The Tiny conference room with the plastic chairs hardly seems worthy of the two sirs who walk in the door: Sir Patrick Stewart, almost dashing in a black leather jacket over a plaid flannel shirt, and Sir Ian McKellen, looking more like a rumpled English professor with his orange sweater, flowing gray locks and stubble of beard. Trailing them, it seems, is virtually the entire canon of Western dramatic literature: the great Shakespearean roles--Lear and Macbeth, the Richards and Henrys--and the classics of Ibsen and Chekhov. They crossed paths at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1970s and first acted together in a 1977 production of Tom Stoppard's Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.
But it took mutant superpowers to really forge a friendship. When both were cast in the 2000 comic-book movie X-Men--Stewart as the telepathic Professor Charles Xavier, McKellen as his chief nemesis, Magneto--they had a lot of time in between the special effects to get to know each other. "In those kinds of movies, you spend much more time sitting in your trailer waiting to act than actually acting," Stewart says. "And we had these sumptuous luxury trailers. So we would hang out and talk."
Now they're the mightiest double act on Broadway, appearing together in two modern classics, performed in repertory: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land. The twin dose of existential desolation--Beckett's allegory of two tramps in a barren wasteland and Pinter's enigmatic tête-à-tête between two hazily connected gentlemen in a London townhouse--was the brainchild of director Sean Mathias. He had directed the two in Godot (they pronounce it God-oh) four years ago in London and wanted to take it to New York. But Stewart had a yen to do No Man's Land, the 1974 Pinter play first enacted by the legendary John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. Mathias suggested doing both. McKellen "was very sniffy" about the Pinter play at first, says Mathias, and Stewart "needed a little persuasion to do Godot again." But both came around.
They're two of the last lions of a revered generation of British stage actors, a group that also includes Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Ben Kingsley and Judi Dench. All spent years in the major British repertory companies, undertook the great classic roles and maintained their allegiance to the stage even as they made forays into movies and television.
None, however, have managed to cross the line between classical and pop, high culture and mass audience, more successfully than these two. Stewart became the idol of fanboys everywhere by playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TV's Star Trek: The Next Generation and four feature films. McKellen's performance as the white-bearded wizard Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (and now The Hobbit) has made him the go-to guy for fantasy films looking for sagelike elders with plummy British accents. "I get offered a lot of parts that require long beards," he notes. "I've turned down God on a number of occasions." And both will be back in summer for a fourth installment of their superhero franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past.