What do you give the man who has everything?
More everything. That's true, at least, for Ian McShane, a workhorse of an actor who has, by his own admission, done a little bit — no, make that a lot — of just that in a show-biz career spanning more than 40 years. These days, the 63-year-old can be found playing a reluctant ghost in the London-set Woody Allen comedy “Scoop.”
We caught up with the veteran British character actor — best known to American audiences for his Emmy-nominated, Golden Globe-winning performance as the foul-mouthed brothel owner Al Swearengen on the HBO Western series “Deadwood” — by phone from Vancouver, B.C. He has just started rehearsals there for “Hot Rod,” a “silly” comedy in which McShane gets to do the wicked stepfather thing opposite Andy Samberg of “Saturday Night Live.” Other upcoming projects include playing a cop to Renee Zellweger's social worker in “Case 39,” a “kind of a sort of an ‘Omen’-ish kind of freaky, psychedelic horror story,” according to McShane. He'll also eventually be seen — or rather heard, in voice-over form — in “Shrek the Third,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass,” Chris Weitz's “huge” live-action/animated adaptation of the Carnegie Medal-winning children's book.
Oh, and did I mention he has been recently redubbing the first season of “Deadwood”? That's just in case the series, whose cancellation was announced in May, mere weeks after finishing production on the third season, gets picked up for syndication. Given the notoriously adult dialogue, McShane says that job was a tall order. “I just suggested we do my part like a spaghetti western,” he says, only half joking. “You don't make any attempt to find words that fit the mouthing, because that's impossible.”
Saying he was “slightly devastated” by HBO's unceremonious dumping of the critically acclaimed series, McShane is looking forward to possible closure next year if, as series creator David Milch hopes, the show can be wrapped up with a pair of two-hour movies. “I wasn't finished with Al,” McShane says. “I don't think David was finished.”
At an age at which a lot of people start thinking about retirement, McShane shows no signs of being finished, let alone of slowing down. In fact, he's just beginning to enjoy his newly hip status in pop culture, thanks to the fact that “Deadwood” audiences have finally discovered him.
“You mean when America discovers you,” he says with a laugh, adding that he has been hopping back and forth between homes in London and Venice, Calif. — and acting jobs on both sides of the pond — for years.
Somehow, though, McShane managed to escape the notice of filmmaker Allen. The filmmaker only called the actor in for a meeting on the recommendation of a casting director, who thought he'd be perfect for the role of a hard-boiled reporter who returns from the grave to offer a scoop to an aspiring reporter (Scarlett Johansson).
“I met him literally for about 90 seconds,” he says. “He looked at me. I looked back at him, and he said, ‘Can you turn 'round?’ And I turned 'round. And he said, ‘It's really nice meeting you,’ and he said, ‘I don't get a chance to see many people.’ He doesn't watch television. I don't think he sees any other films, really, either.”
The next day, McShane says, he was getting on a plane when an assistant of Allen's rushed up with a script — or, more precisely, as Allen is notorious for, the few pages of the script involving McShane's character, Joe Strombel. Attached was what McShane calls a “very lovely, self-deprecating note.”
“If you like this, we'll do this together,” he recalls reading. “If not, we'll work again. I think you're great. You'd be a terrific Joe Strombel.”
“I said yes,” says McShane, who calls the roughly six-week London shoot one of the easiest and most low-key he has ever been on, thanks to the fact that Allen never rehearsed his actors beforehand, preferring to set up each shot in advance only with cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. “It's all set up before you go on there,” McShane says. “It's very free. He says, ‘Do what you want,’ and then in one or two takes it's over. I mean, you're home by teatime, which appealed to the English crew very much.
“I see the point of only offering the scenes I'm in, which I've never minded, because that's like ‘Deadwood,’” he says, noting that Milch would often revise scripts on the fly.
Mixing things up like that is the way McShane likes it. How else to explain a résumé that includes an album of pop covers, “From Both Sides Now,” a 1992 compilation that the actor is not only dead serious about — “I wasn't doing a Shatner, as they say” — but that went gold in England.
Which is why being forced to move on from “Deadwood,” however prematurely, may end up being the best thing that could have happened to the actor. “If you just did one thing,” he says, “you're stuck in something forever. It may be more profitable to do the same thing all the time, but it's not exactly stimulating.”