Before he landed the role of Mr Wednesday in American Gods, Ian McShane hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s fantastical 2001 novel. Then he picked it up and, four readings later and counting, still hasn’t put it down.
“It’s not my preferred genre, as they say, but there was something rather thrilling about it,” he recalled. “It seemed like a perfect blueprint for a TV series because of all the ‘coming to America’ stories. You could go wherever you wanted within that world.”
American Gods, the book and series, presumes a world where deities are real — and walk among us. There are the old gods (like Loki, Bilquis and Anansi), who came to America through the beliefs of immigrants, and the new (Technical Boy and Media), who ascended through contemporary fixations.
And in the first season, the show’s creators, Bryan Fuller and Michael Green, trailed Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle), an aimless ex-con, and Mr. Wednesday, an eccentric grifter, on a serpentine cross-country road trip to visit the increasingly irrelevant old gods — and make the case for war against the upstarts trying to usurp their power.
Mr Wednesday was eventually revealed to be no less than Odin, the omnipotent Norse all-father. Season 2 — returning to Starz on March 10 after a 21-month hiatus, during which Fuller and Green left the show — finds him preparing his ancient troops for an epic battle.
His fierce charm intact at 76, McShane is burning up the screen this spring, with American Gods followed by four films in April and May: Hellboy, Bolden, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum and Deadwood, the long-gestating follow-up to the popular HBO cult Western that ended in 2006, in which he’ll reprise his brutal Dakota Territory pimp and saloonkeeper, Al Swearengen. In a phone interview from Los Angeles, he recounted his own “coming to America” story and revealed which god he’d want to be.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: A lot happened between Seasons 1 and 2 of American Gods, with the departure of the original showrunners and Gillian Anderson and Kristin Chenoweth. How has this whirlwind left you feeling?
A: Hey, that’s what happens in life. A little turmoil never hurt anybody as long as it came out slightly more creative in the end, and I think it maybe has.
Q: In what way?
A: Where they are, where they’re going to, is to get back to Gaiman’s book a little more than the first season, which I thought was excellent and provocative and a lot of startling good things but tended to [stray] from the book. Season 2 is more about asking questions of Shadow, because he’s got to become more proactive, and concentrating on the gods themselves. And also bringing the new gods into it more, because they tended to be just too shadowy toward the end. So yeah, I think it’s quite a thrilling year.
Q: You’re British but live mostly in Los Angeles. What’s your own “coming to America” story?
A: I first came back in ’75 and I’ve lived here now mostly permanently for the past 17 years while I work. It’s very odd what’s going on in America. I still think it’s a wonderful, wonderful country. It’s just strange times.
Q: The series touches on immigration, racism, xenophobia and gun control. Did you have any idea how prescient it would be?
A: Well, it was very interesting what was happening when we did the first season of American Gods. The country has taken a serious lurch to the right, as much as they’d love to say it’s taken a serious lurch to the left. I don’t think America would know a socialist if they fell over him. They think it’s somebody who lives in a garret in Russia and has no telephone and no refrigerator. But that’s due to their lack of education. America’s been dumbed down over the years, which is a shame. It’s wonderful to see Congress now with a rainbow color, if you like, of immigrants and nationalities and people who love this country. They’re talking about it in a different way.
Q: Let’s talk about your upcoming films, starting with Deadwood.
A: Deadwood was like being on an acid trip, like being transported back 15 years ago. People you’ve loved and known, some you’ve seen, some you haven’t — but you have a good time with them when you walk on that set, doing great work, loving the work you’re doing and hoping that people, when it comes out, will enjoy it.
Q: Can you hint at the story line?
A: I can say it’s 10 years later, South Dakota just got statehood and [Gerald] McRaney is coming back as a senator — he plays George Hearst, who is sort of the villain of the piece — and it all connects in a strange, great way to the last episode when we left.
Q: How has Al held up?
A: Ten years will make a difference, especially if you drink that much. But that’s life.
Q: And I’m guessing his language is obscenely poetic as ever?
A: Yeah, he may have the propensity for swearing but every swear word was written by David Milch. If you put a [expletive] in the wrong place you’re [expletive] because it was all rhythm. It was a deliberate attempt to shock.
Q: What about John Wick: Chapter 3?
A: That will be big and that will be good.
Q: Your character, Winston — the owner of the Continental hotel, neutral territory for assassins — let John get away at the end of Chapter 2. Will there be payback?
A: Well, the High Table doesn’t like anybody stepping out of line so maybe they’ll take me to task, giving John an out, even. And you’ve got Laurence Fishburne and me, and maybe we get together, maybe we’re unvirtuous. Who knows? Because nothing is the same.
Q: I’ve heard that you aren’t going to be part of The Continental, the Starz spinoff.
A: I may give them a voice-over. You never know.
Q: But you are in the reboot of Hellboy.
A: Hellboy, yeah! I think that’s going to surprise a lot of people. David [Harbour of Stranger Things] is a marvellous actor. He just fills out the role. It was nice and bittersweet taking over [Professor Bruttenholm] from a dear old friend of mine, John Hurt. But it’s not Part 3. It’s a complete reboot of [Guillermo del Toro’s] Hellboy, and I think they picked the right guy in David. It was a pleasure to work with him and be in Bulgaria for three weeks, a country I’ve never been to before. Greatest fresh vegetables I’ve ever tasted. And the scripts are funny and smart and bright, and the action is fantastic, and I have grandkids who love all that. They can’t wait.
Q: Last question: The heart of American Gods is faith and belief. Are you a believer? And if so, who is your god?
A: I believe Jesus Christ is a great guy, absolutely, and if he came back again they’d kill him, absolutely. And not just because he was Jewish, either. They’d kill him because in this day and age, if you talk about anything you’re misinterpreted into something else. So if I was a god, I’d be the god of tolerance. Not a vengeful god — no. I’d be the god of tolerance and understanding and say, “Everybody is worth it.”