Ian McShane on His First Movie Role and Breaking Into the Business

Sonia Saraiya
Variety

Decades before “Lovejoy” and “Deadwood,” Ian McShane was first mentioned in Variety at age 19, when he was cast in “The Wild and the Willing” (later renamed “Young and Willing”), a film about university students. It starred Paul Rogers, Virginia Maskell, and five unknown actors, including McShane and his best friend from drama school, John Hurt. Hurt and McShane are friends to this day, after making their joint film and stage debuts together. A few months after that May 30, 1962, mention, Variety reported that McShane was recording singles from the movie. Perhaps the producers were seizing on the young actor’s brilliant voice, which would go on to filthily embody Al Swearengen in “Deadwood.” McShane will next be featured on Dr. Dre’s upcoming “Vital Signs” and Starz’s “American Gods.”

Tell me about your first two mentions in Variety. I was surprised to see that they’re two soundtrack mentions!

I made what they used to call a 45 vinyl, a 7-inch vinyl record of the same song from [“The Wild and the Willing”] called “Harry Brown” … that was my first movie. I also did a live TV, a very famous thing, called “Armchair Theater” where I played a rock and roll singer on a train back from Brighton with a classical violinist (in “Thank You and Goodnight”) — it was sort of a male and female of the species, she was a classical violinist, I was a rock and roller. I had to sing live in that, so they thought they’d have me sing for the movie. Neither of which increased the movie’s popularity, I bet. Back in ’62, soundtracks weren’t exactly big, you know what I mean? As far as movies were concerned.

But it became useful later. About 38 years later I did “The Witches of Eastwick” in London as a musical, so that came in handy. One or two little musical chops didn’t do me any harm.

I imagine you’re more confident in your abilities as an actor than you are as a singer.

No. Well, I made an album when I did a series called “Lovejoy” back in England —which I produced as well, and directed, back in the ’90s. And I did an album then, which I dedicated to my wife, and was sort of a middle of the road cover album with one or two originals. I am very proud that my mother has my gold records stuck up at home in England.

How did you get started in the business?

My God, it’s 54 years ago. April. I was still in drama school and in your last year of drama school, I was 19, what they do is you go on the main stage, like a showcase. In the morning you play a small part and then the afternoon, or vice versa, you play a big part in the same play. It was Macbeth. And an agent had seen me in a show there wanted to sign me and then put me up for this movie, which they couldn’t find the lead for, which also starred John Hurt. I always thought John was cool.

So they met me and wanted me to audition so I took a morning off school — Drama at the Royal Academy — I snuck off. Nowadays they would at least offer you an uber ride, but then you had to make your own way. I remember getting on two buses, and got to Pinewood Studios and then gave an audition and then they called me up in the afternoon and said I got the part.

Then I had to go back to drama school and tell John Fernell who was the principal of the drama school, “Sir, I lied to you. I did not go to the dentist yesterday like I said. I actually got the lead in a movie.”

Anyway, he let me go early. So I left drama school early, did the movie, and they gave me my certificate, which pronounced, You are an actor. Whatever that means, I don’t know. It was very nice.

So I did the film, and then play, and then live TV, and then made a record so … I think I should have retired then. I covered show business by the time I was 20! I should’ve known better than to be still doing this silly business 50 years later.

What happened next?

I gave Hayley Mills her first on screen kiss in ’66 in a film called “Gypsy Girl.” It was —you’re talking big time. Hayley Mills, the biggest child star in the world, gets her first kiss! Hayley grows up!

Did you feel at the time that you were looking for a career more in film, or more in theater?

I had no idea. You didn’t really plan careers then, Sonia. You just sort of went. And English actors don’t do that, we tend to go with if it’s a good script — it doesn’t matter if it’s a film, if it’s a play, or it’s TV, you go where your instincts tell you. Not this thing about, I‘m holding out for a movie that’s meaningful to me, no I don’t think so, that’s not the way it worked then. There’s also a question of paying the rent, we’re told that comes in handy.

You got spotted in the showcase, and then you get cast in a film. That’s very sudden. Was it harder than it sounds?

I don’t know, because when you don’t know much about anything, you’re thrown into the deep end. I was a part of all of the gritty, what they call working class drama. I come from the school of when they actually when you were done with scholastic paid for your fees. Nowadays these English actors are mostly public school boys — they’re the only ones that can afford to go to drama school. They don’t give grants anymore.

My dad was a professional footballer for Manchester United in England. I wasn’t good enough to be a soccer player — I loved the game, I still do — but when I was still at school, I had a teacher, a man called Leslie Ryder who was a real mentor. He wasn’t a drama teacher, but he was the guy at school who would put on the plays. And he put on the school play called “Cyrano de Bergerac” and he said, “You’re going to be in it.” And I said, “Thank you, sir, I’ll learn the lines, can I go off and play football now?”. Then, six months later, after rehearsing and whatever, we put it on at the school. And it was a school play, but it was better than your average school play. And I guess I realized then I had a little talent for doing this.

 

I mean, I am lucky in my life. I don’t know, I’ve done about 100 movies, I don’t know how much TV, theater on Broadway, on London. I have been very lucky. You’ve got to have luck. Nowadays, there are more jobs then there are actors, it seems. There are 450 TV shows waiting to be blessed … Well that’s good, lots of work for actors, lots of work for technicians, everybody. That doesn’t mean to say it’s all good, but at least they’re making it.

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