AMERICAN historians don’t know much about Ellis Alfred Swearengen. They’re pretty sure he came from Chicago. In 1876, he built The Gem Saloon and Theatre on Main Street in the illegal gold- mining settlement of Deadwood, South Dakota, where he was proprietor until the place burned down in 1899. Given that The Gem became the local centre for “vile entertainment” in that time, raking in over $5000 a night in a town that averaged one murder per day, you can bet your horse that Al Swearengen was a bad man.
Beyond that, screenwriter David Milch was free to invent a personality for him when creating his new TV series Deadwood. The result is more or less the most ambiguous and magnetic character ever to appear in a television drama. And the way Ian McShane plays him, Swearengen might be God, or the Devil. “Yeah,” says McShane, “it’s a pretty good part, isn’t it? He’s not just a villain. He’s much more complex than that: the smartest guy around, the force who makes things happen in this town.”
McShane is back in London today on a short break from filming the second season, so he’s still wearing the saloon-keeper’s sinister wild frontier facial hair. He’ll be 62 next week, but the hair is still jet black. Like Swearengen, he curses a lot, but more out of enthusiasm. He frequently calls me “sweetheart”. His eyes have warmed up from his work on the show, where they look cold, hooded, and never shut – missing nothing, forgetting nothing, surprised by nothing. But it’s a measure of how fully he inhabits the role that, once you’ve watched Deadwood, you will look at Ian McShane and see only Swearengen. Not that charmingly untrustworthy East Anglian antiques dealer Lovejoy, not the impassive London crime boss Teddy Bass from Sexy Beast, not Benjamin Disraeli, Judas Iscariot, Chrisopher Marlowe or any of the other fictional and historical figures McShane has played in film and TV over the past 40 years.
As far as McShane knows, David Milch and HBO – the American cable channel which also commissions The Sopranos and Six Feet Under – weren’t really looking to put a British actor in the role. “I don’t really know how they came across me,” he says. “And the last thing I was wanting to do was another TV show. But Deadwood was a fucking gift ” Any actor would want a part in it. The script sinks the myth of the Wild West, and the foundations of modern America, deep into a pit of mud, blood, horse-manure and moral chaos – Deadwood was built out of greed for gold, over the territory and the graves of native Sioux tribes. Most of the characters are fully fleshed legends, history-makers and background players from real life – Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, EB Farnum, Seth Bullock. And they all speak in a harsh poetic mash of 19th-century English, frontier lingo and brutal slang.
“Put one fuck in the wrong place, and you’re fucked,” says McShane of Deadwood’s distinctive language. “It’s crude but it’s true. The dialogue is all laid out very carefully, none of this shit is improvised. And in the monologues it becomes a kind of Shakespearean verse.” He gives all credit to David Milch, the former literature professor and co-creator of Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, who has said he wanted to write something about the genesis of American law and order that wouldn’t “bore the ass off you”.
“This guy Milch is one of those one-off geniuses,” says McShane. “Degenerate gambler, 20-year heroin addict, professor at Yale. Fantastic to work with. You’d love him.” And Milch knew McShane was the guy to play Swearengen as soon as they met up to talk about it – a character actor who could be lethal, funny and melancholy, and give this dead man life in a hundred other ways as required. It’s a hard job, but it’s the best he’s ever had.
“It gets a little complicated when you get these two-page monologues, which I had to do the other day. But it’s like the best combination of theatre workshop, feature film and TV you could ever do. This is what you get into acting for. Something like Deadwood brings out all the skills you’ve learned over the years, on top of whatever natural ability you might have.” McShane wouldn’t have known he had any natural ability at all, unless one of his teachers had told him. Acting was not the number- one dream career for boys growing up in post-war Manchester. His father Harry played professional football for Manchester United, and Ian wasn’t bad himself, “but I never really had any pretentions about becoming a soccer player”.
“At school this teacher asked me if I wanted to be in a play. So I did it, and I was very good, you know? I felt very comfortable. Then he got me to audition for Rada, so I went down to London with my mum and dad, and they accepted me.” About 18 months later, McShane dropped out when he got the lead part in a movie called The Wild And The Willing, co-starring the young John Hurt. “It was the start of the 1960s, I was 19 years old, and I didn’t have a fucking clue.”
He didn’t think about what kind of roles he wanted or what kind of actor he wanted to be. He just worked. McShane starred in the original production of Joe Orton’s Loot, he played a rock’n’roller on Armchair Theatre, he was a spitfire pilot in Guy Hamilton’s film The Battle Of Britain. “That’s how it was back then, a much more varied experience. You do a movie, you do a play, you do TV. I was also very aware that I wanted a terrific social life. So, up until the middle of the 1980s, I wasn’t that bothered about the career, as long as I was making money and having a great time. And I did have a great fucking time. There are some jobs that I don’t even remember doing, in the blizzard of alcohol and drugs.”
Those jobs may or may not include playing Ali Ben Yousef in the TV mini-series Marco Polo, Marlowe in the Life Of Shakespeare, and Judas in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus Of Nazareth. All different, but shifty. He’s unlikely ever to forget doing the 1971 movie Villain, given that his character had to french kiss Richard Burton, who tasted “surprisingly good”. By the mid-1980s, McShane was living in LA and taking character parts in American prime-time shows Dallas, Magnum PI and Miami Vice, on which he played two separate bad guys, including a General Noriega-style Colombian megalomaniac in the last-ever episode.
“That stuff was fun,” he says. “But there comes a point where you think, yeah, I’m rather good at this, in a way. So I decided to do a series for myself.” Lovejoy became McShane’s showcase on the BBC, and it was all his own idea. He starred, directed some episodes, and set up his own company to produce it. It looked easy – light-hearted, middle- English comedy-drama – but it wasn’t. “Lovejoy was very nice, very successful, well-written, funny. But that’s a difficult genre to crack, to find that balance between humour and depth, and make it seem casual. By the end, you’ve had enough of it, you want to get away from it.” The show ran for five series, and when it finished, McShane was synonymous with the character. If he had been vaguely typecast as dead-eyed and swarthy before Lovejoy, he became your mum’s idea of a twinkling hero in tight jeans for years afterward.
“Yeah, people love to label you. After one thing you’re a psycho, after another you’re a charming rogue. But that’s alright, you’re in their business. And you’re a working actor, not a movie star.” There is nothing a working actor won’t try, which is why McShane recently took on his first West End musical, playing the Devil in The Witches Of Eastwick. He won’t be doing it again. “It taught me a good lesson: never do a musical. When in doubt, they just put in another song. Instead of working on that bit between the songs, which is called acting.”
He won’t, in fact, be doing anything other than Deadwood for the next few years – the show is winning audiences and awards (McShane won the Television Critics Association prize for dramatic acting last week), and HBO see it as “a long-running show”. So this is Ian McShane’s life now. He lives in Venice Beach with his wife, watches Man U matches on Sky and hangs around with his friends, “bohos and artists from East LA”. Every morning, he drives out to the Deadwood set at Gene Autrey’s legendary Melody Ranch – where they shot classic Westerns in the 1950s – and gets into character. And the character is extraordinary.
He must feel, in some way, vindicated. “That’s it, sweetheart. You’ve got it. And I don’t think I could have played Swearengen 10 years ago. Maybe all your experiences accumulate and combine into one character. Everything comes together. You learn from life in every way. [Actor and bon viveur] Milton Burle once said, ‘Better to be shit in a hit than a hit in shit.’ I don’t know how many people are watching Deadwood but it certainly feels like I’m a hit in a hit.”