Ian McShane on Deadwood, social media and the demise of American Gods: ‘I was getting bored with it’

The star of ‘John Wick’ speaks to Louis Chilton about intimacy coordinators, playing an ageing hitman in his new film ‘American Star’, and drawing the ire of ‘Game of Thrones’ fans

Sunday 25 February 2024 06:00 GMT
Ian McShane: ‘When you make big movies like John Wick, it’s like you’re a small army that takes over town'
Ian McShane: ‘When you make big movies like John Wick, it’s like you’re a small army that takes over town' (José David Montero)

Ian McShane loves a monologue. It’s ironic, really, given the actor has mostly shunned the theatre for screen projects such as the cultish TV staple Lovejoy, HBO’s foul-mouthed western Deadwood, and the soulfully hyperviolent John Wick films. In the past, he’s even called for a 20-year moratorium on Hamlet. And yet here, today, he seems a bona fide thesp, delivering sinuous, almost Shakespearean soliloquies like the best of them.

“The one thing about getting older is that the memories well up more,” McShane, now 81, remarks. “Time catches up with you, life catches up with you, and the memories of what could have been, should have been or will be are stronger than they were, say, 10 years ago.”

The Blackburn-born actor seems in the mood for reminiscence as he talks to me over video from his London home. On his face rests a pair of thick-rimmed glasses; the first couple of shirt buttons are open, giving him the vaguely dishevelled vibe of a morning-after rocker. Ask him a question, and he’ll give you three answers. Maybe a wistful observation, too, about a film he once saw, or an actor with whom he once worked. (And, to be fair, he’s worked with them all – Richard Burton; Robert Mitchum; Keanu Reeves.) I put it down to a thespian knack for the oratory.

But there’s probably a more prosaic explanation for his meandering mindset: jetlag. McShane flew in from LA last night. He’s here to shoot a “caper movie” for Netflix, in which he plays a “crazy gangster” – not an unfamiliar mode for the actor, who’s schemed his way through the criminal underworld in everything from Sexy Beast to Miami Vice. He’s looking forward to the as-yet-unannounced project – with just a hint of caveat. “It’s a big time production,” he says, “so you’re involved with a lot of people. You make some compromises.”

More “satisfying”, he says, is the film he’s actually here to talk about: a poignant European indie called American Star. The film sees McShane play a long-in-the-tooth hitman, holidaying in the Canary Islands after a planned assassination fails to materialise. “The character is like an actor,” he says. “Like myself. You go in on a job, you do the job and leave and then you get on with it.”

American Star – named for a shipwrecked cruise ship that serves as the film’s central metaphor – is directed by Spanish filmmaker Gonzalo López-Gallego, who previously worked with McShane on the 2016 Western The Hollow Point. It was made in a tough period, shortly after the deaths of McShane’s mother and his mother-in-law. “I was on my own for five weeks, and my wife [the actor Gwen Humble] was dealing with stuff in the States,” he says. “You’re surrounded by people, but you’re alone playing a character. And some of that sadness and grief infiltrated into the film without knowing it.”

Filming on American Star was a “civilised” affair, and the small scale of the production made a huge difference. “There weren’t producers looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do because of their enormous investment,” he recalls. “When you make big movies like John Wick, it’s like you’re a small army that takes over town. Hopefully you leave it better than when you came in – sometimes you don’t.”

Star power: McShane as a waning assassin in ‘American Star' (José David Montero)

All of a sudden, he’s off explaining how he got his start in the industry, walking me through his “ordinary happy childhood” as the son of a Manchester United footballer. It was a particularly astute teacher who led him to acting; across the six decades of his professional life, McShane never did anything else.

“I’ve watched a lot of my friends drop off along the way the last few years,” he says, removing his glasses. “It’s emotional, when you suddenly read about people you grew up with in the business popping their clogs, as we say in Lancashire. But life goes on. Art goes on. Films keep being made. And I love movies. The whole process of talking to people, going on a film set. It can still be very exciting… or it can be a disaster.”

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“Disaster” may be slightly too strong of a word to describe American Gods, another one of McShane’s best-known projects, but one wracked by reports of offscreen turmoil. The Prime Video series, adapted from a Neil Gaiman novel, saw McShane play Mr Wednesday, a deific con artist embroiled in a conflict between feuding gods. It received plenty of plaudits throughout its first season, but bouts of creative upheaval ultimately ended in the show’s cancellation in 2021. The experience, it seems, was a mixed one.

American Gods was a little – if I may say – overpraised at the time by social media,” McShane concedes. Between the first and second seasons, there was what he describes as a “legal standoff”, as original showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green “fell out with the show maker for budgetary reasons”. The show’s return was delayed. In the interim, McShane had been talked into signing on for another third season. “I was getting pretty bored with it,” he says. “The show never really recovered its momentum, which was a shame – because I think it could have gone on to something pretty good.”

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday in ‘American Gods’ (Prime Video)

Exacerbating matters, he says, was the fact that the show was “piled on” by the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements. “There was a lot of controversy about remarks about race. I thought that it was too strongly angry. And it all got immersed in social media… I think that was part of the reason for the demise, and the sort of lack of interest in the show. People took sides. It diminished itself.”

The furore wasn’t the only time McShane’s been irked by the machinations of social media. He infamously antagonised fans of Game of Thrones – a series he fleetingly appeared in – by dismissing the series as being just “t**s and dragons”, and spoiling a major plot twist. Now, he brushes it off. “It was ridiculous. It was one remark!” he laughs. “The creators of the show loved it because it just gives it more publicity. I didn’t even think about it at the time because I’m not on social media. Everybody’s a critic now. Everybody thinks they know best because they can write anonymously on social media.”

American Gods Trailer

American Gods wasn’t McShane’s first run-in with premature cancellation. For him and thousands of diehard fans, there’s no TV cancellation quite so stinging as that of Deadwood, which was spiked by HBO after just three seasons, despite rapturous reviews. It would later be revived for a gratifying 2019 film, but the original three-season run remains one of TV’s finest achievements, and McShane’s turn, as cutthroat pimp and saloon owner Al Swearingen, a performance on par with any.

It was, however, an experience marked by showrunner David Milch’s maverick working patterns, with dense, serpentine dialogue being written on the fly. McShane describes a moment during filming when Milch gave him and his and co-star Paula Malcolmson – playing Trixie, one of the saloon’s working girls – a particularly shocking piece of extemporaneous direction. “David said it in his inimitable way: ‘I think this scene is going well, but you should grab her by the c**t,’” he recalls. They had been filming together for just a day and a half.

“As I said to Dave at the time: it’s not the first instinct of an actor to say that! But Paula was like, ‘Absolutely. You should do that.’ I said, ‘Well, if you insist…’ It broke the ice.”

True grit: McShane and Paula Malcolmson in ‘Deadwood' (HBO)

Of course, you couldn’t do that now. Or could you? “I’ve not worked with a… what do they call it? An intimacy coordinator? It’s a new invention of a job… I’m sure some people like it,” he says. “I mean, I’ve always tried to be as graceful as you can in intimate situations with actresses or actors. How long would [something like that scene in Deadwood] take nowadays, how much of a narrative would take place around that phrase?”

McShane springs off at a tangent again, reminiscing about Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s famous lovemaking scene in 1973’s Don’t Look Now – long (and probably falsely) rumoured to be unsimulated. (“It’s part of the mystique. You know, ‘Did they? Didn’t they?’”) He pauses, then adds: “In a roundabout way, I have no idea what an intimacy coordinator would do [with Deadwood]. In fact, I have no idea what they do now.”

Our time is up, and I’ve barely made a dent in the (admittedly over-ambitious) list of questions I’d prepared. For McShane, the cycle never stops: he’s got more promotion for American Star to get through, then the Netflix caper, then he’s heading over to Budapest for reshoots on the John Wick spin-off Ballerina.

Before he goes, I ask to quickly fact-check a piece of trivia that I’d read in a book recently: does he really have a photographic memory? “I don’t think so!” McShane responds. “I mean, I wish I had. I’ve got a pretty good memory. I always think, if you’re going to remember, remember everything… then you can sort out the good from the bad.”

He grins. “Wait. Who am I speaking to?”

‘American Star’ is out in UK Cinemas and digital download now

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