Ian McShane doesn’t disappoint. A garrulous force of nature on screen, in person the veteran actor is chummy, sweary, and thoroughly unaffected.
He’ll talk about Manchester United, who he supports and for whom his father played, as enthusiastically as delve into the socio-political subtexts of his new TV series, American Gods. And there’s always the possibility that he’ll put his feet up and blurt out something outrageous.
McShane (74) did exactly that last year when discussing his upcoming appearance on season six of Game of Thrones. Asked for his thoughts on the show, he responded that it was “just tits and dragons” — a comment that nearly burnt the internet to the ground.
He’s equally forthright speaking to the Irish Examiner about American Gods in which he plays Mr Wednesday — a modern incarnation of the Norse deity Odin.
“Wednesday wants people to go back — but not backwards,” he says. “Backwards is what Brexit and Trump want us to do. They want to live back in the ’50s — ‘Oh wasn’t the ’50s a wonderful time’. Well it wasn’t f**king wonderful for most people.
“What Wednesday is talking about is that spiritually people have lost that connection with the earth, who we are and what we relate to. Now we relate to technological gods — which is fine up to a point. The good thing about American Gods is that people will read into it whatever they want.”
American Gods is adapted from Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel and is a singular feat of dramatic conjuring. It starts off a deeply batty on-the-road adventure but soon morphs into a multi-layered rumination on the relationship between myth and reality.
“When I read the book , I thought it was the perfect blue-print for a TV series,” says McShane. “You have the road movie opening, you get into the characters. All is not as it seems.”
“I think this could possibly be Trump’s favourite TV show because he may learn something,” Ricky Whittle, who plays Shadow Moon told the Hollywood Reporter recently. “We’re going to talk about some very topical, sensitive themes and we want to raise discussions. We want to have a conversation about it because it’s important.”
McShane has been intimately involved with the so-called Golden Age of television almost since its beginning. Though best known to audiences in this part of the world as crime solving, mullet-sporting antique dealer Lovejoy, in the US it was revisionist western Deadwood that made his famous. He lit up the screen as the pugnacious anti-hero Al Swearengen.
The character, along with the rest of Deadwood, was the brain-child of David Milch, the prestige television doyen who arguably helped create the genre in the 1980s with Hill Street Blues. McShane, who says he would happily participate in a revived Deadwood, speaks of the legendary show-runner in hushed terms.
“He certainly is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with,” says McShane. “ Whether or not Deadwood finished earlier than it should have, what matters is what we had three glorious years of work. I hope American Gods turns out the same way.”
McShane was a first hand witness as television transitioned from low-brow entertainment into the pre- eminent storytelling medium of the age. As American Gods demonstrates TV is today taking risks that cinema simply will not countenance.
“You either do small independent movies or big blockbusters. The in-between movies that used to be made… they’re all television shows now. The family dramas, slice of life shows… they don’t make those in movies any more.”
He was offered the part of Wednesday by producer Michael Green, with whom he had collaborated on the 2009 NBC drama Kings. “It was very underrated. Kings was basically a cable show they put on a network. And the network didn’t have a clue how to deal with it. It wasn’t a procedural, wasn’t a medical drama, wasn’t a cop show.”
Upon being cast as the latter-day incarnation of Odin, McShane went back to Gaiman’s novel. He was struck immediately by its cinematic qualities. This was a story that would truly come to life on screen.
“I thought it was the perfect blueprint for a TV series. You always hope these things work out but when I saw the finished show for the first time at South by South West I thought, ‘Well this is very good’. I’m sure there will be lots of internet chatter. Neil Gaiman likes to interact with fans.”
Wednesday is a complicated god. When we first meet him, he cuts a rascal-ish figure. Yet he has a darker side too, as Shadow Moon soon discovers.
“You don’t have to do ‘white caps’ and ‘black caps’ any more,” says McShane.
“We play complicated characters nowadays. Wednesday is really Wotan... Odin, an old god who appears in the form of this rather charming grifter. I’ve tried to make him actually more normal, more down to earth than anyone else. He’s a regular guy — so when he does reveal who he is, it’s like, ‘Oh, hello’”.
McShane has lived in Los Angeles for the past 25 years. Even there, people still come up to him on the street wanting to talk about Lovejoy.
“They’ve asked me to come back and do it about 10 times,” he says. “I always say ‘Make it about a girl’. Lovejoy had a daughter — put her in it. And I can come on with my zimmer-frame and say ‘hello’.”