No More Mr. Nice Guy
ith a long career in B movies and British television, Ian McShane, 63, finally found his indelible role as the cursing, tyrannical whoremonger and saloon owner Al Swearengen, on HBO’s Deadwood. Now the central character, Swearengen will return with the rest of the show’s scofflaws next month for its third season. Our correspondent tracks down McShane to discuss the show’s gratuitous profanity, his moment as a sex symbol, and the profundity in receiving a blow job.
George Wayne: Has it ever bothered you that “character actor” usually precedes your name?
Ian McShane: I don’t know. I’ve been doing good at it for so long that I don’t care what they call me.
G.W. Great. That TV show of yours should have been called The F Word instead of Deadwood. And you seem to get a special thrill belching “Fuck you!” every five seconds.
I.M. The show is written by David Milch, a genius, I think. It’s the way he speaks. He created a language for the show.
G.W. You were considered—well, at least to some people—to be a heartthrob in your hey day, especially as Heathcliff on the BBC production Wuthering Heights, circa 1967.
I.M. Yeah, that was good.
G.W. Well, I’ll tell you one thing, darling: you were no Sir Laurence fucking Olivier!
I.M. I worked with Larry on Jesus of Nazareth. He was starting his decline by then, you know, and he was very ill for the last 20 years or so of his life. But he was a lovely man and quite delightful to work with.
G.W. Excellent, but I want you to put in precise words this man you’ve created, Al Swearengen.
I.M. Swearengen, I always think, has a great understanding of people. Deadwood is like a great, sprawling, Dickensian Western novel.
G.W. Is that bush across your top lip real? Or is it a snap-on, you know, like a dildo?
I.M. All my facial hair is real. I can’t wait to shave it off.
G.W. Well, one thing is for sure: Mr. Swear-engen sure takes his name literally. My favorite scenes of yours, apart from when you have some wench on her knees and between your legs and you’re scolding, “Stop drooling on my fucking nuts,” is—
I.M. Well, the thing about that is, Al only finds it possible to talk about himself when he is being given a blow job. That is the only time he can reveal his true self.
G.W. You are outrageous! I love the blow-job scenes, of course, but I also love when you are on that balcony being the master of all you survey. Spewing directives to the minions below you. I love it! No one works a balcony scene better than you. Not even Evita Perón! And when you think about it, Deadwood has flown under the radar of the Christian Coalition fanatics, which is quite unbelievable.
I.M. Oh, absolutely! Some Republican senators were trying to bring cable under the F.C.C., but I don’t think that is going to happen. I like to think that if you don’t like it, hit the “off” switch. I like to think that HBO continues to produce stuff that is original. I also love Weeds, on Show- time. It is great to do stuff like this. I think Deadwood pushes the envelope. Thank God.
G.W. It’s more like pushing the envelope off the cliff’ When you think about it, it seems like anything goes on 21st-century cable. When I see Vanessa Redgrave toking on a bong on Nip/Tuck, it is obvious we are in a whole new whirl!
I.M. Well, everything has to move forward. Television has to keep expanding in certain ways.
G.W. You must be getting sauced on the set. There is no way you could be doing all this sober.
I.M. No. In real life I still smoke, but I don’t drink.
G.W. Yeah, right. I forgot you no longer ‘get drunk and seeing double,' as Neil Young would say. I also know you love reading biographies. Well, G. W. recommends the great bio on Queen Victoria written by Lytton Strachey. It’s a must-read.
I.M. And I did play Benjamin Disraeli as well, which is fascinating because Victoria loved Disraeli. He was an extraordinary man.
G.W. Speaking of queens, I have been trying to find a DVD of Bollywood Queen, a movie of yours.
I.M. I have never seen it. It was a delightful script, and a movie I did four years ago. I’ll check on Amazon.com and I will send you one.
G.W. Here you are, 63 years old, almost ready for a butt-lift—yet having the time of your life. We should all be so lucky. Thank you.
I.M. Oh, absolutely!