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Ian McShane Says Good-bye to Deadwood

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Thirteen years after his character was last seen scrubbing a bloodstain from a hardwood floor, Ian McShane has finally returned to his most famous role: Al Swearengen, the saloon-keeper, gangster, pimp, and power broker of Deadwood. HBO will premiere a stand-alone film, Deadwood: The Movie, on May 31. Set a decade after the events in the final episode, it’s meant to provide a semblance of closure to fans who were left hanging back in 2006, when the series was abruptly canceled after three seasons. This Friday night, New Yorkers can watch Deadwood: The Movie live on a big screen at the Split Screens TV Festival, followed by a discussion with McShane (appearing via Skype) and his co-star Robin Weigert (in person).

Ahead of the premiere of Deadwood: The Movie, Vulture talked to McShane about the series, the movie, and the importance of being Al.

Did you ever think this movie was actually going to happen?

That’s as definitive as it gets.
It was like a Zen feeling when it first finished.

You mean when Deadwood was canceled after season three?
Yeah. Things finish when they shouldn’t have, for all sorts of reasons, you know? Hubris, money, egos. Who the hell knows what went on with Deadwood, or if we’ll ever get to the bottom of it?

After about six months, I was like, “Why the hell did this show finish?” I got pissed off for a while. Then, more time passes and you just accept it, and say, “We were lucky to have the three years anyway.” And then, for a few years, there was all this talk about, “Oh, it’ll make a comeback as a couple of two-hour movies.” And you go, “That’s all very well and good, talking about it, but what do you have to do to make that happen?” As time went by, we all stayed in contact with each other, because as you can imagine, there was a camaraderie. It was the most creative and best three years of, I think, most people’s working lives, as they’ll all tell you. And when it came time to go back again, everybody came back.

So it was the logistics of that big cast that made it hard?
That was a really big part of it. I guess they could have made a film in the intervening 13 years about me or Seth [Bullock]. Or both of us. You know, Seth and Al Ride the High Country, or whatever. But that would not have been Deadwood. Deadwood is the story of the town and everybody in it, which meant that we were always going to have the problem of getting everybody back together.

And, of course, this is a two-hour movie, which is a completely different beast from doing a series. There’s nothing after this. It’s a finite piece, and it tells a different kind of story than episodic television could.

What can you tell people about it?
It’s not just a repetition of how Deadwood was. It’s Deadwood ten years later. The town is no longer the same. There’s some buildings now made of brick. And all the people are older. Some have regressed, some are stagnant, some have moved forward, some have changed into completely different people, which is as it would be in life.

You mentioned that you’re telling the story differently here than you would if it were a fourth season. What specifically does that mean, in terms of how the story is being told?
It’s mainly a matter of length, brevity, and directness. You have two hours and a lot of characters. You can’t do as much of that Deadwood thing where people talk around and around, because time is of the essence.

Also, structurally, a feature film is different from episodic TV — unless you’re doing something like the John Wick series, which I’m in, which has to end each movie on a kind of a cliffhanger, because they want to do John Wick 4, you know what I mean? But most movies aren’t like that. Most movies are either deliberately ending the story on an enigmatic note, where you have to decide what it meant and what to take away from it, or else they’re neatly wrapping things up so that all the questions are answered, and the piece is complete in and of itself.

Which of those things did you do here?
Personally, I think this is the end and the story is finished, because practically speaking, it has to be the end. Even if HBO got a hundred million new subscriptions as a result of this movie, I still think most people would be in agreement that the show had run its course in the best way possible.

What was it like, going back to the town of Deadwood? Putting on the suit and the long underwear? Walking into the Gem Saloon?
It was an extraordinary experience, because as soon as the actors set foot on set, it was in one sense as if those 13 years had flown away, and another sense had never been. You walked on the set and everybody was the same again, except they were older. And this time, when you finished a scene with them, you were actually saying good-bye. It was quite surreal in a marvelous way, because the work stayed the same. Everybody just turned up and brought their A game again.

Had you watched the show again since you were acting in it?
Oh, yes! You know, it was one of the few shows that I watched on Sunday night just like everybody else. Even though I was in it, you never knew what the final edit was going to be until you finally saw it on TV. And even now, if I’m on tour doing another movie or a show, say I’m in a hotel room somewhere, I’ll flick through the TV, and if Deadwood is on, I’ll think, “Oh! I’ll watch this for five minutes,” and I’m still there 35 minutes later.

You’ve been around a while, haven’t you? The first time you came to the set, weren’t you writing for that New Jersey paper?

The Newark Star-Ledger, yeah. The first time I met you in person was in 2004, at a hotel in Pasadena. The Television Critics Association gave you a special award for your performance in the first season of Deadwood.
I remember. We were in a bar full of reporters. You asked me about the monologues.

That’s right. Some of the Deadwood monologues were long even by Shakespeare’s standards, and I wanted to know how you were able to memorize them.
What did I say?

You said, and I think you were busting chops a little bit, “The thing you got to remember is with Mr. Milch” — and you called him Mr. Milch, which I found funny — “… is that you’re never just delivering a monologue. You’re also getting a blow job or addressing a severed head in a box. And sometimes the pages are still hot from the fucking printer.
Oh, yeah, that’s how we sometimes address each other. I’d say, “Well, Mr. Milch,” before I’d answer a question. We call each other Mr. Milch and Mr. McShane as a gesture of mutual respect.

As for that detail about the pages being hot from the printers, well, yes. There were times when David would come over and say, “Mr. McShane, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but I’ve got to change all of this, because I just got a better idea.” And I’d say, “Fine, give me another 20 minutes. What’s another page to learn?”

A lot of actors hate last-minute rewrites.
Only if it’s shit! Good dialogue ain’t difficult to learn. It’s only the crap, the flavorless expository bullshit, that’s difficult to learn. This show didn’t do the shit that so many other shows do, the shit that makes actors hate the work. It didn’t do that thing where some character re-explains the entire plot for the fifth time to another character — or when it did, it was to clarify something that was hard to follow, and the clarification would be done in a funny, exciting way, so it was fun to listen to.

And as for the monologues accompanied by blow jobs and severed heads, yeah, that was great stuff, but the show didn’t do that kind of thing in every scene. Nor did Seth Bullock blow away somebody with his six-shooter every episode. The characters were much more maturely written, and they changed according to how David saw the town changing, the people around them changing, the physicality changing, the morality changing, society and politics changing.

Because of all that, the changes didn’t bother me. I found them exciting. It was a fabulously interesting show to do because you knew that whatever script you got wouldn’t stay the same. It would be organically changed as a result of seeing the rehearsals, or as a result of the scene being shot, or as a result of looking at the dailies. It would be as a result of other people paying attention to what you were doing and thinking about how they could help you make it even better. How can an actor not love that?

Also, and this is important, David took care of all the marginalized characters in the show — like Calamity Jane, like Samuel Fields, like Mr. Wu, like Jewel, like Doc. It wasn’t The Seth and Al Show. Remember how, the start of season two, they took Al out of the picture entirely by giving him kidney stones? I loved that, because you got to see how it affected the town, not having him Al healthy and active and making trouble. Even the characters who were only in one episode got good stories.

Can you speculate on what the show would’ve become if it had gone on for more seasons?
Deadwood was the story of America, basically. America in the 1880s in the aftermath of the Civil War. I’m sure we would have got into the aftershocks of Reconstruction, particularly racism. We already did a fair amount of that, and I’m confident we would’ve done more.

Do you remember that extraordinary scene when the blacksmith Hostetler got sick of constantly being called racial slurs and getting verbally abused by the white racist, and finally just snapped and killed himself? The depth of rage and sorrow in that moment was unlike anything I’ve seen on television. That was a historical reality, and still is a reality, one that we don’t want to acknowledge. What other TV series would have even thought to show something like that? That was great drama. It shook you up. It made you check your preconceptions.

What was it like setting foot on that set for the first time?
Well, the first scene I remember was me and that wonderful actor whose character got shot, um …

That doesn’t narrow it down, you know!
Ellsworth. Jimmy! Jimmy Beaver!

Jim Beaver?
Yeah, Jimmy! The first scene I shot was Jimmy Beaver and I talking, when we hear the noise as Trixie shoots a trick. We had some talk about the English aristocracy, which Mr. Milch put in there as a kind of insurance. He said, “We’ll give him a little English in his background. just in case anybody wants to moan about your accent.” Which was the funniest thing!

When you were filming your very first scene, did you ever imagine Deadwood was going to get picked up as a series?
I remember reading the pilot script and thinking, “Wow, yeah, this is going to be a great show.” And it was great.

So, no doubt.
I never had any doubt that it was going to be a series, and a great one, because of that pilot script. Anyone who knows how to read would have said, “If we don’t do this, we’re crazy.” We shot the pilot in October of 2002, then we started filming the rest of the first season in August 2003, and the rest of the episodes [in season one] took six months.

Wow, so it’s been almost 20 years now. Holy cow.
Yeah, holy cow! But we all look back on it fondly because it was such a great time for everybody concerned. I don’t think there was ever an ego that was misplaced during the shooting, and I say that in the most loving sense, because you have to have fucking ego to act and do that kinda shit.

But let me tell you, it helps tremendously to keep all that stuff in check when you’ve got somebody in the room who’s clearly smarter than everybody else — for the sake of argument, let’s say that on this production, that person’s name is David Milch — to serve as a common reference point.

What did you learn from Deadwood that you didn’t already know?
No disrespect to everything else, but it was my favorite job of anything I’ve done. It made me work. I mean really work. There was never three years of work like it. And I can tell you that every bit of it improved everyone in that cast as actors, absolutely. Deadwood taught you about your craft, and taught you about working with other people, and about respect for dialogue, and how to roll with the punches when things changed, as they so often did.

The best part of it is the talking. On Deadwood, you get to talk about what you’re aiming to do in the scene, and what your role in it is, and how you can expand the character. The talking is how we all came to respect each other, all the actors and the directors and the production designer and the cinematographer, everyone that came into the show, and of course the writers. I don’t think enough people realize how freeing it is to be able to just talk about your work with the other people you’re working with, and see those discussions reflected in the end result. You know what that feels like?

Yeah. It’s great.
Mr. Milch let us be active participants in the creative process, in ways that few TV series allow. The production itself made that possible. It was all happening in one location, from the writing to the shooting. It was a formidable place to be. It was like a workshop, a play, a television show, and a movie, all rolled into one. Every day, the nature of the production meant you had to check your ego outside the door and just go in there.

Do people talk to you about Deadwood out in the world?
Oh yeah, all the time. I usually don’t mind it, though it does get a bit strange when complete strangers ask me to call them a cocksucker.

How does it feel being associated so strongly with one character?
I’m fine with it. All of us have a limited time on this earth, and at the end of it, we all go down. And when that day finally comes, I’ll be happy to go down as Ian “Al” McShane.

You know, you’re sitting here talking to me not long after I’ve finished watching the final cut of the movie for the very first time.

I must say, I was not half bad in it, between you and me, Mr. Seitz.

Ian McShane Says Good-bye to Deadwood