J.P. Cummins doesn't much sound like Gandalf when he picks up the phone.
Point that out to him and listen to the change: The Lexingtonian's voice gets bigger, cinematic in scope and timbre, like the late Alec Guinness taking a run at the Ten Commandments. Or more appropriately, like Ian McKellen conjuring a spell as the powerful wizard in Peter Jackson's films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings books.
Cummins morphs from a guy taking a telephone call to a man who can tell you that the fate of your civilization rests on a modest little Hobbit.
Cummins calls it "the old rough voice," the one he uses for Gandalf, whom he describes as "the Abraham Lincoln of the fantasy/medieval world."
Cummins, a Web designer who also works at Macy's, will play Gandalf during a reading Saturday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jackson's fourth film set in Tolkien's Middle-earth, opens Friday.
Cummins, 47, was introduced to Tolkien's book series when he was 15 and a student at Mercer County High School.
"I had a friend of mine who dragged me kicking and screaming into reading the books," he said. "I was like, 'This is pretty good.' ... Every now and then, you'll just read something that resonates with you. I think a lot of Tolkien's humor resonated with me."
Cummins made his debut as Gandalf at a gaming convention and was an immediate hit. He and Tim White, who plays Hobbit Bilbo Baggins to Cummins' Gandalf, traveled through California in 2011 to promote The Lord of the Rings Symphony by composer Howard Shore.
The Gandalf costume centers on the hat, Cummins said. Cummins figures he gets into character as the wizard when he dons the hat, which looks like a tall battered sombrero. Then there's the slight stoop and the grumpiness that hides a heart of probable gold.
"I just like the charm and the humor in it, and the subtle suspense," Cummins said of the books. Gandalf "didn't have this big, hulking, muscle-bound demon that came out and terrorized everybody."
Cummins isn't a professional actor, but he likes the outlet that occasionally playing Gandalf gives him: "All of us have aspects of our life that we would like to pursue ... and I kind of got bit by the bug. That's the actor in me that never made it to the stage. You get to go out there and be this person I completely am not."
At Joseph-Beth, he and White will introduce Bilbo and Gandalf to an audience of children and adults, which presents some challenges, because kids might not be familiar with the Hobbit story.
"You have to go back and think of the child," he said. "If I were in a bookstore, what would I want to see? So we're taking select parts of the book, kind of like a trailer, a teaser. ... You have to read to them, and not at them."
He said that being a Gandalf also puts him in line to meet other fans' versions of the wizard, and he is eager to do that.
"Everybody is thrilled to meet Gandalf — and I am, too," Cummins said. "I've met other Gandalfs."