‘Deadwood’ Star Ian McShane on the Lost Art of Calling Someone a ‘Cocksucker’
The Golden Globe-winning actor opens up about the return of Al Swearengen in HBO’s ‘Deadwood: The Movie’ and why the series is a ‘metaphor for America.’
There’s never been a show like Deadwood, David Milch’s exceptional HBO saga about 1870s frontier life in the Dakota Territory, or a performance quite like Ian McShane’s masterful series turn as Al Swearengen, the profane cutthroat owner of the Gem Saloon.
Over the course of three seasons (2004-2006), McShane’s Swearengen was a Shakespearean force of nature, orchestrating the evolution of the budding camp and his own interests while navigating a thicket of personal and business relationships with employees, rivals and—in the figure of Timothy Olyphant’s Sheriff Seth Bullock—adversaries-turned-uneasy-partners. McShane deservedly earned a 2005 Golden Globe for Best Actor for his portrayal of the frightening and funny Swearengen, whose virtuoso gift for expletives was epitomized by his peerless pronunciation (and deployment) of the term “cocksucker.”
Like Deadwood itself, Swearengen was taken from us too soon. However, after years of rumors, he finally returns alongside the rest of his Wild West compatriots on May 31 in Deadwood: The Movie, a two-hour HBO feature penned by Milch that picks up 10 years after the series’ abrupt cancellation. Once again pitting most of its characters against nefarious industrialist George Hearst (Gerald McRaney), now a junior senator from California, it’s a sterling, bittersweet tale rife with tragedy and joy. And as before, McShane’s Swearengen is its motherfucking heart and soul. Though older, frailer and more apt to show his softer side, Swearengen remains as quick-witted and self-assured as ever. The same holds true for McShane, who slides naturally back into his character’s pin-striped suit.
On the eve of Deadwood: The Movie’s premiere, and shortly after the debut of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (in which he co-stars alongside Keanu Reeves), the great, gregarious McShane spoke with us about the past and present of Deadwood, and what made it unlike anything else in TV history.
Between rewatching most of Deadwood, catching up with the new movie, and seeing all three John Wick installments, I just had an epic Ian McShane week. Is this a particularly exciting moment for you?
[Laughs] Sometimes there are those weeks in a professional career where you go, “Yeah, it was a very good week, you know what I mean?” Professionally and creatively, the two things those projects have in common are there’s a great deal of affection when you do them—obviously Deadwood’s three years, 36 episodes, and then we do the movie, and John Wick, this is the third movie. There’s the same affection because it’s the same creative team behind each of the movies. I hope it remains that way—Chad Stahelski, the director, is great, and the writer Derek Kolstad, and Keanu, who’s great to work with. And with Deadwood, it has the same kind of creative force behind it. It hasn’t chopped and changed. So you do have a sense of continuity running through them. When they’re received in such a way, it’s really gratifying.
And especially with Deadwood: The Movie. Last week, I remember walking into [Hollywood’s] Cinerama Dome, and seeing all those faces again—all the people in the show—and it was great. But not only that—thinking, “Wait a second, this one movie didn’t have the same budget as John Wick for the big screen.” You suddenly worry, showing it on the huge Cinerama Dome screen—it wasn’t made for that! But after a few frames, you realize, no, we’re going to be okay. It works. And it really did. It looked extraordinary on the big screen.
Could you believe, at the time, that they cancelled Deadwood?
I can believe anything. If you’ve been around this business long enough, you know that nobody knows anything. That’s the one thing that the great William Goldman said, and still holds true. You know the complicated business history of Deadwood, which was one of the reasons they always gave for its cancellation—it was still half-owned by Paramount, because of David’s contract. But that was going to be worked out. It’s just the old saying: Shit happens! Who knows the full, unrefined story? All I know is that maybe it worked out for the best. Who knows—five years might have been too much. Four years may have been too little. As it was, those three years of making it were extraordinary—in terms of the creative process, in terms of the personal rewards that it gave to everybody concerned with the show, and the lasting friendships, and the working situation. That was taken away, but we all stayed in touch in some way. And then 13 years later…
For years, there were rumors about some sort of reunion.
We didn’t dwell on it, like, “Oh, it’s been taken away, and will there be another one?” I’d see David [Milch] for breakfast two or three times a year, or speak to Tim [Olyphant], and we’d say, “Well, maybe there’ll be another one. Whatever.” But it didn’t become obsessive; everybody was doing other things. And besides, it’s a television show, so it lives on somewhere in the world. But then they got semi-serious about it. Casey Bloys, I think you have to give him a lot of credit. When he came in at HBO [as Programming Director], he said fine, enough of this, I saw the script—which, when he came in, they’d found a way to make a two-hour movie without being contrived. Because the danger of making a two-hour movie is that it’s a different beast. What, are you just going to make a movie because it’s Deadwood and you feel like committing? No! They found a story that connected everybody, it linked back to the last previous show, and it linked back to the collective memory of the act that had an effect on the town. Then, they managed a way to find us all available.
So suddenly last year, it went from thinking it’ll never happen to being a reality. Then you’re driving to the set, you arrive in darkness, you put the suit on, you go on the soundstage, and there’s everybody. Especially the big collective scenes, the set pieces in the movie, that was… I mean, I remember when I give Trixie away to Sol Star, I couldn’t hold it together for the first six takes. I’d look at Tim, I’d look at Johnny Hawkes, and I’d start to well up, and I’d see Johnny Hawkes start to cry. Because you knew, not just the scene—it was coming to an end, the show. This time, you knew it was, so when you said goodbye to people, it was goodbye. Whereas before, it was, “See you next year, whatever!” And there was no next year.
It was very touching. And David found a way of replicating his method of working, even though he is not the man he was—we know that, because of the recent reports. But he found a way. Whereas before, we’d come in and David would be there, and he’d start talking about the scene, this time, he’d prepared. He’d written out notes on the scenes, so when you came in, David would be there, on the set, and we’d all say good morning and we’d talk about the scene from prepared notes he’d written, and then we’d act it and he’d look at it and we’d chat a little. It was the same, but different—but equally powerful and creative. It was a pleasure to do.
I’d argue that no show has ever been better written—including when it came to dialogue, which blended high and low language in this beautiful and unique way. Was that immediately apparent on the page, and did it take some getting used to saying?
I remember the pilot. I was in England, and my wife and I had just come back from a holiday, after doing a six-part show. We were thinking, should we come back to America for a while? What will we do, we’re grandparents. Then I got a call saying they’re interested in you for an American TV series. I said, “I don’t want to do an American TV series.” And they said, “Well, this is HBO, David Milch wrote it, and Walter Hill’s directing it.” And I said, “Where do they want to meet me?” [Laughs] Because that’s pedigree beyond, you know what I mean? You go wow, and you don’t ask questions. Then I read the pilot, and it was like wow again.
I remember the first speech they sent across was the one where Al talks about the family in the pilot episode, and it ends with, “Blowjobs half-priced for the next 20 minutes!” I thought that was one of the great lines ever, after expressing deep regret about this murdered family. But that’s Al—the businessman, the practicality.
The pilot was written as a one-piece, but you knew they were going to do the show anyway; the pilot was a formality in a sense. I guess we were pretty arrogant, thinking about it now. But we came back to live here—this was in November 2002—and we started filming in August 2003. Filming a pilot, which is a one-off thing (like the movie), is just a different thing than doing a series. But once that dialogue came in, you have to make a decision about how you’re going to approach doing this show. So I made a pact with myself that I would never take pages onto the set—that I would learn it beforehand, and learn it as I went along, and then get on with it.
Was Milch very hands-on during filming?
Often you’d do the scene, and he’d be there, and he’d talk about it, and you’d do the scene again, and he’d go, “Wait a second,” and then he’d make little changes, and then he’d say, “Carry on, I’m just going off for a little while.” Then he’d come back 10 minutes later, and sometimes he’d make a little adjustment, sometimes he’d make no adjustment, and sometimes he’d be back with a big adjustment. Or he’d find something in that scene that would affect scenes later on. So it was a constant creative process, and the fact that we were filming at Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch made it easy for Milch to be creative in his creation of the show, in the sense that he could switch things around, because all the writers were there, the directors, the editors, the costumes, the horses, the sets. We were there, so you could really switch on a dime.
David could say he wanted to do a scene, and actors were available, because it was only like a 35-40 minute drive up the 405. So it was this constantly creative evolving process where you never knew. There was never any full script for any episode. It may have made the producers nervous; it never made any of the actors nervous. But then you get a show like that. It couldn’t have been created any other way, because it was about pushing the boundaries of making this town a, if you like, metaphor for America. We came from this bloody disorganized beginning into this civics lesson of a small town in South Dakota, which came about because of a gold rush, and then became civilized. The town got bigger all the time, and the characters got more complicated and involved. Bullock became the sheriff, and you know Bullock is the same character as Al, they’re just different sides of the same coin.
I literally just wrote that in my review of Deadwood: The Movie, so I’m glad you agree.
That’s the way it was. That’s why they sort of admire each other, even though they can’t stand to be in the same fucking room with each other for more than five minutes. They’ll kill each other! Even though they’ve learned long ago that you walk on one side of the street, and the other guy walks on the other, they both take care of business for each other, knowing they’re tremendous forces in the town.
It sounds like it was a close-knit cast. Did you spend time watching your castmates work?
It was always a trip to be there, watching the other actors work. I got a kick out of it. My personal favorite was watching William Sanderson playing E.B. Farnum, because I believed David found a way of talking about the town, and E.B. becomes this observer—a Shakespearean narrator, if you like. Only William could handle that kind of complicated Shakespearean comedy stuff. He should play every clown in Shakespeare, because Shakespeare ain’t funny, but Bill could make it funny. [Laughs]
Everybody found something. Gerald McRaney—God, you hated him! Jesus! You know, Gerald’s studied, deliberate delivery, you wanted to say, “Get the fuck on with it! Get the fuck out of my sight!” Just terrific to watch. And Paula Malcomson’s impetuousness as Trixie. I mean, the characters—you could talk about it a lot. It’s one of those shows where, you’re out of town and you’re making a movie in some obscure part of the world, and you switch on the TV, and all of a sudden Deadwood comes on, and you go “Oh, I’ll watch this for five minutes.” A half an hour later, you’re still watching and going, “I didn’t see that the first time around.” It was full of rich detailed stuff and was never predictable. Never, ever.
Did you every imagine that, thanks to Deadwood, “cocksucker” would become a word forever associated with you? Do people still ask you to say it?
Oh, they beg you to call them it! Or to write on their thing, “Fuck off, you cocksucker!” [Laughs] I mean, seriously, c’mon. It’s very strange. But they love it!
Once, I remember, they invited us to Deadwood for a weekend, and I couldn’t go—this was back in the middle of the show, in 2005. A couple of others went, including I believe W. Earl Brown, and Earl came back and I said, “Did you have a good time?” And he said, “Yeah, but I don’t think you would have enjoyed all of it. Friendly as it was, being called cocksucker motherfucker every ten seconds, even though they were being nice…” [Laughs] But people love an excuse to swear, Nick. You know that. They love it. It’s the ultimate excuse to say, I can say this!
I had multiple people tell me I had to get you to call me cocksucker.
[Laughs] It’s like, why would I? It’s not the normal way I speak. But it just happened to catch on. It came from that scene with Keone [Young], Mr. Wu. That one-minute comic scene. And I swear, that was exactly written down as it was on the page. People say, “Oh, you must have had a ball improvising swearing.” And I think, improvising swearing? No. Every cocksucker and motherfucker was in the script to begin with. Any cocksucker out of place and you’d know it! It’d upset the rhythm and the poetry of the writing.
There’s a real Shakespearean quality to Al as well.
Oh yeah, that was Milch’s take on it. I was also struck with it the other night, watching it unfold on the big screen. The first time Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) opens his mouth and comes out with that amazing dialogue, I was like “Here we are. We’re back.” It didn’t seem forced; it just seemed like a natural thing, and everybody’s on top of it.
Were you happy the movie gave you a chance to explore a more tender side to Al?
That’s very important, that the character didn’t remain exactly the same. Milch always progressed it, and this is 10 years later. This is referring back to an event that the town knows happened; the various leading characters were all a part of this conspiracy to kill an innocent girl, to protect another. They were right, but it’s still a horrendous act. Actually, the way they left the original series, with Al scrubbing blood on the floor, was as good as any way, if you’re going to have an impromptu end. It said everything about Deadwood—scrubbing blood off a hardwood floor and Al saying, “Wants me to tell him something pretty.” Which describes the whole thing.
But to be able to revisit it 13 years later, and put an end on it… but not really, because Hearst is still the most powerful guy, and how do you deal with real power? You get small victories. That’s what they get. And finally, I think everybody wants to see Hearst get the shit beaten out of him. But only for so long, because what does that prove in the end—that you can do it? Then Deadwood settles down again to what it was. The following day is going to come, and life is going to go on.
The movie definitely leaves things less than totally resolved.
Unresolved! They have their moments of revenge in certain ways, and whatever happens after that. But you know that life will go on—there’s a new baby, a new life, in the town, and the town will go on as ever. And don’t count Al out, because that finger’s still moving at the end there. [Laughs]
Do you feel like the show now finally has some measure of closure? Did you personally need that?
No, I don’t think I needed it. But as soon as I came back on the set again, I thought, “This is such a great thing to be back here doing it.” It was kind of an out-of-body experience, it really was, being back there on the same set, in the same place, with the same people, but 13 years later—more mature, and knowing what you were doing, and David being there, and doing it the way we always did it, in the Gem Saloon. And then having all these people who’d wanted to be extras pop by and be there, like Jason Isbell and Alice in Chains’ Jerry Cantrell. It was kind of flattering! “Who’s that?” “Oh, that’s Jerry from Alice in Chains.”
In the original, ZZ Top were extras. Their manager sat in this long black limousine outside the set all day while they put on their cowboy costumes and were extras. I was thinking, Jesus, I’d like to be in a recording studio with them! Did they know how boring a day can be on a movie set when you’re a supporting artist, being told to “move over there! Get out of the sun! Action!?” When people say, “I’d love to come and visit you on the set,” you go, “Are you sure?” It sounds exciting, but when you’re actually doing it, it’s only the people that are involved that are involved.
But with Deadwood, involved meant everybody was involved. Sometimes you were there because David would call people in and he’d change the scene around, because physically he could. That was part of the creative process that was so extraordinary, and made Deadwood like doing a workshop for a play, and a film, and TV, and everything at the same time. It was this constant creative process from Milch going forward and saying, “Do you mind if I give you another page of dialogue?” “No! Give me 20 minutes—I’ll be fine.” Nobody got fazed. Sure, you’d have that adrenaline, and that nervous thing, but it was good nerves, it was good adrenaline. It was good stuff. It was the kind of thing that made you go, yeah, you’re an actor. You should be doing this.
It’s clear you still have great affection for the show.
It’s a nice thing to be able to talk about something that you love, and that has been received well, and you can talk about it in a warm and great way, and you can be generous about it because it’s been generous to you. That’s what Deadwood was for me—it was always a give and take. Being around Milch for three years was a pleasure unto itself. Long may he reign.