Halfway through the roundtable interview with Ian McShane for We Are Marshall I despaired that I would ever hear him curse in person. I’m not sure if anyone since Lenny Bruce has had a reputation so built on an ability to deliver expletives, but as the devilish Al Swearengen on HBO’s Deadwood, McShane has become personally associated with the phrase ‘cock sucker.’
In We Are Marshall, opening tomorrow, McShane plays a prominent local whose son dies in the plane crash that wiped out the Marshall University football team in 1971. While some people deal with their grief by rebuilding the team, McShane’s character sees the new team as a grim and constant reminder of his son’s death.
Often when an actor is promoting their new movie they don’t like to stray from the topic at hand. This seems silly to me – people don’t want to just read about the latest project, they want to know what’s coming next as well as your thoughts on the more popular projects from the past. McShane had no problem talking about Deadwood – and it’s early cancellation – so for fans of the HBO western, this interview should have some very interesting information.
Q: Was there a lot of crying on set?
McShane: Oh no I didn’t notice. It was a very low-key set, which is good you know -we just got on with it. It was a very emotional film but I arrived on it… I shot the last scene on Deadwood on a Wednesday night and then I was on a jet with David Milch. He dropped me off in West Virginia the following morning and then I was in the middle of a funeral scene the next day so it was one straight to the other. There was no time to think about whatever. We just went straight into the movie.
Q: How do you do that as an actor? How do you just change gears that quickly?
McShane: Well it was helped in a strange way when I walked on the set on the Thursday morning they had to do the funeral scene and there were all these wreaths around which were MU, Marshall University. I didn’t know what it was at first, green and white, and then it clicked because my dad had played for Manchester United and just quit playing football the year before they had their fatal air crash in 1958, so it jolted me. Except that I was thinking why is it green and white. It should be red and white. But it was kind of a strange moment going in to memory about what happened because I knew a lot of the players. I mean I was a baby, I was like fourteen but they weren’t much older. That was a very young Manchester United squad that died in the plane crash in Munich in 1958. They were average age 20-21.
Q: Do you pull on very specific personal experiences as an actor?
McShane: By memory? Yeah, yeah but mostly…I don’t know, too much can be made of that. I mean I was saying before that I’ve never lost a child. I’ve lost grandparents but that’s all… God knows I’d hate to lose a child before you go, I don’t know how a parent reacts to losing a child. It must be awful, a horrible experience that you never actually emotionally get over in some way. Especially the character I play who lost his wife as well a few years before. I think you just play it straight, you know. I mean if everybody’s crying all the time, I don’t know. You got to earn emotion in the movie. I think much like emotional films, you earn the emotion, you earn it from the audience’s involvement in the film otherwise if it’s just a question of everybody’s crying all the time, I don’t know if that works or not. I don’t know.
Q: Your character’s based on a real person right?
McShane: No it’s a composite character. I asked that; I don’t think they could have done that. I met Jack Lengyel and then I met Red [Dawson]. Obviously, well it’s 36 years ago, but it must have burned brightly in their brains you know.
Q: Was it more pressure for you because you weren’t actually based on a person?
McShane: Yeah I think so. Actually also because I went straight into the movie. I did my three scenes, I went back for a week, then came back again and worked on it. But it was in the town and it burns brightly for them still. Because it’s a small town, I mean it’s lost a lot of people since then. But all there is in the town is the University and steel mills. It’s like areas of America, Midwest, rather depressed.
Q: How long were you there filming the movie?
McShane: Three weeks there. Three weeks in West Virginia and then five-six weeks in Atlanta.
Q: Is the mood still quite somber over there?
McShane: When you’re filming yeah, because it brings people back. Like turning on the fountain, which they hadn’t done, which they do every year but I think it will be on permanently now. I think it affected people very much there yeah. They all wanted to be involved. They all wanted to be involved in the film someway. Yeah, it was good. It was a terrific film to work on. I enjoyed working with David Strathairn. Anthony Mackie was terrific. I enjoyed working with Anthony. I didn’t work with Matthew Fox…and Kate was lovely, Kate Mara. But no, it’s a movie you know, you finish it and then you’re off to the next one.
Q: What are you working on now?
McShane: I just finished Case 39 with Renee Zellweger, which is with this interesting German director, Christian Alvart. He did Antibodies. Did you see that? He’s really good.
Q: You play a bad guy in that?
McShane: No good guy. Yeah, a good cop. It’s a sort of a cross between the Exorcist and the Bad Seed. I went straight on after Marshall; I went to do Hot Rod, which is a crazy comedy with Sissy Spacek and myself.
Q: You do a lot of voice over work. Do you like that?
McShane: Yeah that’s fun to do. I’m in the middle of doing Kung Fu Panda right now with Jackie Chan.
Q: You do the work on your own in a booth? Is that difficult as an actor?
McShane: It’s great. You can just go in there and you can create a character. The most interesting one was going to do [The Golden Compass] with Chris Weitz. He asked me over to create a part of a half animation and action film put together, where every character has a daemon, like an animal counterpart. He asked me to go there and create the part of the bear. The king of the bears wants a daemon; he hasn’t got a demon. So he had to create the part, create the voice before [the bear] is created, so he showed you pictures of the bear. So this was funny sitting around with Chris, and he says, ‘Become a bear’.
Q: Doing these voice-overs do you change your accent and voice?
McShane: Yeah, in Shrek the Third and I did Captain Hook, I sort of did homage to Robert Newton. He played in the original Treasure Island and I sort of did the crazy wacko pirate voice in that. And then I did Coraline, which is by Henry Selick, with Dakota Fanning. I’m playing a nine foot blue Russian who lives upstairs, Mr. Bovinski. They’re great to do, I mean you can have a good time, it’s just you and the studio and you can go crazy.
Q: It’s interesting how you don’t really get to meet the other talent when doing voice-overs.
McShane: I know. Its crazy isn’t it? It’s put together, that’s the fascinating thing about animated movies. They get all the voices down first and then they put it together and then I suppose you’re invited to the show and you meet everybody else there. It’s character work. I did a lot of stuff in England like that before and it’s fun to do. It’s also great for you to do and you can experiment for yourself you know. Keeps you in shape for the other stuff.
Q: Do you have any kids?
McShane: Yeah I have grandkids. I’ve got two children living in England. My daughter has three children, 6, 2 and 4 months. I’m going to show my grandson Deadwood when he’s seven I think. Get him started early. [laughs]
Q: Do you think HBO gave Deadwood a fair shake?
McShane: How can I diplomatically talk about it? I think it’s like you know…who knows how the corporate mind works? I mean HBO is owned by Time Warner, HBO is a hugely successful company. Deadwood probably got the best reviews from any show they’ve ever done, but also don’t forget the backend was owned by Paramount. So they were making no money out of it really in the end. You’d think by the very essence of saying ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO,’ you’d think they would have kept it on as an icon of television but some bean counter down the line may have said ‘this is costing us money’ because the back hand was going straight to Paramount. I believe it was an expensive show and the way we did it was one of the wonderful things of doing that show, the freedom in which they gave Milch, and he is a genius. He’s extraordinary to work for. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for anybody like that. The episodes took between 13 minimums of 11, 12 days and maximum of 15 days and we just shot it. We just went on. There was no end schedule, like you have to finish. We just went on and did it and I guess it was as close to a utopian working way as you can. We were all on this ranch in Santa Clarita. The editors were there, the writers were there, the actors were there, the costumes were there and you could do whatever you wanted every day. It was a remarkable way of working. I guess everything comes to an end after three years. We’re still waiting to know if the two, two-hour movies will be done.
Q: Is it possible it can become a theatrical project?
McShane: I don’t know. I have a feeling it’s not completely dead in some way but who knows what they’ll do with it. I think David [Milch] was offered six episodes which he turned down, because six one-hours you can’t… it would still be a series. But with two two-hour movies you can actually play with time and space more. He could do it. He could figure out how to bring it to some kind of conclusion. Maybe not totally satisfactory but some kind of way in which he finished. I think the most enlightening part is when he was asked, when they said HBO was very excited to do his next project. He always had another; he had an open-ended deal. His remark was ‘I wasn’t aware that a new project meant finishing an old one.’ I mean he always had an open-ended deal with HBO but you know you always have to understand it from the other point, which I don’t. I’m not an executive so it’s a whole different thing whatever they get into but it was a fantastic experience.
Q: When you’ve had a character as vivid and as popular Al Swearengen, does that affect the way you look at future projects? Do you maybe go after projects that will be very different from him?
McShane: Especially with the features, yes. This seemed like a very good character to play; I haven’t played this kind of character for a long time. You know, a regular guy? Then I went from that to do the one with the mad comedy playing this lunatic ex-Vietnam; a crazy guy who needs a heart transplant in this Lorne Michaels movie. Then being a good family cop and then voice-overs, it’s all interesting stuff.
Q: What were your impressions or expectations in working with McG?
McShane: I had no idea. I hadn’t seen the Charlie’s Angels movies. So I had no predisposition.
Q: So was it just the script and the character that drew you to the film?
McShane: Literally, I mean it seemed perfect to finish Deadwood and then to go do this. It was kind of a nice way of easing down. Usually Deadwood you take like a good month. It was an exhausting series to work in. You work 15-16 hour days and don’t forget we had no preset script. You wouldn’t actually get the scenes until maybe two nights before, or the night before. I mean it’s great if you like acting and you like the work. Doing something different like working on a film, it was kind of nice. You have time to prepare, you go in there and it was all organized.
Q: Two days to learn dialogue?
McShane: Yeah. Well I mean it’s what it was. It’s the same for a lot of people but you get into the groove of working and it really becomes a way of life. For those eight months, you were like go home, go to work and it seemed to click.
Q: If someone slipped and cursed would they actually stop taping?
McShane: People would sometimes swear and David would go ‘no, no, no, no. There’s no cocksucker there.’ You could actually fuck around with the dialogue but then you’d fuck yourself up. One fuck would fuck the whole thing up. David writes great dialogue, that’s his gift and this was his novel of TV. It’s the saga of the west. That’s what it was.
Q: Will you get back to theater?
McShane: Oh yeah. I’ve always gone back and done either experimental play or western. The last thing I did was a musical five years ago in London. That was an interesting experience. They told me I will never do another musical [laughs]. But it was so interesting. I had sung before back in the 90’s when I did a show called Lovejoy in England, which is a popular show. You know if you stop learning, you’re dead in this business, if you’re just doing the same thing. That’s why series TV doesn’t appeal to me, generic TV like doing something on the networks. Now Showtime is doing good stuff. They have seemed to up the bar a little which is good for everybody.