One of the big cinematic losses of 2015 was Christopher Lee, whose decades-long career was filled with iconic performances. But the role that Lee played so memorably in Lord of the Rings wasn’t his first choice.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly that’s filled with fond memories of Lee, Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson admits he wanted Lee to play Saruman the White from the start, despite hearing that the actor wasn’t interested in any more villain roles.
But Lee—who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien by chance some years prior— didn’t quite understand at first, to Jackson’s embarrassed “horror,” because the avowed LOTR fan reeeealllllyyy wanted to play Galdalf the Grey instead:
A very awkward 30 minutes followed, with Fran and I trying our best to explain to a rather peeved Christopher Lee that we were already talking to Ian McKellen about Gandalf — but what an incredible Saruman he would be!
Chris wasn’t hearing a bar of it, and eventually commanded us to turn on the video camera so he could audition for Gandalf ... Eventually we confirmed Ian for Gandalf and officially offered Chris the Saruman role. We started shooting, and whenever we discussed Saruman’s scenes with Chris, he would always feel the need to say, “You must understand, Peter — he’s really not an evil man.’ He was carrying some heavy scars of Dracula of his own, and I felt it quite strongly.
Chris also let Ian McKellen know that he had really been hoping to play Gandalf. At one point during the shoot, Chris said, ‘I’m perfectly happy to be in an ‘Ian McKellen film.” Ian immediately turned to Chris, and with great affection he replied, ‘But not as thrilled as I am — to be in a ‘Christopher Lee movie’!’
That was the bittersweet reality with Chris — while he regarded his cinematic history with a certain amount of disdain, everyone around him had the opposite opinion.
Read the entire interview here—it’s well worth it; Jackson waxes rather charmingly about his long-standing admiration of Lee and love of Hammer horror movies, and shares several anecdotes about his relationship with the star.