Actor Ian McShane knows a thing, or eight, about charisma
By JOHANNA SCHNELLER
Special to The Globe and Mail
Monday, March 18, 2019 Print Edition, Page A15
Lessons in charisma, from Ian McShane: Come - on your day off - to the Toronto set of Season 2 of the Amazon Prime Video fantasydrama series American Gods, based on the 2001 novel by Neil Gaiman. (Now streaming.) Call the reporter "luv."
Be insanely handsome, especially for a 76-year-old, even in sweatpants. Being fit helps. So does the tousled head of black and (only slightly) grey hair.
Have several laughs, including a deep chuckle and a great, roaring blast.
Al Swearengen, the black heart of Deadwood, whom McShane inhabits in both the 2004 series and the forthcoming HBO film, may murder his rivals and feed their corpses to pigs, but he is clear about his reasons. His Blackbeard in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and Winston in the John Wick franchise, are having the time of their lives. His Andrew Finney relishes making Ray Donovan sweat.
McShane's role in American Gods, Mr. Wednesday, is another charming cad, a conman who travels the United States in a classic Cadillac convertible he calls Becky. Oh, and he's also Odin, the Norse god, who's gathering together the old-school gods that immigrants brought to the States with them, to battle the new gods of globalization, technology and media. The old gods include Anansi (Orlando Jones), the Ghanaian trickster god; Anubis (Chris Obi), the Egyptian god of the dead; Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a seven-foot-tall Irish demigod who hates being dismissed as a leprechaun; and Zorya (Cloris Leachman), the Russian evening star. McShane, a shameless flirt, has real chemistry with Leachman.
"Wednesday is as dramatic and as pompous as the gods he's trying to bring down," McShane says. "Except his argument is, 'You'll have a better time with me.
I'll take you to better restaurants, tell better stories, have the better view on life and people. I'm more fun.'" He is also describing himself, of course.
The series' tone is a mind-melting mix of cartoon violence, thoughtful philosophizing and recognizable interpersonal drama. It asks viewers to rethink what we give our attention to (do we really want to be held prisoner by our own phones?), and to remember what America is (the sum total of its immigrants).
"There's real humanity to the story," McShane says. "And a whimsical quality, which you must have. Otherwise it's all too foreboding. The more natural the humour, the more likely the audience is to be carried along. The drama, you have to play dead straight. It's reality with a complete unreality going on around it. Which is pretty much like life, when you think about it."
The series "bridges the gap between faith and religion," he adds. "It's not an anti-religion show. It's saying faith is very important - but spread it around a little and everyone will be happier."
Be a wag on set.
"Ian has 1,000 stories, and he name-drops like a PR pro," says Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow Moon, Mr. Wednesday's human bodyguard, in a separate interview. "He tells me filthy jokes right before a take, and as I'm trying to hold it together, he'll do this deadpan look to the crew, like, 'I'm sorry about this schoolchild.' " But when Whittle's British mom visited the set expressly to meet McShane, "Ian was a complete gentleman," Whittle says.
"Now, when my mom's in L.A., Ian always goes to lunch with us.
He terrifies me sometimes, but he's got sweetness in him."
Be a pro on screen.
McShane has been an actor for 56 years. He's played Judas Iscariot, Benjamin Disraeli, Christopher Marlowe and Heathcliff.
He's worked with everyone: Ralph Richardson, Anne Bancroft and Laurence Olivier, Dyan Cannon, Ray Winstone and Tim Curry. Joe Orton was a drinking buddy - McShane was in his play, Loot, in 1965 - as was Richard Burton, who taught McShane to enjoy a "salty dog breakfast": kippers with vodka and grapefruit juice.
So, on American Gods, he knows when to cede the spotlight to guest stars, and when "it's time I take a little bite out of the scenery." He knows that if you're No. 1 or 2 on the call sheet, "You ain't going to worry about how many close-ups you're getting per show." And he knows that "sometimes it's better if you're only in it for five minutes, because the audience waits for you."
"If you've been around a long time, you learn," McShane continues. "You can say you've been an actor for 50 years - but is that one year multiplied by 50, or is it 50 years? I like to think I learn something every time out. I do love my job; I always have enjoyed it enormously. And I get better at it."
Ever since 1986, when his British series Lovejoy hit big - he played a charming antiques dealer - McShane has also been a producer, so he knows how to go for what he wants. When Neil Gaiman first approached McShane for American Gods, it was for the role of Czernobog, the Slavic god of darkness (now played by Peter Stormare). "Ian phoned me back and said, 'Anyone can do that. I want to do Wednesday. I can bring so much to him,' " Gaiman says in a separate interview. "It was a wonderful moment: The person who saw that Ian needed to be Wednesday was Ian. He has panache and style. He's very much of the Richard Burton/Anthony Hopkins/John Hurt generation, one of a strange, dying breed."
Know that even charming cads have to grow up.
From ages 18 to 45, McShane drank every drink and tried every drug, including cocaine and "one snort of heroin." He cheated on and divorced two wives, and didn't see his two children enough. But in 1980, he married his third wife, Gwen Humble, whom he calls "the love of my life," and they're together still.
He's been sober since 1987. In 2002, he even quit smoking.
"It's like Jung said: You need a spiritual awakening," McShane says. "Something happened.
Thank god it did. Since then, everything has been sweeter." Now he divides his time between London, England and Venice Beach, Calif. "I live right on the beach," he says. "It's like going on holiday.
I wake up, I go out on the roof with a coffee, and I think, 'Maybe today I'll ... do nothing.' "He speaks to his 96-year-old mom every day (she still lives in Lancashire, where he was born), and sees his children and grandchildren as often as he can. They call him GD, which suits him better than Granddad.
And remain humble.
"A certain humility goes a long way," McShane says. "I never expect anything. I shot my first film when I was 18, with Johnny Hurt" - The Wild and the Willing.
"It was touted as a big thing, and it wasn't. So you learn. You attack life with the same vigour you always have, but you know that you can't be a hit every time."
Lovejoy ran for five seasons. When his next few were less successful, he stayed away from TV for four years, and waited for his audience to miss him.
"In real life, cads are mostly monsters," McShane says. "You really wouldn't want to meet them. They're egomaniacs, [jerks]. And they don't have half the wit they're written with. My characters may be vindictive puppet masters, but in a funnier way.
That's what makes them charismatic."
My last glimpse of McShane: He's sitting on a folding chair set up just outside the sound stage door. He's alone, eating a simple sandwich in the sun.
Ian McShane plays Mr. Wednesday in Amazon Prime Video's fantasydrama series American Gods.
EMILY BERL/NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE