Ian McShane is Hol­ly­wood’s lat­est go-to bad guy

He has lived hard and played tough, but Bri­tish ac­tor Ian McShane is still at the top of his game, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Mau­reen Pa­ton

IAN McShane meets me at his neigh­bour­hood restau­rant, Scotts, in Lon­don’s May­fair, where 007 cre­ator Ian Flem­ing first dreamed up the leg­end of James Bond over one of its fa­mous dry mar­ti­nis. Since the se­cret agent’s looks in the orig­i­nal books were very much in the black-haired, blue-eyed McShane mould, I’m cu­ri­ous about whether he had ever had Bond am­bi­tions him­self.

“No, I could never have played Bond af­ter Sean Con­nery — he was the de­fin­i­tive one,” says McShane, re­call­ing how “Sean was the ac­tor that my mum most en­joyed meet­ing (at the pre­miere of their 1974 film The Ter­ror­ists) — but then I find most women like Sean …”

In­stead, McShane has carved out his own hugely suc­cess­ful 52-year ca­reer in tele­vi­sion as well as in film and theatre on both sides of the At­lantic. He’s best-known in the ti­tle role of the long-run­ning BBC1 hit Love­joy, as the bru­tal yet charis­matic brothel-keeper Al Swearen­gen in the HBO western Dead­wood (which won him a Golden Globe and got him crowned TV’s Sex­i­est Vil­lain by People mag­a­zine in 2005) and as a de­li­ciously evil, in­sanely hir­sute Black­beard in

Pi­rates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Now when­ever Tin­sel­town wants a vil­lain that can eat up the screen, it seems McShane is the go-to gang­ster of choice — even though he has to keep warn­ing his el­derly mother off his most vi­o­lent, ex­ple­tive-un­deleted films.

“Ex­cuse me!” barks McShane with mock­outrage. “Hol­ly­wood doesn’t call them bad­dies any more: we call them Com­pli­cated People With Is­sues — even if they’ve killed 17 people.” Yet such is his mas­tery of men­ace that even his lat­est film, the rom-com Cuban Fury, play­fully trades on McShane’s abil­ity to in­tim­i­date by giv­ing him the big build-up as the dis­ci­plinar­ian dance teacher from hell.

In real life, the ap­proach­able, so­cia­ble McShane is noth­ing like the tough guys he plays, al­though he jokes that “it de­pends how you catch me, dar­lin’ — I’m quick to flare up, but it’s over pretty quick”. And de­spite hav­ing worked with ev­ery big name — from Judi Dench, Lau­rence Olivier and his hell­rais­ing film-noir hero Robert Mitchum to Johnny Depp — McShane’s not re­motely grand. “Don’t take yourself too se­ri­ously,” is his ad­vice for young ac­tors. “These days kids want to be stars within two years, but in our busi­ness, you’ve got to have luck. I’m lucky I’m still go­ing, but then ac­tors never re­tire — they just lose the script.’’

He feels par­tic­u­larly lucky at hav­ing sur­vived and thrived in the no­to­ri­ously fickle world of show busi­ness de­spite a hell­rais­ing past of his own that matched Mitchum’s. Along with the rest of the act­ing com­mu­nity and bil­lions of film fans world­wide, McShane has been shocked by the re­cent death of Os­car-win­ning ac­tor Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man, 46. “I didn’t know him, but my old friend John Hurt had worked with him and was rem­i­nisc­ing about him to me a few days ago; it’s so sad,” says McShane, who adds that he and his wife, Gwen, are mourn­ing the death of an­other close friend — a woman whom he prefers not to name — from al­co­holism. “She was a dear, dear friend who didn’t have a mean bone in her body; it’s such a tragedy that she could not get sober. Her ad­dic­tion had baf­fled us for years; it’s such a mys­te­ri­ous ill­ness, ad­dic­tion,” he says, thank­ful that he man­aged to con­quer his own demons of drink and drugs.

McShane’s party-an­i­mal years of booz­ing and co­caine abuse be­tween the ages of 18 to 45 have been well doc­u­mented. An early drink­ing buddy was play­wright Joe Or­ton, in whose jet­black com­edy Loot McShane starred back in 1965. But it was Richard Bur­ton, who was 17 years older than McShane and by then a chronic al­co­holic, who in­tro­duced the younger man to the “salty dog” break­fast, a com­bi­na­tion of kip­pers, vodka and grape­fruit juice, topped up by more vodka in the pub at lunchtime, when McShane played his lover in the Kray Broth­ers-in­spired 1971 film Vil­lain. Some of it might have been downed for Dutch courage; McShane and Bur­ton had to pucker up for a gay kiss in one scene. As the he­do­nis­tic 70s un­folded, co­caine be­came the glam­orous drug of choice and the English McShane, who had moved his fam­ily over to LA in 1975 to try his luck in Hol­ly­wood, couldn’t wait to join the in-crowd. Yet now he re­veals that he also took heroin.

“I had a snort of heroin in LA years ago — I would snort any­thing once,” McShane says can­didly. “I’m not go­ing to be a hyp­ocrite and pre­tend I was a good ex­am­ple to young people; I en­joyed ev­ery­thing that was go­ing at one time. Then one af­ter­noon I had an epiphany and thought, ‘This is enough’ — and gave up all the drugs.”

McShane has had some high-pro­file re­la­tion­ships over the years, but says he had “never re­ally been in love be­fore till I met the ac­tress Gwen Hum­ble”. And she proved a great in­flu­ence: seven years af­ter their wed­ding, he de­cided to give up booze too by go­ing to Al­co­holics Anony­mous. As he said at the time, “That life­style is ex­haust­ing. I thought, ‘You’re get­ting old.’ I didn’t say to Gwen, ‘I’m do­ing this for you, dar­ling,’ be­cause it puts enor­mous re­spon­si­bil­ity on the other per­son; but she was def­i­nitely at the back of my mind when I did it. And AA made me se­ri­ously grow up.”

The dark side of McShane’s life is con­fined to the screen these days, with the light­hearted Love­joy im­age left far be­hind by the gang­ster he played in the 2000 film Sexy Beast with Ben Kings­ley and Ray Win­stone that led to his be­ing of­fered the stand­out role of Swearen­gen, the ul­ti­mate hell­raiser’s hell­raiser.

The cor­rupt Bishop Waleran Bigod fol­lowed in the 2010 tele­vi­sion se­ries Pil­lars of the Earth, no­to­ri­ously whip­ping him­self into a frenzy as he plot­ted to ex­tend his evil em­pire.

Yet McShane sim­ply in­sists that People With Com­pli­cated Is­sues are more fun to play; as he puts it, “the devil gets all the best tunes”.

At 71, the blue-jeaned McShane looks years younger, thanks to the kind of Mediter­raneanl-ook­ing skin that ages well and dark hair that re­fuses to go grey.

“I still love act­ing, but some­times you think how spoilt and cos­seted you are with all the ad­van­tages I get, all the places I’ve seen,” says McShane, who be­lieves in keep­ing it real by hang­ing out with artist friends in bo­hemian East LA rather than with other ac­tors.

A born mav­er­ick who made his West End de­but back in 1967 along­side Dench and Ian McKellen in the Rus­sian love-and-war play The

Prom­ise and has played ev­ery­one from Ju­das Is­car­iot to Sue-Ellen’s lover in Dal­las, McShane says he could never be a “theatre com­pany man, work­ing with all those Oxbridge di­rec­tors”.

In­stead he en­joys the cre­ative free­dom of shut­tling back and forth be­tween film and TV on both sides of the At­lantic, more in de­mand than ever. And he’s more than happy to send up his tough screen im­age as salsa guru Ron Parfitt in Cuban Fury — which has the rare virtue on McShane’s re­cent CV of be­ing com­pletely safe for his mother to watch.

“I warn her off the ones with lots of vi­o­lence and swear­ing,” ad­mits McShane. “When she asks me what they’re about, I say, ‘ Not one for you, Mum!’”

His role on Cuban Fury came about af­ter

Bri­tish ac­tor Ian McShane, left; as Black­beard, be­low, in Pi­rates of the Caribbean; On Stranger Tides, far right; and as dance in­struc­tor Ron Parfitt in scenes with Nick Frost from Cuban Fury

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