's right, and I thought I had had my experience with Waiting For Godot, he wanted more of it. But it was Sean Mathias, our director, who said, "Well, isn't there something here?" I had been working on Ian for months about No Man's Land. I'd say, Ian are we ready yet? "No, no, I'm not ready yet." So Sean very cleverly arranged to do a read through, brought in two other actors and one afternoon we sat around a dressing room and read the play. It was a beautiful thing to watch Ian getting why we knew he was perfect casting for this role. The deal was done, and after that we had to think about where we'd do it. Well, No Man's Land had recently been done in London and we always wanted to bring Godot to New York.

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Aaron Sagers: People seem to love your friendship and seeing you work together again, but isn't this is a relatively new thing?

Ian McKellen: Well we haven't worked together very much. We've only done Waiting for Godot. Our careers have not really crossed. Our careers have run in parallel. We've played the same parts. If one of us is playing Macbeth, what's the other one going to play? There are not that many plays in which two actors of similar age and standing ... these are two of them. We're not that old friends, actually. We've known of each other and bumped into each other, and I was one of the people that Patrick asked for advice as to whether he should take up a long-term contract for Star Trek. I said, "Absolutely not!" That wasn't hardly the mark of a friend. Then I didn't sort of see him for 17 years. So our coming together is a relatively recent thing. But we fell into each other's arms because of our similarities in our career, and because of our age and because we like the same sort of things. Despite the fact that he's from Yorkshire and I'm from Lancashire! That's the big difference between us. If Patrick does something other people think is a bit strange, I just say he's Yorkshire!

Patrick Stewart: We became friends on X-Men. Ian loves talking about it. There are so many parallels in our careers and our lives. We're both Northerners; He's a Lancastrian and I'm a Yorkist, and he went to a great University but I left school when I was 15. But he was successful and became a star immediately. I saw him and I was amazed, overwhelmed by the quality of his work. I started our relationship as a fan. He wouldn't know who I was back then. Then we came into the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) together. We didn't know one another well but we were both pursuing the same sort of career, but Bryan Singer cast us in the first X-Men movie and we had adjoining luxury trailers. Of course, it was movie making so we spent more time sitting in our trailers than on the set. We got to know one another and that's when the bond began, which was cemented by 22 weeks of touring in England and being in the West End doing Waiting for Godot. And sharing a dressing room for 22 weeks!

Aaron Sagers: Do you think you've brought geek culture to Broadway because of fans of X-Men or Lord of the Rings who may not have experienced much theater?

Ian McKellen: Well that would be lovely, wouldn't it? It's what you always hope. It must happen to a certain extent -- I know it does because I hear from them ... But yes, it would be wonderful to feel you had an army of supporters who wanted to see you in whatever you were doing. There's probably enough of them to fill a theater for a few weeks.

Patrick Stewart: For the last 25 years, I've been experiencing that. When I brought my solo version of A Christmas Carol to New York, which I've done here four times, the very first time I brought it, we could not get anyone to produce it. People said, "Are you crazy? One man in a suit, four pieces of furniture? Who is going to come and see that?" Then one producer, who had never produced in his life, said I'll do it. He put up $400 thousand and the first week of that performance was almost exclusively launched through the fan clubs. We bombarded the fan clubs with news that I was doing this on Broadway, and they came. Some of them came wearing my uniform, but they launched it. They gave me a great week and then the critics came and fortunately they liked it. We have seen, again and again, through correspondence and chance encounters on the street, people say they've never had an interest in Shakespeare, in Ibsen, never thought about this until they saw Captain Picard and Professor Xavier! I like to think sometimes people like Ian and myself -- and Orlando Bloom, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz -- that we are, in a small way, responsible for creating a new audience. I don't care why people come to see it; I don't care if they come to see Captain Picard. Just let them come because we know, once we've got them in their seats, we can change their perception of what live theater can be, which is incredibly entertaining.

Aaron Sagers: How are those geek audiences different from theater audiences?

Ian McKellen: I've met some of these geeks. I was at comic con this year, and a couple of other years too. There's not an anorak in sight. [Anorak is Brit slang for obsessive fans of fringe subjects.] Occasionally people are dressed up in costumes, it's a bit fun, but often you know, when you get to talk to them, you say, "what do you do?" And they say, "Oh, I'm a teacher teaching literature and I'm working on Tolkien and approve of the movies." They're just the sort of people who would probably come and see these two plays. There may be beyond that, a much wider audience of people who don't have theater available to them, and perhaps can't afford what it costs on Broadway -- which is why we've got some cheap seats in the front row and other seats in the house as well.

Patrick Stewart: They're pretty much separate communities, except you'd be surprised where some of those geek audiences are. I had, not one, but two different chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, ask if they could sit in the captain's chair. Ask! I'm not even a citizen of the United States! They could have just brushed me aside and sat down. The Secretary of State [Madeleine Albright] had outside her office two photographs: One with her and the Clinton cabinet, and another one with the entire cast of Star Trek. And her assistant said, which do you think is the one she always points out to visitors? This is brilliant. I remember the day our hairdresser on the show said, "You're not going to believe this but I was talking to the woman who does Frank Sinatra's wife's hair and she told me Frank never misses an episode."

Aaron Sagers: Have you ever wanted to keep your careers in the world of theater versus popular culture separate?

Ian McKellen: Oh no, not at all! I like going to see movies like Lord of the Rings. I like going to see Shakespeare and the classics. There is no division in me. I've got catholic tastes. I love musicals, I love the ballet, opera, the circus. It's all performance to me.

Patrick Stewart: Absolutely there have times when I have made a deliberate, conscious choice to focus on one compartment of my career -- but never so as to deny the existence of the other because every part of my career has benefited from the other parts. All I ever wanted to be was a stage actor; I had no ambitions in any other directions except to be on stage with the best possible company I could find in the best possible play. No ambitions for television; I didn't own a television set until I was 25. So it was not something that drew me, and movies were as remote for me -- I went to see them and loved them -- but the idea of being in movies was a fantastic dream. I never actively looked for the commercial populist work I've done on film and television. It found me and I'm very, very happy it did.

Aaron Sagers: What are these plays about, in your opinion?

Ian McKellen: It's a play very much about old age. We both respond to it enormously. He comes on and he's been unable to pee. He's got something wrong with his prostate. I come on and I can't get my shoes off because my feet are swelling and I can't remember where I was last night. These are predicaments! I've got prostate cancer and, thank god my memory's not gone, but I know what it's like to have aches and pains. So Godot is rooted in the reality of life for old people. And No Man's Land, the same. These are old guys trying to cope with their memories and their position in the present, and wondering if there's ever going to be much of a future. So that doesn't mean to say only old people will enjoy them but if you want to know what it's like to get old, these are two pretty good plays.

Patrick Stewart: My interpretation, this is mine, I don't speak for my colleagues at all: It is about how we go on living, how we get from day-to-day, and what is required from an individual, sometimes under difficult conditions, to stay alive. It's about surviving. That's what [Godot] means to me.