Ian McShane: You Ask The Questions

Is it true that you were taught to drink by Richard Burton? Will you ever escape the shadow of Lovejoy? And do you like antiques?
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The Independent Online

Ian McShane, 62, was born in Blackburn, the son of a professional footballer who played for Manchester United. After school, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, graduating in 1962. He appeared in the television series Wuthering Heights in 1967 as Heathcliff and in Jesus of Nazareth in 1977 as Judas Iscariot. In 1986, he starred as the roguish but dashing antiques dealer Lovejoy in the BBC drama series, which ran until 1994. His film work includes appearances in Sexy Beast and Agent Cody Banks. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, the actor Gwen Humble.

What inspired you to become an actor?
Ana Catineau, London

I was inspired to be an actor by a great teacher at school, called Lesley Rider, whom I still see now, who was an educator and was responsible, in a sense, for putting the idea in my head. If I'd had the choice when I was 14, and someone had said to me: "You can either be a footballer or an actor," I'd have said: "Well, can't I be a footballing actor?" I got to do that when I did a movie called Yesterday's Hero. The whole story was based on George Best: it was about a drunken footballer who comes back and wins the FA Cup. It couldn't be anyone else, really. I haven't seen George in a while. He should have stopped [drinking], but listen - he likes a drink, what you going to do?

Your dad played for Manchester United. Do you have any skill with a football?
Carl Young, Manchester

I played at quite a high level when I was 10 or 11, but I played with some kids who went on to be pros, and I knew even at a young age that I didn't have the kind of skill that they had. So, I never had any pretensions about being a football player. My dad never pushed me towards football - both my parents were always very supportive about whatever I was doing.

When I was at school, I did a couple of school plays and my teacher said: "You could be very good at this." So I went to London and auditioned for Rada: I thought there was only one drama school, I didn't think there were any others. So I went there, and I got a film before I graduated, and that was me straight into a different industry.

What is your idea of a good time now? And what was it in the Sixties?
Donna Harwood, Dorset

A good time now is probably a glass of milk and a cheese sandwich. In the Sixties it was the same thing, but I would have put some Scotch in the milk and a tab of acid in the cheese sandwich. That's probably the only difference.

Is it true that Richard Burton taught you to drink?
Danny Nixon, Taunton

No, he taught me to drink vodka, which was good of him. I needed no help learning how to drink, but I found vodka with Richard. It was in 1970, on a film called Villain, and we'd start off in the morning and I'd have kippers at breakfast and he'd say: "You know, a much better way to start the day is with a salty dog - vodka and grapefruit juice." The day would progress from there to vodka and orange juice, and vodka straight by lunchtime. It was a very happy set.

In your new show, Deadwood, you play the baddie. Do you prefer baddies?
Richard Day, by e-mail

They say the Devil gets the best tunes, and I think it's true. It's much more interesting playing a baddie, particularly if they are multi-faceted, like my character Al Swearengen is in Deadwood. I played Judas in Jesus of Nazareth, and even Lovejoy was a mix of good and bad. But this character is something else.

With which character you've played have you had the closest affinity?
Ian Dickinson, Bristol

The one I'm doing now. Lovejoy was a great character to do, but Al Swearengen in Deadwood is probably one of the most complicated screen villains ever written. You start off thinking he's one-dimensional, like a bully or a whoremaster, but David Milch, who created Deadwood, also created NYPD Blue, and he doesn't believe people have just one side to them. So as the show goes on, Swearengen's character becomes richer and more complex.

Are you still living in the shadow of Lovejoy?
Magnus Watkins, Cardiff

It's not a bad shadow to live in, really. When you've done a show that's as successful as Lovejoy was, it hangs around for a few years and people know you from it. I escaped the shadow when I stopped Lovejoy by not doing any television for four years. Otherwise, as soon as people see you on screen they say: "Oh, it's Lovejoy again." When I'm in the UK people still associate me with it, but you can't help that really. Although some people still go: "Oh, are you that guy, that, um, who are you again?" and I have to say "No, it's not Bergerac, it's Lovejoy."

What was the most embarrassing experience you've had while acting?
Beverley Wedick, Portsmouth

I did a science-fiction special called Babylon 5, and I had to look at Martin Sheen, who had one eye in the middle of his head. I didn't know what to look at. Sheen was hunting for souls in space, and I was trying to stop him. A bit embarrassing now.

Of all the parts you've played, is there one that, in retrospect, you wish you'd turned down?
Gareth Mitchell, Lincolnshire

Well, that part in Babylon 5. It was full of really technical dialogue. I had to say things like: "Put the rotor blades to warp speed nine and head for Ripidee." After a while I decided to make up my own lines, and they weren't too happy about that.

What is the secret of longevity in a youth-obsessed industry?
Alice Watson, Bristol

Marry a younger women and have grandchildren. I don't know, really; hang in there, I suppose. I don't think that acting is as youth-obsessed as the general culture. In acting, as you get older you get better, and the parts you get improve, too. But that's only true for a man, not a woman. I think it's much more difficult for actresses than for actors, because people tend to say, particularly in LA: "Oh, she's too old." People very rarely say that about actors unless you are seriously old. Male actors can go on for ever, in a certain sense.

How does your hair stay so lustrous?
Alistair Ross, by e-mail

I send it away at the end of every day and they send it back to me every morning, and it's brand new hair.

Are there any Shakespearean roles that you hanker for?
Elizabeth Bevan, by e-mail

I've never hankered for any role. I'm probably shaping up to play the impossible role of Lear in about 10 years' time, but I've never hankered after doing Shakespeare. I've always taken things as they come along. I've never thought: "I simply must go to the National and do two years of serious theatre" - I've never been that kind of actor. As every actor gets older, though, in our own pompous way we think: "Maybe I could find a Lear inside me now."

Do you like antiques? How would you describe your taste in interior design?
Fiona Price, Liverpool

I don't; I like modern Italian furniture. I played Lovejoy, but I never knew anything about antiques. I like modern minimalist. That's how the place is in California, but not too minimalist; we still have one or two chairs around the place.

'Deadwood' starts on Sky One next Tuesday at 10 pm