A KNIGHT'S TALE ; His Face Appears on Postage Stamps. Coins Are Minted in His Image. Children Queue to Meet Him. at 64, Sir Ian McKellen Has Become One of the Most Recognised People on the Planet. but, the Actor Insists, It's Gandalf Not Him Who's the Real Star. as His Latest Film Prepares to Hit Cinemas, the `Lord of the Rings' Hero Tells James Rampton That All He Really Wants Is to Be a Dame

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When we meet, Sir Ian McKellen is about to embark on a dizzying, four-month, global tour to promote The Return of the King, the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga. Just listening to the actor's itinerary exhausts me - it's a real case of "If it's Tuesday, it must be Miami."

But McKellen seems not in the least daunted by the prospect of Sydney one day, LA the next - in fact, quite the opposite. He beams with childlike excitement about the very idea of this head-spinning world trip.

"We'll be travelling on Air New Zealand, which has painted the characters on the side of the planes," enthuses McKellen, who plays the heroic 7,000- year-old wizard Gandalf in Peter Jackson's epic trilogy. "This sort of thing doesn't happen very often in anyone's life, so I thought I'd put some time aside to join in."

He is expecting the hype to reach fever pitch at the premiere in Wellington.

"The city closes down and stops being anything other than Middle- earth. When the first film opened there," McKellen recalls, "the authorities changed the name of the city to Middle-earth for one day. All the signposts were altered.

"And for the third year running, all the actors are on the stamps. I'm on the $1.50-stamp and on a coin. The Queen is on one side and Gandalf is on the other! This time round, there is also a huge Lord of the Rings parade that starts in the prime minister's office and continues throughout the city centre, which is totally red-carpeted. How many times have you watched a Royal or a cup- winners' parade go by and wished you were part of it? Well, on this occasion, I am part of the parade." At such events, he laughs, "I get very small children, around five years old, brought to meet me as if I were the Pope."

While he doesn't have quite the global profile of His Holiness, McKellen is not that far off. Thanks to Gandalf - and to a lesser extent, his gloriously evil Magneto in the X-Men franchise - he is now one of the world's best-known actors (as well as one of its bestselling dolls). His impressively comprehensive website, www.mckellen.com - "the autobiography I'm never going to write" - gets 20 million hits during an average month, but when a major McKellen film opens that number doubles.

But - and this is the good part - fame does not appear to have turned his head. McKellen seems pretty relaxed about the whole celebrity hullabaloo. Indeed, he seems pretty relaxed about everything.

We are drinking coffee on the terrace of his east London riverside house, ensconced between a stone bust of Shakespeare and a bench inscribed with the initials "WHMcK". Taking in the view across an imposing sweep of the River Thames, we are soaking up the last of the late-autumn sunshine.

This has been McKellen's home for the past quarter of a century - he arrived before gentrification, the Docklands Light Railway, Canary Wharf and all that - and it is clearly where he feels most at ease. When a sole swan paddles towards us, the actor breaks off from our conversation, leaps to his feet, greets the bird like an old friend and starts throwing it hunks of bread that he has ready- prepared.

This is the perfect place to wile away three hours in the company of one of the most articulate and thoughtful actors in the business. It is like being treated to a private command performance - a fascinating, complex show for an audience of one.

Casually dressed in a blue T-shirt and white trousers, he is able to express the most sophisticated emotions with the merest twitch of his mobile features. A raised eyebrow here, a frown there, and his demeanour changes in an instant. It is easy to see why he brings a compelling ambiguity to roles such as Richard III or James Whale in Gods and Monsters (for which he won his first Oscar nomination - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring earned him his second.)

But more than anything, the man has gravitas. …