With his jet-black hair, booming baritone and piercing blue-green eyes, Ian McShane seems born to play a villain. The actor best known to America as Al Swearengen, the murderously Machiavellian saloon owner in HBO's "Deadwood," is sitting in Santa Monica describing his latest scoundrel.
"He's Judas Iscariot, if you like," McShane, 67, says of the scheming medieval bishop he plays in "The Pillars of the Earth," a miniseries that premieres Friday on Starz. "He wants to rise in the church -- it's not that he's religious and wants to do good for people." Today, the actor says, "He'd be part of the Vatican Council, edging his way up to being pope."
As McShane sips a cappuccino at a beachside hotel, it's hard not to picture him slamming back a shot glass of whiskey on a Gold Rush bar. The actor is considerably more worldly than the barkeeper he portrayed or the bearded, long-haired Hawaiian-shirt-wearing beach bum he's playing today.
McShane has opinions about everything -- George Martin's role in the Beatles, his own fondness for the electronica band Air, his respect for the crime novels of James Crumley and the uncompromising career of director Jean-Luc Godard.
Though he's generally down to earth and a good listener, a few subjects bring him to derision and anger, among them what he sees as the idiocy -- his own term is less polite -- of American politicians cutting off aid to the unemployed: He winds up into the kind of rant Swearengen was known for, eyeballs bulging.
'Drugs and drink'
McShane grew up in and around Manchester, England, where his father played what we call soccer for Manchester United.
As a kid, McShane was mostly interested in sports, but a teacher pushed him to try acting, and after school he was swept into the U.K.'s rich dramatic scene.
After his film debut in "The Wild and the Willing," from 1962, in which he played a rebel student rooming with an introvert played by John Hurt, he worked often in British television.
His signature early role was the darkly mysterious Heathcliff in the BBC's "Wuthering Heights," from 1967.
He was busy over the next decade in film, TV and stage, but admits he was not always giving himself entirely to his work.
"I started out pretty good -- then I took about a 15-year drugs-and-drink holiday, in the '70s through the mid-'80s," he says, clearly not much regretting it. "It's been 22 years now without any of the evil stuff."
When David Milch tapped him to play Swearengen, based on an actual brothel owner in 1870s and '80s Dakota Territory, McShane was ready. " 'Deadwood' hit at just the right time," he says of the show that ran from 2004 to '06.
The Swearengen character -- the name sounds like a pun on his hyperventilating genius with profanity -- was one of the most striking things about this striking show, and his ability to be ruthless, even sadistic, as well as thoroughly decent at times makes him among the richest and most complex villains in the history of the medium.
HBO famously canceled the show after three seasons, and two promised television movies never materialized.
"How do you say it...," muses McShane. "It was not HBO's finest hour. They were going through a lot of internal crap at the time ... between individuals. And what suffered, as sometimes does, was the program." Pause. "But we move on, don't we?"
"The Pillars of the Earth," a six-part, eight-hour miniseries set in 12th century England, isn't McShane's first project since "Deadwood" -- he'd recently been in the ill-starred series "Kings" and the bloody film "44 Inch Chest" -- but it's one of his most extensive post-Swearengen roles. He plays the cleric Waleran Bigod, who becomes bishop through wile and cunning. Like Swearengen, he's exceedingly canny and cynical, addressing a monk he's blackmailing with growling phrases like "Since we are being blunt...." (Some of the bishop's dialogue, like that of the brothel owner, is both eloquent and unprintable.)
"Pillars" director Sergio Mimica-Gezzan calls McShane's character "an ambitious, evil man responsible for all sorts of despicable things and plot turns. In another actor's interpretation, this character could have very easily become a stereotyped caricature of a villain. Ian, of course, created a complex man that is frighteningly realistic and believable and a true product of his intricate medieval times."
Much of the show's story follows Tom Builder, an impoverished architect played by Rufus Sewell, struggling to build a cathedral. Bigod sides with various characters as the story unfolds, especially the monk Prior Philip, portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen. A gentle, almost angelic, figure, he has little in common with Bigod. "But the bishop knows he can't exist without Philip," McShane says, so he cultivates him for political reasons in the same way that Swearengen eventually allied with Timothy Olyphant's sheriff, Seth Bullock.