A natural at portraying complex anti-heroes and charming heavies, IAN McSHANE is the classically trained, award-winning actor who has grabbed attention and acclaim from audiences and critics around the world with his unforgettable gallery of scoundrels, kings, mobsters and thugs.
And, now, a god as well!
McShane just completed his second season (as star and executive producer) on the hit Starz series, “American Gods,” the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel. As Mr. Wednesday, a shifty, silver-tongued conman, he masks his true identity – that of the Norse god of war, Odin, who’s assembling a team of elders to bring down the new false idols. A series McShane calls “like nothing else I’ve seen on television.”
It’s a comment that also befits McShane’s critically-acclaimed role of the charismatic, menacing and lawless 19th century brothel-and-bar keep, Al Swearengen, in the profound and profane HBO western series “Deadwood,” which ran for just 36 episodes over three seasons from 2004-06. For his work on the series’ second season, McShane won the 2005 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Drama (in addition to Emmy and Screen Actors Guild nominations as Outstanding Lead Dramatic Actor). He also received the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Drama for his work in the show’s debut season (with a second nomination in 2005).
It is a role and performance the New York Times dubbed “one of the most interesting villains on television.” And, a recent online poll called Swearengen a more compelling onscreen gangster over the likes of Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone. After a twelve-year hiatus from portraying maybe his most iconic character (“it was the most satisfyingly creative three years of my professional career” he says), McShane recently reprised the unforgettable rogue when HBO resurrected the 1870s western in a two-hour telefilm, “Deadwood: The Movie,” nominated for the Outstanding Television Movie Emmy.
At an age when many successful thespians turn to cameo appearances and character parts, McShane’s busy career (which dates back to 1962) also includes three very different starring roles on the big screen in the coming months. He was seen alongside David Harbour in Neil Marshall’s reimagined comic book epic, “Hellboy.” McShane also co-starred with Gary Carr in the Dan Pritzker drama, “Bolden,” the biopic of musician Buddy Bolden, the father of jazz and a key figure in the development of ragtime music (McShane portrays Bolden’s nemesis, Judge Perry). And, he reprised his role (reuniting with Keanu Reeves) as Winston, the suave and charming owner of the assassins-only Tribeca hotel in the latest installment of director Chad Stahelski’s action trilogy, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” which opened to enormous box office success.
Years before his triumphant role in “Deadwood,” McShane had compiled a long and diverse career on both British and American television. He produced and starred in the acclaimed series “Lovejoy” for the BBC (and A&E in the U.S.), directing several episodes during the show’s lengthy run. The popular Sunday night drama (which attracted 18 million viewers weekly during its run from 1990-94) saw McShane in the title role of an irresistible, roguish Suffolk antiques dealer. He would reunite with the BBC by producing and starring in the darker and more serious drama, Madson.
He collected a second Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Miniseries for his portrayal of the scheming Waleran Bigod in Starz’s Emmy-nominated “Pillars of the Earth.” The production, which originated on the U.K.’s Channel 4, was based on Ken Follett’s bestselling historic novel about the building of a 12th-century cathedral during the time known as “the Anarchy” after King Henry I had lost his only son in the White Ship disaster of 1120. It’s a character McShane says “would fit into the Vatican.”
He is also well-known to TV audiences for his roles in FX’s “American Horror Story,” Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” and, more recently, Amazon’s “Dr. Thorne” and HBO’s juggernaut, “Game of Thrones” (“I loved the character and did it because my three grandkids, big fans of the show, wouldn’t have forgiven me if I hadn’t”). And, he first worked with “American Gods” producer Michael Green on the short-lived NBC drama, “Kings,” a show (inspired by The Book Of Samuel) he calls “far too revolutionary for network television.”
Other notable small screen roles include his appearance in David Wolper’s landmark miniseries “Roots” (as the British cockfighting aficionado), “Whose Life Is it Anyway?,” Heathcliff in the 1967 miniseries “Wuthering Heights” and Harold Pinter’s Emmy-winning “The Caretaker.” McShane has also played a variety of real-life subjects like Sejanus in the miniseries “A.D.,” the title role of Masterpiece Theater’s “Disraeli: Portrait of A Romantic” and Judas in NBC’s “Jesus of Nazareth” (directed by Franco Zeffirelli).
McShane, who shows no signs of slowing down in a career now entrenched in its sixth decade (“acting is the only business where the older you get, the parts and the pay get better”), began his career during Britain’s New Wave Cinema of the early 1960s. He landed his first lead role in the 1962 English feature “The Wild and the Willing,” which also starred another acting upstart and fellow Brit – McShane’s lifelong friend, the late John Hurt. McShane later revealed that he had ditched class at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art to audition for the role.
Since that 1962 motion picture debut, McShane has enjoyed a fabulous run of character roles such as the sinister Cockney mobster, Teddy Bass, opposite Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley in “Sexy Beast”; the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, alongside Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”; and Richard Burton’s bi-sexual partner, Wolfie, in the 1971 heist film, “Villain.” He gave Hayley Mills her first onscreen kiss as a smoldering gypsy in 1965’s “Sky West and Crooked,” was part of the stellar ensemble cast (James Mason, James Coburn, Dyan Cannon) in the Stephen Sondheim-Anthony Perkins scripted big screen mystery, “The Last of Sheila,” and played a retired sheriff with a violent past opposite Patrick Wilson in the gritty drama, “The Hollow Point.”
Other film credits include Guy Hamilton’s all-star WWII epic, “The Battle of Britain,” the romantic comedy “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium,” “Pottersville,” “Hercules,” “Snow White and the Huntsman” and “Jawbone” (reuniting with fellow Brit Ray Winstone in both), “Jack the Giant Slayer,” Woody Allen’s “Scoop,” Rodrigo Garcia’s indie drama “Nine Lives” (Gotham Award nominee for Best Ensemble Performance) and the darkly perverse crime drama, “44 Inch Chest,” a film in which McShane not only starred, but also produced.
While also making his professional theatre debut in 1962 (“Infanticide in the House of Fred August,” Arts Theatre, London), McShane appeared onstage in the original 1965 production of Joe Orton’s “Loot.” Two years later, he starred alongside Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the hit stage play, “The Promise,” a production which transferred to Broadway in 1967 (with Eileen Atkins replacing Dench). He would return to Broadway one more time forty years later (2008), starring in the 40th anniversary staging of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming,” for which he shared a Drama Desk Award as Best Cast Ensemble.
McShane also returned to the West End boards in 2000, charming audiences as the seductive, sex-obsessed Darryl Van Horne while making his musical stage debut in Cameron Mackintosh’s “The Witches of Eastwick,” an adaptation of the 1987 film. At the esteemed Matrix Theatre in Los Angeles, he appeared in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” and John Osborne’s “Inadmissible Evidence,” earning a pair of Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Awards for Lead Performance in the process. He also starred in the world premiere of Larry Atlas’ “Yield of the Long Bond.”
In addition to his work in front of the camera, McShane is also well-known for his voiceover work, with his low, distinctive baritone on display in a variety of projects. He voiced the eccentric magician, Mr. Bobinsky, in Henry Selick’s award nominated “Coraline” (scripted by “American Gods” author Neil Gaiman), lent a sinister air to Tai Lung, the snow leopard adept at martial arts, in “Kung Fu Panda” (Annie Award nominee), and created the notorious Captain Hook in “Shrek the Third.” He also narrated Grace Jones’ 1985 album, Slave to the Rhythm, succumbing to producer Trevor Horn’s request to take the job because, per Horn,” Orson Welles was dead, and I needed a voice.” The album sold over a million copies worldwide. In the virtual reality domain, he recently lent his voice to the award- winning VR animated short “Age of Sail” in the role of the elderly sailor, William Avery, adrift alone in the North Atlantic.
After almost sixty years entertaining audiences across the performance spectrum, McShane admits he did not set out for a career in the footlights while growing up in Manchester, England (he was actually born in Blackburn). It was by unexpected circumstances after McShane broke his leg playing soccer that he ended up performing in the school play production of Cyrano De Bergerac where he met his life-long friend and teacher, Leslie Ryder. Before he knew it, he auditioned for the Royal Academy of Arts where he was accepted and then left a term early to appear in the film, “The Wild and The Willing”.
McShane never looked back.
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