From Deadwood to Scoop, Ian McShane has ample opportunity to be recognized — and cussed at — on the street
Everywhere he goes, Ian McShane gets called names. Strangers walk right up to him and hurl profanity after profanity in his direction.
“I go down the street and it’s, like, ‘Hey, cocksucker, how are you?’” says the actor. “Or they go, ‘Hey there, motherfucker!’ I just smile, and say, ‘You really wanted to say that, didn’t you?’ It’s quite funny, in a way.”
Now that McShane has gotten used to inspiring a constant barrage of curse words, he appreciates that his fans just want to pay tribute to his Deadwood alter ego — the foul-mouthed philosopher-pimp and saloon owner Al Swearengen.
McShane, 64, has never wanted for work in a career that’s stretched from 1962’s The Wild and the Willing to 2000’s Sexy Beast, but HBO’s Deadwood is something different. The series, which netted him a Golden Globe, an Emmy nod, and unanimous raves, gives him a complex character that inspires nearly as many crazy admirers as Tony Soprano.
McShane insists he doesn’t have that much to do with Swearengen’s place in the pop-culture pantheon.
“I just think that people always love guys who do something that they would love to do in real life, but can’t or won’t do,” says the actor. “Everyone would sort of like to behave outrageously like Swearengen does. One thing that I love about him is that he says whatever is on his mind. I appreciate and admire that about the guy.”
McShane’s latest role finds him playing a star journalist in Scoop, a Woody Allen comedy about a deceased reporter named Joe Strombel who receives the scoop of a lifetime from a fellow passenger on the River Styx. McShane doesn’t have a lot of screen time (and could probably have done the role in his sleep), but, as a lifelong Woody Allen fan, he says he enjoyed experiencing the filmmaker first hand.
“I own a lot of Woody’s early movies on DVD,” says McShane. “I love the ones like Take the Money and Run, Love and Death, and Bananas.
“This movie seemed, in a way, like Woody’s comedic response to Match Point. I thought Match Point was sort of Woody tipping his hat to Hitchcock. And with this one, he decided to take the piss out of it, as we say in England, by doing a comedy about death and murder and the River Styx and all of that.”
According to McShane, Allen lived up to his reputation of being a man of few words. “On the River Styx sequence, we had the cream of the English character-actor club there, just sitting around, and between takes, they were all asking me, ‘What’s Woody like?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I met him. He cast me. We’re all here. You know as much as I know.’”
Esteemed character actor Richard Briars fretted on-set to McShane, saying he thought Allen hated him because the filmmaker hadn’t offered a single word of greeting. But Allen’s terseness didn’t dent McShane’s confidence. “What do I care?” says McShane with a laugh. “Woody figures, ‘I’ve cast you. You look right in the costume. If you open your mouth, the job is done.’ That’s the way Scoop was, and that worked out very well for me.”
McShane, a graduate of the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (his father Harry, incidentally, played soccer for Manchester United), gives the impression that he can make any job work out very well for him.
He was all of 20 when he made his film debut in The Wild and the Willing (1962), alongside John Hurt and Samantha Eggar. Through the years, he’s found as much success on the stage (in the original production of Joe Orton’s Loot) and British TV (Lovejoy) as he has on the big screen.
McShane says that he learned how to drink from Richard Burton, his co-star in Villain (1971), a forgettable crime thriller in which the two men played lovers. “We used to go to breakfast every morning, and that breakfast consisted of us both drinking two large Salty Dogs and looking at a plate of kippers, but never touching them.
“Before our kissing scene, `Burton` said to me, ‘I’m very glad that you’re doing this film.’ I said, ‘So am I, Richard.’ He said, ‘You know why, don’t you?’ I said, ‘No, why?’ He said, ‘You remind me of Elizabeth `Taylor`.’ I guess that made the kissing easier.”
Asked to describe the secret of his decade-spanning success, McShane just smiles and shrugs.
“It’s survival,” says the actor, who has been married three times and has fathered two now-grown children. “That’s what this business is about. I mean, I was at drama school and I remember working with a lot of wonderful actors who I never saw again after five years. It’s a tough business.”
McShane has been around long enough to realize he’s riding a wave at the moment, and he’s enjoying every minute of it.
“It’s very nice to be appreciated for something that’s as good as Deadwood,” he muses. “You can have flashes of success for things throughout your career but to have something like Deadwood hit is really gratifying because it’s one of the great shows.
“It’s an extraordinary cast of people that `creator David` Milch has assembled, and he’s an extraordinary guy himself — crazy as a bedbug, but enormously talented.”
Next year, HBO will broadcast two feature-length movies that wrap up the Deadwood saga. In the meantime, McShane has a handful of projects stacked up, including McG’s We Are Marshall with Matthew McConaughey, Case 39 with Renee Zellweger, and Kung Fu Panda with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman.
McShane pauses for a second as he rolls off his long list of upcoming films, saving the biggest for last. “And I’ve just done Shrek 3, he notes proudly. “Captain Hook finally speaks.
“You know, I’m very happy doing a Woody Allen movie and then a McG movie. I’ve worked with Renee Zellweger. I’ve given Captain Hook a voice. Things are pretty good.”