The veteran screen star talks Jawbone, bad superhero movies and how ‘tough guy’ acting has evolved.
Ian McShane has precisely the sort of charm you’d expect from, well, a veteran movie star. He’s unerringly polite and chatty, with a glint of roguishness about him. The features that have defined his menacing presence onscreen (as Al Swearengen in Deadwood, and as Winston in John Wick) – the severe mouth, crinkled blue eyes and hawkish demeanour – are in person striking, far beyond the expectations one might lay at the feet of a 74-year-old man.
LWLies sat down with McShane to chat about his latest role as a shady illegal fight promoter in the British boxing drama Jawbone. We also managed to squeeze in a brief discussion of bad superhero movies, the changing roles of tough guys onscreen, and his upcoming project with… Dr Dre.
LWLies: What was it about Jawbone that got your attention?
McShane: Well, Jonny Harris wrote the script. We’re friends in real life, we’ve done a movie together. We did Snow White & the Huntsman, which Ray Winstone was also in. And Johnny was an amateur boxer, so this film is partly autobiographical. But it was because it was very nice to do a film – a proper movie. I’m not talking a small movie versus big movie, but when you’re working the first two days, there was a real camaraderie. The director knew what he was doing. It was lovely to come back a year later, having not seen it, and really being impressed by it.
It seems like boxing films have been making a comeback lately.
It’s because boxing movies are metaphors for life. They can be whatever. Breaking out of the working class or breaking out of your own life. I never boxed as a kid, but I always admired it because I think it’s a sport like – not football, fuck any team sports – but with boxing and tennis, there’s only you, nobody else. There’s nowhere to hide. You’re on your own in there, so I‘ve got huge admiration for boxers.
It teaches you discipline, and that’s what Jimmy’s lost in his life. That’s what boxing gave him – discipline, structure. It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t box I again, but he’s got that back. And he’s also overcome his biggest fear, himself. With him being in AA, as well, that’s the issue. And I’ve got an affinity with that, being sober coming up 30 years, but I know Johnny is coming up to 10 years sober. AA gives you the same thing – discipline.
Were the John Wick films as fun to make as they are to watch?
With the first film, I said, who can resist 10 days in New York in December? Beautiful city. And I’d met Keanu before, he’s a great guy. The director, Chad Stahelski, made a movie where you knew what the genre was, but they didn’t have expectations. John Wick had a lot of affection going for it. From the public and from the critics. It came from nowhere, and it didn’t have all the hype. And number 2 hasn’t really had a lot of hype. But it’s a terrific movie. It doesn’t have a big budget, and it carries on from the day the first one finishes. John’s in jeopardy. And if they make number 3 – well, c’mon, you know they will.
If you’re in another one would you like to get a few action scenes?
Oh no, I’ll leave that to Keanu. Maybe they’ll discover Winston was an expert with a knife or something, I don’t know. We’ll see. But the film concentrates on what it does best. Backstories are wasted. You just need John Wick to be there. I hate movies that suddenly start explaining everything – John Wick created a world, this mayhem in New York. A lot of it is shot at night, with that lovely dark blue kind of metallic look to it. I think they did this great job at the second one.
You have a very distinct persona. You’re intimidating, a menacing authority figure, a gangster… is there anything you do when you’re on set to turn that switch on?
I think there’s two things that always help with that. Stillness, and don’t speak too quickly. James Cagney had that great phrase: ‘Plant your feet, look the other actor in the eye, and don’t trip over the furniture.’ Which is him being coy, but stillness and control emanates from you that way. Someone who’s running around all the time – nobody’s scared of them. You have to be someone who has a sort of control without seeming in control. But the one line that gives my character Joe away in Jawbone is when Johnny says, ‘Oh, I’ll give you the money back’, and Joe says, ‘Of course you will.’ But it doesn’t have to be said in a scary way.
Looking back at your career, films like Villain now seem ahead of their time in terms of the way they look at masculinity and homosexuality. Would you say that you’ve seen that portrayal of ‘tough guys’ change over the years?
I think they’ve become more complicated over the last 20 years. Starting with American television in the late ’90s with the Sopranos, an overlooked programme called Oz, and then Deadwood. Those shows showed villains in a more complicated light. No one wears a black hat or a white hat anymore – you wear a grey one. Characters are more complicated and we’re used to that now. One of the great quotes is from the guy who wrote Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, ‘What’s Breaking Bad about?’ and he said ‘Mr Chips goes gangster.’ Which is great. Phenomenal idea for a show. He starts to believe he’s good at it.
And you’ve done television, smaller budget films, massive blockbusters. Do you have a preference between them?
No. The problem with the big films is the time. They’re fun to do, but they take too long. Movies like Jawbone, you’re there and you’ve done your bit.
What do blockbusters have over small movies?
The catering. So many of these superhero movies now are all dark and depressing. They used to be about bright sunlight. I was on location last year and I took a glimpse at Batman v Superman. Jesus. Apart from being incredibly boring, dear god almighty, I didn’t know what was going on.
How do you decide what role is right for you at what time?
It’s always nice to surprise people. I’ve got a thing coming out with Dr Dre. We did it last year. And it’s sort of about Dre’s life. There are three characters who are figments of his imagination, but we appear. Sam Rockwell is ‘Ego’, Michael K Williams is ‘Negativity’, and I play ‘Vengeance’. We all argue amongst ourselves. And it’s about what’s going on in Dre’s mind. Vengeance wins, though.