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  • Time Out New York / Issue 634 : November 22, 2007 - November 28, 2007
  • Obscenely talented
  • As the nasty dad in Pinter’s The Homecoming, Ian McShane watches his language.
  • head shot of McShane
    McShane heads up a rowdy family.
    Lance Staedler

    Like many successful British actors of his generation—Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt, David Warner—Ian McShane has spent a long and varied career in the transatlantic twilight zone between stage and screen, the gritty and the disposable. How many other performers’ résumés include both the premiere of Joe Orton’s Loot and a recurring role on Dallas? And, like many of his peers, McShane has found some of his richest roles later in life. He’s now best known for his work as Al Swearengen, the diabolical, foulmouthed saloon owner on the late, lamented HBO series Deadwood. Now he’s set to make only his second Broadway appearance (his first was in a short-lived 1967 West End import called The Promise) in a revival of The Homecoming, Harold Pinter’s gnarled 1965 classic about a family of men with odd notions of hospitality. McShane, who plays the cranky, cane-wielding patriarch Max, took a non-Pinteresque pause from rehearsals to chat with TONY.

    When I first heard you were in The Homecoming, I thought, “Oh, he’s playing the pimp, Lenny—obviously.”
    That was my first thought, too! Then I thought, Wait a second, that’s pushing it. Lenny is one of those parts you think you’ll play, but I never did. I did Mick in The Caretaker and Robert in Betrayal, and I’ve kept in touch with Harold over the years—we’d see each other in restaurants and say, “Hello, we must work together again,” but we never have till now.

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  • Often in Pinter, there’s an unspoken, somewhat mysterious subtext. Do you and the actors know what’s really going on?
    You can ask a million questions: Did Max like his father? Did he hate his wife? Are the children even his? On the first day of rehearsals, we sat around and talked, and we sent off a few questions to Harold. He was very pleased. After two days he said, “Stop asking me questions! Make up your own minds.” I think it’s much better if the audience is left wondering at the end of it. If you take a stance on any of that, you’re lumbered with it.

    Are those famous Pinter pauses a little like musical rests?
    Oh, yeah—I think all acting is music. You can’t just let it all go its own way. On the other hand, as Harold says, he just puts a pause in; he doesn’t say, ‘Count to three, count to five.’ There are varying lengths. The thing about Pinter that people forget is that he’s enormously entertaining. The jokes are beautifully set up. I think originally Harold wanted the character of Max to be played by Sid James, a comic actor. Because it is a situation comedy, just like most great drama is; all the emotions are the same, they’re just heightened to another level.

    Throughout the play, Max turns on a dime from bitterness to sweetness, and vice versa. How do you make sense of those abrupt changes?
    I don’t have a problem understanding Max. He’s the kind of character who doesn’t control his mouth. He’s fine as long as nobody interrupts him. As soon as somebody says anything, he’s like, “What the fuck is that? I was just in the middle of my fucking conversation, and now you’ve fucked it up for me.” Suddenly his cigar is the worst cigar he’s ever tasted and the coffee tastes like shit. He’s fascinating.

    In 1965, Pinter had his characters say “flake off” and “runt” rather than more pungent alternatives.
    That’s all right; you never feel the need to change it. Pinter considers himself a poet, and it’s poetic—the words work perfectly. It’s like with [series creator] David Milch: The swearing on Deadwood was quite deliberate. If you put one fuck in the wrong place, you were fucked. It was all very carefully calibrated. Milch invented a language. People asked him, “Did people talk like that?” That’s not the point. Deadwood was a creation. That’s what made the show a great piece of television. He created a time and mythos and a language. I found it quite amazing. Even now, we talk about it coming back.

    Really? I heard that HBO finally dismantled the set.
    Well, I said that in an interview, but then HBO put out a thing that said, “If we do the two follow-up movies, they would take place after the flood and the fire, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the same set.” They’re like this administration: Is it waterboarding or is it not waterboarding?

    The Homecoming starts previews at the Cort Theatre Fri 23 (if the strike is settled).

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