Over the phone from London, British actor Ian McShane is talking about his homeland’s perennial obsession: the weather. More specifically, he is explaining how he fell ill when the U.K.’s recent Indian summer was replaced by conditions of a more briskly autumnal nature. “I’ve been sick,” he says. “I’ve a chest infection, where you just want to go around coughing. Anyway, luckily, I have the week off.”
Rare is the actor — even the plague-ridden one — who regards having a week off as “lucky.” But then McShane has been enjoying his own professional Indian summer over the last half decade or so. McShane can claim one of thespian-land’s more colorful and varied careers, one that has wandered between movies (1971’s Richard Burton-starring Villain, 2000’s fabulous Sexy Beast), television (Dallas, the BBC show Lovejoy) and stage (the 2007 Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming). But it was his unforgettable performance as the foul-mouthed Al Swearengen in HBO’s late, lamented Deadwood that made Hollywood bigwigs sit up, pay attention, and, somewhat oddly, decide to cast him in pretty much every family-friendly project around. Indeed, these days McShane is very much the belle of the blockbuster ball. He voiced the villanous Tai Lung in 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, recently finished filming Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Killer, and is currently playing a dwarf in Snow White and the Huntsman (That’s the one with Kristen Stewart). He also, of course, essayed the role of Blackbeard in this year’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.
Below, McShane talks about Pirates, Deadwood, and the awesomeness of Frank Zappa.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When I spoke to Johnny Depp earlier this year he said that, while making On Stranger Tides, the pair of you bonded over a shared love of Captain Beefheart.
IAN McSHANE: Yeah. Johnny’s got quite quirky, eclectic musical tastes and so do I. I’m a huge fan of [Frank] Zappa and Beefheart. Johnny’s very versed in that time. We were talking about a very brilliant but erratic American actor called Timothy Carey. He was in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing but he was clearly off his trolley. And he made this film, The World’s Greatest Sinner. I’d never seen it. Johnny said,”I’ve got to get you this movie.” And he sent it to me. It’s a wacko film. And who did the music for it? Frank Zappa. I just started his biography again, Zappa. I was reading it and it was one of those funny things that came out of nowhere. He wrote the music for The World’s Greatest Sinner.
Anyway, that’s beside the point. Johnny’s a great guy and now he sends me CDs of music and old blues stuff and I send him some stuff. He’s a good man, Mr. Depp, very fine. It was a great shoot. Johnny is very easy company and so is Penelope [Cruz] and Geoffrey [Rush]. It was just too long. Those movies, they just go on too long. You know, six months. You want them to finish after four.
Did you have much sword fighting experience before making On Stranger Tides?
Sword fighting? Oh, yeah. Well, you train at that at drama school. I hadn’t done much for many years. But the amount you do is pretty minimal. You do it [once] with cameras and if you’re smart you let the stuntmen to do the rest of it, so you look good. Really really good. I love those actors that say, “I’ll do all of it!” You say, “Are you sure? I don’t think so. Come on, that’s what the guy gets paid for, making you look good!” Victor Mature was the original guy who never did [stunts]. Apparently, he was injured once. Do you remember him?
I do. Samson and Delilah.
Yeah. He wouldn’t do anything. Apparently, he was famous for it. They were filming in California somewhere and there was a stream and [the director] said, “Run across the stream.” He said, “No, no. Alligators.” They said, “This is California! And it’s a stream!” He said “No, no. You never know where alligators could get to.” They said, “Before we say ‘Action!’ we’ll fire into the stream to make sure there’s nothing there.” There was a pause and Victor Mature said, “What about the deaf ones?”
Many Deadwood fans — myself included — were horrified at the unexpected departure of Al Swearengen from our television screens. Is there even the slimmest possibility of seeing him again?
Well, you never know with that. Never say never with something like that. It was such a great experience. The best ever. I mean, three years of maybe the finest show ever on television. Everybody talks about The Wire and whatever. I’ve watched all of them and I just think Deadwood has something the others didn’t. It concentrated on the town. It was as big a character as anybody in it.
David Milch, who created it and who I love dearly, he still wants to do it. I guess it will come down to if it’s feasible. It was a hugely expensive show. That was the reason why it was taken off. It wasn’t just HBO involved, it was Paramount TV and David and the contracts. There was a load of stuff that went down. But he would love to see it come back. He would like to do two two-hour movies to finish it off.
When was the last time you spoke with him about this?
I speak to him on a regular basis, as a friend. I had lunch with him a couple of months ago and he was wishing that, you know… But he’s got this new show coming out with Michael Mann called Luck on HBO. So we’ll see. You never know!
You can see Mr McShane swashing some buckle in the trailer for On Stranger Tides below.