It’s all working out nicely for Ian McShane
An actor since the early 1960s, Cuban Fury star Ian McShane has been a familiar presence on our screens big and small (Lovejoy anyone?) for decades – and now he’s a Hollywood star. Not a bad for the unassuming son of a Man Utd footballer
Ian McShane: It all happened very quickly. Then I got a movie. I just rolled into it”
Hats off to Ian McShane. He’s never exactly been a Johnny Depp-sized celestial entity. But he’s never slipped from public consciousness. For half-acentury – can it really be so long? – he’s been among the grittiest and most manly of gritty, manly charmers.
Raised in Manchester, the son of a distinguished footballer, he turned up at Rada when that institution was finally opening itself up to (ahem) “the regions”. Gosh, he’s got staying power and durability. And yet he’s somehow managed to remain much the same throughout the decades. Long before the weedy Downton Abbey took over Sunday nights, a roguish, dodgy antique dealer named Lovejoy was soothing viewers back into the working week. A decade ago, he dominated as a rougher, scarier, swearier type of scoundrel in Deadwood . He always radiates charisma. He always dominates the screen.
This week we can see him as a gruff dance teacher in the very agreeable British comedy Cuban Fury . Nick Frost plays the larger gentleman he attempts to coax back into Salsa action.
“It was a funny character,” McShane rumbles. And that is the only word. “From the description of the character, it sounded fine and it was. Films don’t always turn out as you’d expect. This did. It’s very funny. It’s down-to- earth. They’re all hilarious. Chris O’Dowd is hilarious. And the script is great. So it has worked out well.” (As you’ll see, he uses variations on that phrase a lot.)
He had an easier time of it than Mr Frost, I assume.
“Well, Nick had all the hard work to do. I didn’t have to dance. As long as you think that I know what I am doing, then it’s fine. Ha ha!”
Let’s go back to the beginning. McShane never seems to have been out of work for as much as a nanosecond. He worked in movies throughout the 1960s. In the 1970s, he played Disraeli and Shakespeare on the telly, a popular device of the time. Then, in the late 1980s, along came the iconic Lovejoy . Along the way, he managed three marriages – the third of which has lasted happily for over three decades – and a three-year relationship with Sylvia Kristel, star of Emmanuelle . How did this extraordinary existence come to pass?
“I was just at school, he says. “My dad played for Manchester United and I grew up right outside the ground. I had a teacher who put me in all the plays. He came to my parents and said: ‘He might be good at this professionally.’ He arranged an audition at Rada. Three months later, I was living down in London. It all happened very quickly. Then I got a movie. I just rolled into it.”
I can believe that. He has the amiable presence of a man who would never toil when he could roll. It’s an unusual background from which to spring forth. Harry McShane, his dad, was no mean player. He scored 20 goals in 207 games for the Reds and helped them to the First Division title in 1952. Did McShane ever fancy himself as a footballer?
“I loved it but I was not good enough,” he says. “I’d love to have been a footballer. But I look at it now and think, ‘my career would have been over 40 years ago’. So thank you very much. It all worked out very nicely.”
McShane attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts before the 1960s had properly got going (that peaked, according to folk song and legend, around 1965). But the institution was no longer the finishing school for toffs it has once been. Suddenly, working-class actors were making the running. It was cool to be from the north.
“Yeah, that was when it changed,” he says. “Albert Finney had been there. In the 1960s, it exploded. They made new movies like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner . I did a few. I made a film called The Wild and the Willing . We have now gone back to public schoolboys again.”
He’s not wrong. Every second actor I’ve spoken to over the past year seems to have attended either Harrow or Eton.
“Yeah, I am not sure what that’s about. Oh well, I suppose if they are good, it doesn’t matter where they come from.”
It’s worth having a looksie at Ralph Thomas’s The Wild and the Willing from 1962. A fresh-faced McShane – playing opposite his chum John Hurt – drinks and womanises in a style that was then common in British cinema. His character is the archetypal young man on the rise. It reminds us of an era when the key actors were, themselves, broad boozy personalities: Peter O’Toole, Oliver Reid, Richard Harris. That period seemed to fade away very rapidly as the 1960s progressed.
“I don’t know,” he says. “That sort of character is dying out I suppose. ‘Hellraiser’ is an overused term. That doesn’t happen so much now. Those guys had a few drinks and carried on. Now it’s much more corporate. It’s run more like a machine. It’s like what I am doing now. I get a morning of radio interviews and so on. In the old days it would be much more haphazard.”
He shrugs himself together.
“Ah, they talk about the golden age. But you know it’s always been a business.”
There seems to have been a difference of approach between American and US actors of McShane’s generation. He is, after all, almost exactly the same age as arch-method man Robert De Niro. Yet I don’t really get the impression that John Hurt and Ian McShane were the sort of men who carried their work home with them. It doesn’t seem likely that McShane lived the life of a Salsa teacher before making the enjoyable Cuban Fury .
“Certainly not! The moment they say cut that’s it,” he says. “Everybody has a different approach. Everybody rehearses in a different way. Some people like to know all the lines when they walk on set. Some people just like to know the lines of that scene. Now, you often just walk on a set and they say action before you’ve done anything. But that’s kind of exciting.”
McShane may have been in Battle of Britain and Pirates of the Caribbean V . He may have done Pinter on Broadway. But the two parts that dog him the most are Lovejoy (no forename, famously) in, well, Lovejoy and the ferocious, foul-mouthed Al Swearengen in the superb HBO western series Deadwood . Would I be wrong to assume that Deadwood brought him a cooler class of menacing stalker in the supermarket?
“It’s weird. People would suddenly come up to me and say: ‘Would you swear at me? Will you insult me?’ You remain very polite and you keep walking. Ha ha!
“Look, they were both hugely successful and very good to me. Of course I created Lovejoy . I produced it. On Deadwood , I was just part of a talented team. When it got that critical success, it was very gratifying. Then I got to do other movies. I got to do Pinter on Broadway. So it worked out very well.”
So, what happened to Deadwood ? The show was never a huge smash. But its following was fanatical and HBO had a habit of allowing such shows to accumulate audiences gradually. The show finished after three series and the promised TV movies – which were going to tie up loose ends – never materialised. We feel cheated. We feel outraged.
“I was just happy that it all happened in the first place,” he says. “We got three good years. The reason it ended was nothing to do with the show. It was nothing to do with us. It was to do with ego and money. That was their loss. They ended up regretting that. So, that’s how it goes.”
Ian McShane does a very good job of seeming content in his own trousers. Why not? He has more international visibility than at any stage in his career. If the studios want an older rogue they know where to go. He’s been married to Gwen Humble, also an actor, since 1980 and they now live in maritime bliss in Venice Beach, among the quaintest locales in Los Angeles.
“Yeah, I live down at the beach,” he drawls. “So I go home, see my wife and take a few rays. Then the next call comes in and I go off to another location. You don’t do much in LA these days. I would like to be able to drive home from work. My wife always says: “When are you going to do some work in LA?” It’s a nice job being an actor. You get to see the world.”
The smoothness never ends.
Cuban Fury is out now on general release