Interesting anecdote about Ian McKellen aka Gandalf:
“I got offered a part in Mission: Impossible II with Tom Cruise, but they wouldn’t let me see the whole script because I might have spilled the beans. I only got my scenes,” he explains to the magazine.
But that is not how McKellen rolls. The actor couldn’t figure out if he liked the film or not based on the partial scenes alone, so he played it safe and rejected the project.
“I couldn’t judge from reading just those scenes what the script was like. So I said no,” McKellen says. “And my agent said, ‘You cant say no to working with Tom Cruise!’ and I said, ‘I think I will.'”
And he did. And what happened?
“The next day, Bryan Singer asked me to play Magneto and then Peter Jackson asked me to play Gandalf, and I said yes to both,” he continued.
He’s since played Gandalf in three Lord of the Rings films and three Hobbit films, and Magneto in four X-Men films and once (uncredited) in The Wolverine.
This is a powerful story. I remember someone telling me a story about Madonna being interviewed, and someone asked her what was the most important thing she wanted to teach her kids, and she replied “To say no. No is huge.” I haven’t been able to find a transcript of this interview, but the story has always stayed with me.
It’s been a lesson I have had to learn the hard way, many times over, in my career and in my personal life. The desire to be an artist is connected with the desire to please. Yes, we all want to please by expressing our vision and in our own voice. But we want that expression to be appreciated. Anyone who tells you that’s not true is lying. It’s not a good idea to become dependent on that appreciation, but it’s fine to want it, and it’s a part of being an artist.
But that desire to please makes compromising ourselves by saying yes to things that we don’t actually want a powerful, and, in my experience, ever-present temptation. And the biggest mistakes in my life have been saying yes to things that I knew I didn’t actually want.
This story about Ian McKellen shows how saying no to what you don’t want makes room for what you do.
Of course, we need to stay open, we can’t be phobic about everything that isn’t exactly what we want. But when we know that something is wrong for us, we need to be able to say no.
And you know what? The Tom Cruises of the world will respect us for it.