“What’s great about acting is you can let all your wackiness hang out while you work,” said Ian McShane, sitting in a worn chair with pea-soup-green cushions on the Cort Theater stage. He was discussing his role as the maniacal patriarch in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. Before showtime, the 65-year-old British thespian, best known as the calculating swindler Al Swearengen on the HBO show Deadwood (now in limbo), sits in that same chair and collects his “craziness,” preparing to splay it out before the audience. “All your madness, for two hours, you put it out onstage,” he said. “You save your energies for that.”
Mr. McShane has a knack for playing lovable villains. He specializes in gangsters, from the sidekick of Richard Burton’s Villain (1971) to the menacing crime boss Teddy Bass in Jonathan Glazer’s stylish crime thriller Sexy Beast (2000). But it’s his Golden Globe-winning role as Swearengen, the town’s biggest badass (he feeds his victims to pigs!), that can make a gal’s heart skip a few nervous beats. You almost expect him to call you “cocksucker” as a greeting. Instead, Mr. McShane is gregarious, even charming, offering a friendly handshake and kisses on both cheeks. The trademark Swearengen cold stare melts (ever so slightly) into kind eyes, those of a father of two and grandfather of two (twice divorced, he is currently married to British actress Gwen Humble). Mr. McShane laughs heartily at his own jokes, sometimes punctuated with a throaty cough. His hair is a deep sable, shimmering with a few stray gray strands, and he wears a studded belt, the kind you’d find on a common street punk.
“The bad boys get all the best lines,” he said with a mischievous grin. “As they say, the devil plays the best tune.”
In The Homecoming, Mr. McShane is a retired butcher, an insecure father of three sons who is slowly losing his grasp as the dominating force in his North London household. Instead of his butcher’s knife, he wields sharp words—he calls his daughter-in-law Ruth (Eve Best) a “whore” and a “dirty tart,” and growls “you’ll drown in your own blood” at quick-witted middle son Lenny (Raul Esparza)—whacking a cane on furniture or spitting for emphasis. “These characters come on stage, and from the first to the last they never stop undermining each other,” Mr. McShane said. “They’re like intimate terrors. They’re confrontational, they strip everything bare to its raw emotions and I’m telling you that’s what’s great about doing Pinter.”
The Homecoming is currently playing at the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street. Performances are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.; and Tuesday to Saturday at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit http://www.thehomecomingonbroadway.com or call 212-947-8844.