You never know quite what you're going to get with Ian McShane, interview-wise. Sometimes he's playfully grumpy, as he was with some journalists who visited the set of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising earlier this year. "What made you want to do this film?" they asked. "The check," he replied. Other times, he's relaxed and jovial, as he was back in 2006 when I sat in on his roundtables for Woody Allen's Scoop. He always comes across as a straight-shooter, and I don't think it would be tough to get him to go off-message, but mostly he just wants to be in and out of press situations with little fuss, it seems. That was the case when he agreed to speak with Cinematical late last week about his role as Merriman Lyon in Seeker. When the time came for our appointment, I got a call from McShane's handler, telling me the big guy had decided to put off our call in favor of a quick lunch, so when he finally called a half-hour later, it seemed like the place to start.
Cinematical: So, how was lunch? What'd you have?
IM: Ha! I don't know what it was. I ordered some artichoke and it came up ... it's very good if you put it across pasta ... and buffalo wings, which were so hot I must have put a pound of vinegar on them, God knows what. Anyway! Enough of lunch. I'm fine. I've just had some melon and I'm having a coffee and I'm talking to you. How are you?
Cinematical: I'm good, thanks. So it's all press for you today, then?
IM: Yeah, I've done the junket. So far, we've done all the TV stuff. Now I'm doing the online, and some telephone stuff, and I'll be through by about five.
Cinematical: I have to start by asking you about the status of the Deadwood movies. I wish I could think of a fresh way to ask, but there it is. Has that ship sailed?
IM: You might be onto a thing there. I just got a call on Friday from ... a dear friend of mine, who told me that they're packing up the ranch. They're dismantling the ranch and taking the stuff out. That ship is gonna sail. I think with the uncertainty of the future, because of this possible strike next year, the writers and the actors, there was no chance of doing it before next May or June anyway, because I'm committed to other things. So I think it's ... Bonsoir, Deadwood.
Cinematical: I gotta tell you, I feel cheated.
IM: You feel cheated. Imagine how I feel! We all do. We all do. It was one of those one-off jobs that you do which has got an extraordinary creative brain behind it, and it kept getting better, and the actors were great. It was a fabulous place to be and work. It was a workshop cum theater cum film. It was an extraordinary time. But everything has to come to an end, babe.
Cinematical: Did you and Frances Conroy compare HBO notes while filming Seeker?
IM: [laughs] I don't think I was feeling too good towards HBO, so we decided not to talk about HBO. No, I mean I loved her show. She's just a great actress.
Cinematical: So how was the shoot overall? Pretty easy, in and out?
IM: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's always tough doing a three-month shoot in a foreign country, but I think they went there for a reason, which was that they could get all these soundstages in one place and build these extraordinary sets and then have the exterior -- they have like half a forest outside the film studio, which they turned into like an English countryside with facades of houses. That's the reason they shot there, but also, David Cunningham, coming from a documentary background, shot it in a documentary style, which is very interesting, with like three or four cameras, usually on everything. Not so reliant on special effects and CG -- a lot of the sets were practical. They built a couple of sets inside a water tank, so they could take the water out and bring it in again. Then they had a dismantling set, the Great Hall, which came apart. It would tumble down and be put back up again. And then they asked if I didn't mind having a few snakes on me, and I said 'I've been here three months now -- if it means getting out a day earlier, you can put ten thousand snakes on me.'
Cinematical: So you wouldn't recommend Romania as a travel destination.
IM: Eh, it's okay. I mean, you're working there. It's very difficult being that long in a foreign country. I mean, they were very nice, the people were nice and they're all working on the job, but the film companies go there for so-called practical reasons, which is to save money on the sets and the labor force that will be building them. Outsourcing has reached everywhere, Ryan.
Cinematical: Your character in the movie is this all-knowing wizard, yet his day job is as a butler. Why do you think he's only climbed that high, with all that knowledge?
IM: That's a facade.
IM: In the books, it's kind of like -- this is the second one -- the books were written and published at a time when I was sort of just starting my life as an actor in the early 60s, so I'm not that familiar with the books. I think its the facade of this group of people, The Old Ones, the four of them. Frances Conroy is like the eccentric old lady who lives in the house up the hill, and I'm like the butler and Jim Piddock and James Cosmo are the two guys who work around the house, and this is just their facade. They are really this group of Old Ones. They're the warriors. They've been around since time began and they protect the world against the dark. They represent the light against the dark. So it's a pretty basic concept. The light versus the dark, good and evil ... whatever. And the kid doesn't know that he's the last one of the line to be born. He's one of the old ones.
Cinematical: Did you create your own private back story for your character? What he does for fun when he's not mentoring young wizards and so forth?
IM: Well, yeah, but in designing his costumes. The thing is, when you're creating a character on film, it's pretty instantaneous. You've got to go in there and decide what the look is gonna be. It's pretty instantaneous. It's not like a play, where you've got a period over three weeks when you can work on it, work on the look or whatever ... you've gotta come up with that. So, I think the look that we developed was sort of the eccentric Englishman, you know? He probably likes riding to hounds and doing all those English things, or reading books at home. But the main thing is that he's got a sense of humor. I don't know if that comes through in the books a lot, but this is one thing John Hodge did in the script -- tried to get between me and the kid, that they have this relationship which is kind of gruff in a sense, but there's such a humor about it. He really likes the kid, and they have a good time together, besides him being his mentor and his Obi Ben Kenobi. I'm convincing this kid that, 'yes, it's true, you are the last one. It's up to you. You're to face up to your responsibilities.' And the kid things 'What the hell am I into here?' So it was a good shoot. Lots of good people. I hope the film came out well. Have you seen it?
Cinematical: I saw it.
IM: What'd you think?
Cinematical: Um, it was interesting. I liked the fact that the forces of The Dark picked the right kind of lure for a 14 year-old boy, which is a hot 20 year-old girl. I thought they should have played up the whole puberty angle more.
IM: Yeah, the kid is sort of an Alexander. He's going through, like, hormones popping all over the place. While we were making th movie, I was scared his voice might break, but it didn't. But he's a great kid and he was full of enthusiasm for the movie, to do it. He wanted to do it, and there we are.
Cinematical: Cunningham has an interesting background, by the way, for a film director. How did you two get on during the filming?
IM: Very well. The one thing I wanted -- I don't know if it came off or not -- was to find a relationship with the kid that was very practical. It wasn't overprotective or always wagging a finger in his face. It was like, teaching him to stand on his own two feet and putting humor into it. That was the main thing. Like with the relationship with Frances -- you get that early on. He's not really a butler, he's playing around with it or whatever. And the relationship with the kid has humor. Bringing humor in where you can on these kinds of projects. I had never done one before, this kind of a fable. But David Cunningham said 'You know the character, just go with it. Go where you want.' And we thought a lot about the look of the character, the eccentric look of the butler with the big plaid trousers.
Cinematical: You mentioned this kind of project, a big special effects movie. Is it ever embarrassing, as an actor, to have to work opposite special effects and react to nothing?
IM: You kind of throw yourself in, otherwise you feel ... listen, I didn't have to walk around with a blue body suit on like I think Bill Nighy did, on that Caribbean, whatever that was. I think he was literally ... he wore a body suit with little dots on it, you know? And you're never acting with people, because you're going to look completely different. So this was just doing things like ... very minimum special effects that I was involved with in this. Most of it was practical. But I've done it before, and it is a little weird when you put those suits on with the little dots all over them Then they computer manipulate you with those pixels all over the place.
Cinematical: And have you talk to a tennis ball on a stick.
IM: Yeah, exactly.
Cinematical: So if this one goes, are you going to do more?
IM: Yes. No. Maybe. There's always outs in every contract, you know? [laughs] If it does very well, no doubt they'll be over to us and there are always reason why we might not. We'll wait and see. I think the film opens next week. I hope it does very well.
Cinematical: You're doing a lot of voice over work lately -- what's the appeal of that?
IM: Well, you just go into the studio and create your own world, you know? You can do what you want. I did one with Henry Selick, Coraline, with Dakota Fanning, that's coming out. Playing a crazy Russian upstairs. I've got a thing coming out, Kung Fu Panda. I've still gotta finish that, actually, with Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman. That's for Dreamworks, that'll be out next year. And The Golden Compass I did, as well. I play the bad bear, the voice of the bad bear, and Ian McKellen plays the voice of the good bear
Cinematical: Have you seen The Golden Compass yet?
IM: No, I haven't seen it. I haven't even seen this movie. I've been busy. I've got a movie coming out with Renee Zellweger next spring which is called Case 39, which is a psychological thriller, and I'm doing one now, I'm going back there early tomorrow morning, which is a sort of wild action adventure. It's called Death Race, with Tyrese Gibson and Jason Statham and Joan Allen. It's NASCAR, to the death, set inside prison.