When you’re a screen legend like Ian McShane, you kind of think you’ve seen it all. Then showrunners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green come along with a blood-soaked vision of Neil Gaiman’s mind-bending fantasy novel “American Gods” to remind you there are always new corners to turn.
The 74-year-old actor spoke to Variety about tackling one of those eponymous deities in Starz’s bold new series, sharing the screen with fellow Manchester native Ricky Whittle and that proposed “Deadwood” feature film that has many western fans waiting with bated breath.
So, uh, you don’t see this kind of thing on TV too often.
[Laughs.] It is quite a show. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to do it and I’m even more responsive to it after seeing it. It went better than I thought it ever would. It’s quite right too. I mean, if you’re going to make a show called “American Gods” you might as well go for it, you know? But I must say, when you’re making a show it’s always difficult to guess.
Along those lines, I was wondering how your vision of it when you read the book and the scripts differed from what you eventually saw on screen. It’s such an execution-dependent show.
Finding the tone is always important for a show which combines sort of the big questions in life with humor and animation and religion and a background to immigration, coming to America. It starts up as a road movie, a buddy/buddy movie between me and Shadow Moon, the excellent Mr. Ricky Whittle. But it goes into other areas. I mean when I read the book after they offered me the part I thought if they get a third of this on the screen that will be something, and they’ve got much more than that. I think that’s due to the ingenuity of Bryan and Michael. I’d never worked with Bryan. Bryan has that extra “va-voom” in terms of television showrunners. He has a vision and he goes for it. And I’ve worked with Michael, who fully has his own version of how things should be. I did a show called “Kings,” which was a show set in the future, what if America was a kingdom — so Michael has his own ideas about America and I think they’re both brilliant in their own way and they combined well on this.
When you first read it, what got you excited about playing this character, Mr. Wednesday?
I think what appeals to me — it’s not just the character in the movie; it tends to be the whole shebang, unless it’s one of those one-off jobs. But when you’re committed to a TV show, it seems to me very different. I had worked with [Neil] Gaiman before on “Coroline,” playing a voice in that. Again, he’s a hugely talented, multi-faceted writer. My preferred genre of fiction is more hard-boiled. It tends to go into the areas of Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald and modern fiction. But when I read it I was fascinated by the whole thing. And it’s hard for an actor to resist playing a god!
I’m sure. It just seems like such a delicious character in general.
Well, because he’s a regular guy. I mean I think it’s because he behaves more like a normal person than anybody else on the show. That’s what makes him so interesting. It will be intriguing to know where to go with it in the second year. They can’t repeat themselves in terms of the coming to America thing. I mean you need to know how they go about expanding the characters, the ongoing war between Wednesday and the new gods and how it fits in with the relationship between Shadow and his dead wife Laura, which is one of the characters that they brought from the book and expanded upon. I mean only cable could do this show. The previous show I did with Michael was a show for NBC. Networks just aren’t equipped to do this kind of show, not because they don’t want to but because it’s not in their purview.
What do you actually hope for out of a second season?
We’ve only covered about 120 pages of the book, so they’ve got lots of places to go. You can’t reveal too much because everything is a reveal. All I need to say really is that if anybody has read the book they know that Wednesday is playing the long game. That’s all I can really say. It’s like in chess. Wednesday is playing the long game. There’s reveal upon reveal upon reveal but we’re dealing with something else. When they actually reveal the final big one, who knows if it’s in season two or season three? But it will be interesting to see where they go and when they go there.
You mentioned your co-star Ricky Whittle. He has quite the task, acting off of these larger-than-life characters. Talk about working with him.
Ricky’s lovely. We’re from the same part of the world, Manchester, which is taking a bit of a beating recently. My own country is taking a bit of a beating in the world, but that’s something to say thank you Mr. Bush and thank you Mr. Blair, but that’s going backwards. But no, Ricky, he’s a North country guy, we support the same football team — Manchester United, who my dad used to play for — and we just get on very well. The very first scene we started was the scene on the airplane, and that’s the first time that Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday. What I think overall, it added, because it was a long scene, it was a long day on the set in Toronto. We got to know each other. I think he’s got the most difficult part in the show because the show is seen through his eyes so he’s really a reacter not an instigator, which is a little more difficult to play.
I did want to ask about “Deadwood.” I’m sure you’re asked about it a lot. But you’re intimately aware of what happened there, why it was canceled, the players involved, etc. So what level of confidence do you have that the feature film closure will happen?
There are signs that HBO are quite keen to make it. They’ve got the script. It’s when they’ll make an offer and when we can fit it in. We probably won’t start “American Gods” until probably the end of the year or early next year, so there’s a window when we can do “Deadwood,” but they need to get everybody together. I mean all the characters that David [Milch] wants to put in the show. I’m probably going to have breakfast with him later this week. But no, they’re keen to do it, and I’m sure it would seem not only artistically a perfect time to do it but also commercially because there’s always been a revised interest in “Deadwood.” It went off the air far too soon for all the reasons you say, but that’s a long time ago. It seems like a two hour film would be a nice thing for all the people that want to see it and all of us who were deprived of the gig too early.
I served on a film festival jury with Earl Brown some years back and all I could do was talk his ear off about “Deadwood.” I hope it comes to be.
There were a lot of great people on it. It was a great experience all around. It’s one of those that was received extraordinarily well, it was done in a marvelous way, there were lots of terrific actors, we were working with gifted writer.
And Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio, I’ve been up there a few times. That’s such a great location.
Oh it’s great! It was fabulous. Absolutely, yes. Because the editors were there, the writers were there so David could expand on a scene. He could change the schedule for the day, because he didn’t have any production problems — you simply moved 50 yards to the left. So yeah, I’d love to see Al [Swearengen] one more time.
You’ve done so much in this business but is there anything left that you still want to achieve? Any itch that still needs to be scratched?
No. I’ve never been one to sort of go out there and grab wildly at some classical play. I don’t work that way. You think you’ve done everything and then along comes “American Gods” and you’re thrust, very luckily, into a whole new area of people who maybe have never seen your earlier stuff. So of course the genre, it’s very nice to be involved. I’ve done westerns, I’ve done classical stuff, I’ve done modern stuff, drama, now I’m doing genre stuff. But as long as the product is good, to use the modern parlance, but it is. As long as Bryan and Michael keep inventing stuff it will be a pleasure to do it. What I really should’ve said from the start is that the book seems a perfect blueprint, if you like, for a TV series, because it’s not a linear story from A to B, and with the creative people and Bryan and Michael, they can create on top of that, which does Gaiman proud, and he’s very closely involved as well with the production. He loved it, too, which is kind of good, you know?