LONDON (AFP) - Best known internationally for starring in "The Hobbit", British actor Ian McKellen spoke to AFP about his lifelong passion for Shakespeare as Britain celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death.
McKellen was speaking on the eve of Saturday's commemorations, when he will perform alongside Benedict Cumberbatch and Judi Dench in a celebration of Shakespeare's work at the playwright's hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.
"I've never been frightened of Shakespeare," said McKellen, whose first professional appearance was in 1961 in Shakespeare's "A Man for All Seasons", shortly after he graduated from Cambridge University.
"I've never thought of him as being difficult because he has been a part of my life since I first went to see plays of all sort, when I was eight or nine years old.
"I was part of the fun, I was close to the action. The actors were in the same space, live," he said.
Asked if he became an actor because of Shakespeare, he answered: "It wasn't because of Shakespeare, it was because I enjoyed the theatre so much.
"Shakespeare is the supreme playwright so it is very central to it," he said, speaking at the British Film Institute in London where a new Shakespeare app intended to bring the plays to a new audience was being presented.
Alongside a distinguished career in British theatre, McKellen has become a Hollywood star with his role as Gandalf in "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit" trilogies as well as playing Magneto in the "X-Men" films and Sherlock Holmes in "Mr Holmes".
He has received six Laurence Olivier theatre awards, a Golden Globe and two Oscar nominations for "Gods and Monsters" and "The Fellowship of the Ring".
He voiced his character in an episode of "The Simpsons" when the cartoon family visit London.
McKellen has also been a campaigner for gay rights after coming out on BBC radio in 1988, although his orientation was already known in the theatre world.
While his film roles have handed him international fame, the actor often returns to Shakespeare.
At his tribute performance in Stratford-upon-Avon entitled "Shakespeare Live!" on Saturday he will perform in front of Prince Charles along with fellow stars Helen Mirren and Joseph Fiennes among others.
"The way I prepare for Shakespeare is I read it, and read it, and read it, and read it and try to understand how it is written and why it is written in the way it is written," he told AFP.
"Many of his plays are written in verse and the rhythm of that verse is... the rhythm of the human heart, sort of the rhythm of everyday speech today - you speak in blank verse without really knowing it."
"Any play writer, any writer, any audience that has been to Shakespeare would tell you that he was more remarkable than any other writer that has ever lived.
"His imagination could take him into the minds and the hearts of all sort of people: ambitious people, lonely people, unhappy people, heartfelt people, families, children, parents who get separated, twins who meet again.
"He seemed to be able to write about us all," he said.