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Ian McShane: ‘Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall are two of the unfunniest f**king people I’ve ever seen’

As ‘American Gods’ returns to Amazon Prime, the 76-year-old bemoans on-set intimacy coordinators, non-sexist comedians and transgender terminology. By Ed Cumming

Saturday 09 March 2019 11:53 GMT
Antiques roadshow: ‘It was a weirdness in this country that I got known as Lovejoy. Nowadays that snobbishness has gone’
Antiques roadshow: ‘It was a weirdness in this country that I got known as Lovejoy. Nowadays that snobbishness has gone’ (Rex)

“You’ve got to be so f**king careful what you say now,” says Ian McShane, settling into an armchair and swivelling to look out of the window. This seems to be his preferred conversational stance, at 90 degrees to his interrogator. Fair enough. He has been doing these long enough to have a method. “It was more fun in the Seventies,” he adds. “Or rather, everything except the work was more fun. The work’s as much fun as ever.”

This might be the point to say that McShane is not being f**king careful about what he says to me. He may be trying, but it’s hard to tell. McShane will turn 77 this year and finds himself in a different Hollywood from the one he grew up in, a post-Weinstein world of safe spaces and #MeToo and, as he recently learnt on the set of John Wick 3, actors who prefer not to go by either he or she. He’s finding it difficult.

“I worked with a girl on John Wick 3, Asia Kate Dillon. I shouldn’t say ‘girl’, because she prefers ‘them’, but she’s a lovely girl. She’s a terrific actor, too, but before we started I told her that I was sorry if I sometimes say ‘she’, but it’s hard to say ‘them’ when there’s only one of you. She explained that because of her stance she has become a role model for teenagers in Bumf**k, Illinois or wherever. They write her letters to say, ‘you speak for me’. So I do understand that aspect of it. It’s just difficult to understand the parameters of the language. On some jobs now you have to sit through an hour-long presentation on bullying and harassment before you start the shoot. I encountered a new one the other day: an ‘intimate director’ for intimate scenes. How do you qualify for that?”

McShane does not look like a man in his late seventies. The characters he has played tend to have a solid, life-worn appearance, from the irascible antiques dealer Lovejoy to the irascible Mr Wednesday in American Gods, via the irascible saloon owner Al Swearengen in Deadwood. In close-up on camera, his head looks large and lived in but in person he seems almost sprightly, more rock star than actor. Like Keith Richards or Jimi Hendrix, he has one of those slight but top-heavy appearances that seems to build from the head downwards, as if he is subject to slightly different gravitational forces from the rest of us. His spindly legs are covered by black jeans and biker boots, and a long blue coat and scarf covers a black T-shirt. On top of all this is that terrific face, from which his eyes gleam like a rascal’s. The Lancashire vowels are intact.

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

We speak not long after Liam Neeson has given an interview to The Independent in which he admitted that as a young man, he reacted to the news that a friend had been raped by walking the streets in the hope of being attacked by a “black bastard” so he could kill him. “I think Liam wanted to say something enlightening, but as soon as you get to that word you think ‘why bring it up? Why make an [issue out of it]?’ There’s no serious conversation about race, anyway.”

On an easel next to the actor is a board advertising American Gods, the second season of which we are nominally here to discuss. It’s an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, set in a United States where incarnations of the old gods from Europe and Africa must compete with the new idols, like globalisation and media. McShane plays Mr Wednesday, an incarnation of the Norse god Odin, and as usual makes off with a large number of the scenes in which he appears.

John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum

McShane flips the board round so the white reverse faces outwards. It’s hard to think of a milder gesture of rebellion. Despite the unfamiliar rules, McShane is as busy as ever. The strictures around what can and cannot be said have come with greater freedom for actors around formats and roles. When Lovejoy finished in 1994, after 71 episodes, he found himself typecast in the UK.

“It was a weirdness in this country that I got known as Lovejoy,” he says. “Nowadays that snobbishness has gone. Actors can do films, plays, TV, even commercials. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t possibly have done a commercial.” He moved to America and filled the next 10 years with voiceovers and small parts before being handed the role of a lifetime by David Milch, the writer-producer on Deadwood, in 2005. Based on a real figure, his Al Swearengen was an eloquent terror who ruled the town of Deadwood, north Dakota, from his saloon. HBO cancelled the show after three series but has brought it back for a one-off movie, which McShane says will air in May.

Ian McShane as Al Swearengen in HBO series ‘Deadwood’ (HBO)

“It was an amazing experience because everyone came back for it,” he says. “It felt almost like an out-of-body experience. But it was bittersweet because you knew it was a one-off, and you wouldn’t be here again. It’s set 10 years on. [Swearengen] is a little diminished because really I’m playing David Milch.” In the years since Deadwood was last on air, it has been reported that Milch, who also created NYPD Blue, had gambled away more than $100m. “I went to the track with him when he first cast me, in 2002,” says McShane. “He had hundreds of thousands of dollars in his pockets and his own booth. He’s one of those guys who has an obsession.”

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After that, we’ll see McShane in John Wick 3 and the new adaptation of Hellboy, and a film about the birth of jazz. Regardless of publicity commitments he comes back to the UK twice a year to see his mother, who is nearly 100, and watch his beloved Manchester United. His father Harry played for the club and then worked as a scout – he was reportedly the man who discovered Wes Brown. A few days before we speak, McShane was spotted next to Sir Alex Ferguson in the box at Old Trafford. He has adult children and grandchildren here, too.

“In general the kids are more up on what’s happening these days. But I was out with my grandson the other day and he asked if I’d heard of George Carlin. George Carlin! I lived next door to him in Venice [Beach]. But at least the kids are hearing about him. Someone the other day was saying that Bill Hicks wouldn’t work now because he’s sexist. What the f**k? Michael McIntyre and Jack Whitehall, two of the unfunniest f**king people I’ve ever seen, are the most popular comics in England.”

Brits awards 2019: Jack Whitehall talks Piers Morgan with Little Mix 'voluptuous breasts, four chins, it must have been like looking in the mirror'

“You’re never too old to learn something new,” he adds, reflecting on the new world in which he finds himself, “but sometimes you do throw your hands up and think ‘Jesus Christ’.”

American Gods returns to Amazon Prime on Monday 11 March

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