Ian McShane: 'I don't even like antiques'

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To British audiences, he'll always be Lovejoy. But for a decade, Ian McShane has been plundering the best roles in US film and TV. Just what is driving this former hellraiser?

"I'm a child of the Sixties," says Ian McShane, somewhat unnecessarily. We're sharing a platter of 18 deliciously fresh oysters ("nine each... sounds like a West Brom score") in a reassuringly expensive seafood restaurant in Mayfair, where among the hedge-fund suits, McShane stands out like a raffish interloper, a ghost from a more cavalier age. His London pied-à-terre is in this plutocratic neighbourhood, however, and from the manner in which he hugs the bowler-hatted doorman before exchanging the latest football banter, I'd guess this probably wasn't the first time McShane has slurped bivalves here.

Rather fabulously, he's wearing his Lovejoy uniform of black leather jacket, black T-shirt, jeans and sunglasses (I forgot to glance at the footwear, but I'd be very surprised if he wasn't sporting sharp-toed leather boots of some description), the impression strengthened by the long hair and beard he's been growing for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which began filming this year.

The whole effect is as if Lovejoy has been asleep under a hedge for the past 15 years, ageing disgracefully. Or, he could be a living, breathing incarnation of Gary Bloke, the superannuated rock star from the Private Eye cartoon Celeb (he even says "Hey, man" from time to time).

The caricature ends there, however. There's Lancashire grit beneath the Sixties showbiz aura, and at the age of 68, McShane is anything but a hedonistic throwback. He's engaged, witty, informed, opinionated and excellent company. He listens to Radio 4, talks of Noam Chomsky and Jean-Luc Godard, holds views on Rupert Murdoch that would bring our libel lawyers out in a cold sweat, and (a sure mark of intelligence and taste) he reads The Independent – online when he's at his Venice Beach, LA, home, which is most of the time he's not away filming. "Robert Fisk is my hero," he says. "In America they think he's a terrorist."

And as for that hell-raising reputation – well, he doesn't let the hard stuff pass his lips anymore. When this interview was first set up, I anticipated a Mad Men-style four-martini lunch, followed by a tour of his old drinking haunts, perhaps only emerging in the middle of the following week. But the briefest perusal of the cuttings told me that McShane has been teetotal for over 20 years now ("twenty-three years in January," he says with the precision of an Alcoholics Anonymous f member) – ever since, in fact, he decided that his third wife, the American actress Gwen Humble, was The One. "When you start lying about drinking to the person you share everything with, it's time to stop," he says, but more of that later. For now, we sip our sparkling water and ponder perhaps an even more surprising fact than the actor's decades-long estrangement from hangovers. And that is that, at an age when many successful thesps are entering a long dotage of cameo appearances and character parts, McShane is making his debut as an A-list (or at least B-list, but who's quibbling?) Hollywood action star.

He's playing Blackbeard opposite Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in Pirates of the Caribbean 4, which is being shot in 3D in Hawaii and Pinewood. "I have this extraordinary beard, which takes two-and-a-half hours to make up – it's like having a cat around my neck all day." That's the thing about McShane's screen persona – you can't be sure he isn't talking from experience.

So how did the star (and co-owner, it transpires) of that perfect Sunday night BBC series about a roguish antiques dealer, Lovejoy, morph into Tinseltown's go-to guy for serious villainy? What kick-started this remarkable late flowering of an actor who's had his share of throwaway roles during his 48 years in front of a camera? In a word: Deadwood.

HBO's late lamented saga told of a lawless gold-prospecting camp in 1870s South Dakota, and ran for 36 richly enjoyable, expletive-ridden episodes between 2004 and 2006. The camp had been a real place – populated at various times by such historical figures as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and ruthless brothel owner Al Swearengen, the plum part inhabited by McShane. He's a wonderfully complex villain, who this month beat Tony Soprano and The Godfather's Michael Corleone in an online poll of the most compelling on-screen gangsters.

"They came over here and said 'Do you want to do it?'," recalls McShane. "I said 'The last fucking thing I want to do is a fucking American series.' They said 'it was for HBO, David Milch [Emmy-winning creator of NYPD Blue] has written it and Walter Hill [a veteran of the Western genre] is directing the pilot.' Well..."

Now Deadwood rather passed Britain by, having been screened at some unearthly hour on Mondays by Sky1, but I heartily recommend the box-set DVD. Filmed in The Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry's old ranch outside Los Angeles, McShane had the time of his acting life. "We never got a script – we'd get pages faxed over. I think it was the most exciting job I'd ever done – it was like doing a workshop, a film, a TV series all at the same time. Sometimes I'd go home and hear the old fax going and think, 'What's he [Milch] got for me now?'."

The show was expensive to make, however, and was cancelled after three seasons. "That was corporate," says McShane, "what they call a pissing contest between two senior executives." Angry at the time, McShane is now just "sad... but, hey, you go on". And what he has gone on to is in some respects Al Swearengen in ecclesiastical garb. He's playing the conniving Bishop Waleran Bigod in Channel 4's new adaptation of Ken Follett's bestselling history novel, The Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a 12th-century cathedral.

McShane is part of a strong British presence in this international production, with a cast that also includes Donald Sutherland, Rufus Sewell and "the lovely Hayley Atwell" (McShane's words, but I concur). Set during the time known as "the Anarchy", after King Henry I had lost his only son in the White Ship disaster of 1120, The Pillars of the Earth miraculously retains the page-turning qualities that has kept Follett awash in enough royalties to bankroll the Labour Party.

"There's a line in Ken's book which said he [Bigod] looked like a raven – and I wanted that look. He's dark, he moves like a bird. He'd fit into the Vatican," says McShane of a character whose only earthly pleasure, apart from self-aggrandisement, appears to be self-harm, whipping himself and indulging in other masochistic acts of penance. "As long as the cheques come in – flagellate me, beat me, whip me..."

There's something about McShane – something in his personality, perhaps, or mere typecasting – that has always drawn him to the dark side; even when playing a disciple in the 1977 Jesus of Nazareth, he had to be Judas Iscariot. "The devil has the best tunes," is how he puts it, but apparently his mother, Irene, aged 89, asks her only child why he has to play baddies all the time.

McShane is close to his parents. His Scottish-born father, who is also still alive and (aptly in this context) kicking, was the professional footballer Harry McShane, who played for Manchester United, part of Matt Busby's league-winning side of 1951-52. Until relatively recently, Harry was a scout for United, accredited with bringing the schoolboy Wes Brown to the club.

Born in 1942, and a talented player himself, McShane was enough of a realist to realise that he was never going to make the grade. Instead, a drama teacher, Lesley Ryder, saw something in the lad and cast him in the school play. "He said, 'We're doing this play, Nekrassov by Sartre, and you're going to play Nekrassov'. And he said, 'Next you're going to play Cyrano...'."

McShane decided to go to RADA, because he thought it was the only drama school there was. "I was a pretty good student – although the main reason I went was to meet girls and have a good time." And then he was cast in his first film, The Wild and the Willing ("University students perform pranks with hilarious results," according to one listing), along with John Hurt. The year was 1962, and he's been working hard ever since. Working hard, and, for a very, very long time, playing hard. "I had a bit of a male menopause. It started at the age of 18 and continued until I was 45."

By 1970, he was drinking vodka for breakfast with Richard Burton on the set of Villain. "I started this so young – my first film was at 19 – I was not really happy. You don't know it at the time, but looking back I didn't know who the fuck I was." In the meantime, he had managed to get married twice, although he says: "I don't remember my first two marriages... the details are very sketchy.

"My first wife [actress Suzan Farmer] was delightful. She was the queen of the Hammer horror movies, but I never saw her for two years. It was the Sixties... My second marriage was to a girl I met in Manchester, kept a long-distance relationship going for two years, then we got married... disaster."

The second wife was model Ruth Post, who bore McShane his children Kate (now in fashion) and Morgan (a social worker), and who in 1995 told a newspaper that her ex-husband was a "tight-fisted skinflint", who "has neglected all his responsibilities as a father and been a lousy dad".

"I was away working and had a lifestyle that didn't suit being a terrific parent," admits McShane, although he seems to have made it up with his children now. "I've had a great relationship with my kids for the past 10 years. We laugh about it now, but there are so many misunderstood areas – people split up, your children have to take sides and a lot of miscommunication goes on. But I think it's been sorted out now."

And if he wasn't much of a parent, he's making up for it by being a doting grandparent to Kate's three grandchildren, Oscar, aged 10, Biba, aged six, and four-year-old Raphael, to whom he is known as "GD" ("my daughter said 'I don't think granddad really suits you'.").

The entente cordiale doesn't extend to their grandmother. "You don't particularly want to stay close to your ex-wife," he says. "Or why would she be your ex-wife?" If there is any lingering animosity it perhaps stems from the very public way, during the filming of The Fifth Musketeer in Vienna in 1979, that he left Ruth for soft-porn actress Sylvia Kristel.

McShane claims not to have seen the Emmanuelle films before he met Kristel, in which case he must have been one of the few heterosexual adult males alive at the time not to have. Lightly disguising McShane as "Ben", Kristel catalogues their feisty, drink- and cocaine-fuelled relationship in her 2006 memoirs, Nue. According to the actress, it would escalate into violence on both sides. "Our relationship can be described as awful... it was love/hate," Kristel wrote.

"We got on really well, she's a very nice woman, I liked her a lot... mad as a snake," is how McShane recalls it. "It's like one of those things. You know you're going to go round the world having a good time, doing a lot of illicit things, for a year and a half. But at the end of it, you go, 'That's the end of that one – back to work again'. Haven't seen her or spoken to her in 30 years, but I don't think she's had that happy a life. I don't know..."

All of which can make McShane seem rather callous, and perhaps he was back then, but his life was about to change forever when he met the American actress Gwen Humble on the set of a 1981 film comedy, Cheaper to Keep Her ("a newly divorced swinger goes to work as a detective for a neurotic feminist attorney," in case anyone wants to check it out). "I'd just had my [39th] birthday – spent three wild days in New York watching Apocalypse Now and going to the re-opening of Studio 54 – and this gorgeous girl was playing my mistress. I said hello and she said hello, and I courted her for six weeks on the movie. I'd never really been in love before."

This coup de foudre inspired a change in lifestyle. "I went to an AA meeting with a friend and I haven't had a drink since, and I never think twice about it. But you must never be smug... about anything.

"Anyway, it's exhausting, that lifestyle. You think 'I'm getting old, give it up... there's a new generation who can take over and have a good time'. I think the overwhelming number of people drink quite normally, drink a couple of glasses of wine, and then there are other people like myself, who like to get pissed, like to get high and have a really good time – so when you cease having a good time it just becomes a daily grind."

McShane still smokes, a safety valve for an addictive personality, perhaps, but the past 23 years, his life has been about work – most notably as an English cad in Dallas, Deadwood, of course, as a menacing cockney gangster in Jonathan Glazer's 2000 British crime classic, Sexy Beast, the West End musical of the Witches of Eastwick ("another unhappy ending"), and a year-long Broadway run of Pinter's The Homecoming. He relaxes at home in LA by watching wall-to-wall live British Premiership football (he still supports Manchester United, and Sir Alex Ferguson is a good friend).

Oh, and then there's the wonderful Lovejoy, Ian Le Frenais's adaptation of Jonathan Gash's novels about a Suffolk antiques dealer. McShane had the foresight of making the show himself, and he still holds the rights with FreemantleMedia ("You just reminded me... I must do an audit on them").

"I haven't watched it for ages but when I do occasionally, it stands up very well because of the quality of the writing," he says, before adding that it was a difficult role to shake off. "I escaped the shadow by not doing any television for four years. Otherwise, as soon as people see you on screen they say: 'Oh, it's Lovejoy again'." Does he collect antiques? "I don't. I like modern Italian furniture.

"And so your life goes into another phase. I never wanted a life of having a nice house, driving around, settling down. I hate that expression – what is it? – national treasure," he says. Is he a national treasure? "No, please, I'd have to get on a fucking plane and never come back if I ever get considered one of those."

'Pillars of the Earth' starts on Channel 4 on 16 October

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