Born in the English town of Blackburn, Ian McShane has done it all since making his screen debut in the 1962 film The Wild and the Willing, with generations of moviegoers and TV viewers knowing him for certain roles from all six decades in which he’s been working. He’s perhaps best known by modern audiences on this side of the pond for playing Al Swearengen on the cult HBO Western series Deadwood, but his many and varied screen and voice credits include Roots, Sexy Beast, Coraline, Shrek the Third, Jesus of Nazareth, Snow White and the Huntsman and dozens more.
In John Wick: Chapter 2, he reprises his role from the 2014 original as Winston, mysterious owner of the Continental Hotel and possibly the head of the assassins’ league that uses the Continental as a place of refuge and rest. The surreal world of the Continental and a criminal organization council known as the High Table come into focus more in this second film as John (Keanu Reeves) must repay an old and deadly favor before he can retire. There is also a European version of the Continental in Italy, run by an Italian counterpart to Winston (and played by the great Franco Nero), but as the story develops we get the idea that Winston may be far more than just a hotel manager.
We spoke with McShane in Los Angeles recently about John Wick: Chapter 2, the long-awaited Deadwood movie (see that conversation here) and his upcoming role as Mr. Wednesday in the Starz adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.
Den of Geek: You seem to have the most dialogue in the movie and I actually was going to ask, is in your contract that you get the most dialogue out of anybody?
Ian McShane: (laughs) No, I think they trust me with the dialogue and they know I say it quickly and hit it always so they can get to the next thing.
And then all mayhem ensues so it’s all good.
Have you seen the whole film?
No, I’ve not seen the whole film because I’ve been getting over rotator cuff surgery so I have been out of action for a bit. But I’ve seen a lot of it and I know what Chad (Stahelski, director) does and he’s great. I think he’s a terrific filmmaker.
What stood out to you when they sent you the script for this one?
The fact that they’ve broadened the scope a bit. I like the fact that they didn’t broaden the character, in that you knew more about him. I like the fact that he continued, literally, it was a carry-on from the first one. It wasn’t like, two years later. But I liked that they also broadened it out, went to Italy. I think that’s great.
There’s a lot more world-building going on and more to do with the Continental.
Absolutely, the Continental. It’s in the background, this international criminal conspiracy, and you don’t know who the boss of it is. Maybe they’ll explain it all if they do another one.
Did you enjoy having more for Winston to do, and going a bit deeper into his relationship with John?
You still don’t know the relationship. All you know is that Winston is very fond of John Wick. And likewise. But you don’t know more about them than you did from the first one, which I kind of like.
Do you make up your own background for Winston in your head?
Yeah, I make up my own and it varies according to how you see it. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but yeah. All I can say that he’s obviously, from the first, he’s very fond of John, but that doesn’t say that John can escape the rules.
Are you sad that you and Franco Nero — who plays sort of the Italian version of your character — don’t have any scenes together?
The last time I worked with Franco, we did a TV movie together back in 1978 — Harold Robbins’ The Pirate. I remember it because we spent most of the time going to the World Cup. Franco and I used to go down there all the time with another Italian producer called Fernando Ghia. When soccer wasn’t so much a known thing.
You’ve done a lot of different genres of film. Do you think doing a crime thriller in this surreal, sort of enhanced style, does that freshen things up for this kind of film?
Depends what kind of film this is. This is not necessarily a crime movie. This is a personal revenge movie with a lot of the elements of classic Korean and Hong Kong movies. That’s where I think Chad was the perfect guy to do it. Not too much dialogue. Fill it with interesting characters. And you have a guy who the audience roots for because his wife’s dead and his dog’s been killed. It’s the perfect set up.
When you go to see a movie — and I love movies, I really do, always have since before I was involved in them when I was a kid — you always feel it when a movie starts, whatever the genre, whatever it is, you either know you’re in good hands or not. From the opening frame you can usually tell what the rest of the movie is going to be like. No matter what it is. Whatever he’s trying to do, from the opening shot you will either go, “Yeah,” or you’ll go, “Nope, I’m not with this one.”
Let’s talk a bit about American Gods. If Winston in this movie is sort of a god-like figure, Mr. Wednesday in American Gods is the real thing.
He’s a god of gods. That’s why the actual day, Wednesday, is named after him. When I read the book, I thought it was the perfect blueprint for a TV series, because the book doesn’t go from A to B. It’s a broad panorama. The gods and the other characters all take their time about going somewhere. So I thought TV series, especially with such experienced and talented show runners as Michael Green and Bryan Fuller. Sure enough, I did dialogue looping the other day for the first four episodes and it looked terrific. I wasn’t really looking to do a TV series, but when that came up I looked at it and thought, “Yeah, this is something very different.”
What’s the tone of the show?
The tone is different. It was difficult to get because again it’s like reality but it’s not really reality. It’s a little pushed, like John Wick but even more so in this. I think the kind of tone you’ll find is a little different, and from what I saw it’s succeeding. I will wait till I see all the bells and whistles on it but I look forward to it.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is out in theaters this Friday (February 10).