John Russo
April 17, 2017

Tough Guy with Timbre

Ian McShane tackles another temperamental character in American Gods.

Ann Farmer

The internet tried to shame Ian McShane last year for his loose lips regarding a  Game of Thrones plot twist — but he wasn’t having it.

Fans got ticked off when McShane hinted that the Hound — a beloved and long-absent character — would reappear during his season-six cameo on the HBO series. When admonished for the slip, McShane vexed them further by retorting, “It’s only tits and dragons.”

He remains unrepentant. “It probably added another million [viewers],” remarks the British actor, who, after all, has blasted through half a century of charming villains, bad boys and other unapologetic characters, including his latest TV incarnation — a god who treads on the wild side.

“He’s capricious. He’s whimsical. He’s angry. It’s a great part,” says McShane of Mr. Wednesday, his character in the Starz series American Gods, debuting April 30. “He’s kind of like Al Swearengen,” he adds, referring to the nefarious brothel owner he depicted in HBO’s Deadwood, “injected with a fierce dose of humor.”

Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel, American Gods pits a pantheon of older, traditional gods (drawn from ancient mythology) against a gaggle of upstarts.

Their power struggle takes place within a cinematographic mash-up of fantasy and realism, as Wednesday embarks on a road trip across the U.S. (aided by ex-con Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle) to round up fellow archetypal gods who have been living under the radar for years.

“I thought it was a perfect blueprint for a series,” says McShane, adding, “It’s complicated, though, finding the right tone and the right mix of futuristic visual effects with present day ordinariness.”

One of the zanier challenges for Bryan Fuller and Michael Green (showrunners, executive producers and writers) must have been how to evoke Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), the ancient goddess of love, who devours lovers with her vagina. “I hope I don’t have any scenes with that character,” McShane says, chuckling, “because I might not appear in the second season.”

A prolific actor born in Lancashire, England, McShane was encouraged by a teacher to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Launching his professional career at 18, he subsequently performed in scores of films and TV shows ranging from Dallas to American Horror Story.

He is perhaps best known in the U.S. for playing Swearengen, for which he received an Emmy nomination. British fans, however, still cherish his roguish antiques dealer (with a mullet cut) from the series Lovejoy.

“I like playing all sorts, and I always have,” he says. That includes a figment of rapper Dr. Dre’s imagination in Vital Signs, Apple Music’s first foray into original programming, debuting in the second quarter of this year.

In addition, he voices animated characters like Tai Lung, the snow leopard antagonist in Kung Fu Panda. “After 20 years of smoking Camels and drinking, it helps the voice along its way,” he says, explaining how he got his rich, gravelly timbre. “But that was a long time ago. I stopped doing all that.”

Another thing he doesn’t do is social media. So he didn’t pay close attention to the Game of Thrones spoiler hoopla. And he hasn’t seen a photo of himself in a white bathrobe that was taken on the set of American Gods and posted on Twitter with the caption: “The all-father [and] lover of fine motel robes.”

It does sound befitting, though. “As we speak,” he says, over the phone from his home in California, “I’m wearing one now, stolen from some English hotel probably a long time ago.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 3, 2017

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