Ian McShane is 81, but you’d never know it watching him in “American Star.”
Also a producer of director Gonzalo López-Gallego’s new film, the English actor plays Wilson, a seasoned assassin who visits the Canary Islands’ Fuerteventura for a job, but instead unexpectedly becomes involved in the life of a French expatriate (Nora Arnezeder) and the lonely child of a vacationing couple (Oscar Coleman). From the first scene, McShane dances across the screen with the same effortlessness of a performer a quarter of his age, as his character reckons with an escalating series of disruptions to a sequence of events whose outcome is inevitable: someone dying of a bullet from his gun.
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Though he’s been working in film, TV and theater for more than six decades, McShane has become well known in America largely in the last two, playing mentors and authority figures on series like “Deadwood” and “American Gods,” and film series like “John Wick” and its forthcoming spinoff, “Ballerina,” who seldom move quickly — because they don’t need to move for anyone. Reuniting with López-Gallego after starring in his 2012 film “The Hollow Point,” he’s candid about why he felt Wilson needed to have a different physique and gait than he’s brought to past roles. “Nobody wants to see a fat hitman,” McShane tells Variety.
He laughs before answering more seriously, a juxtaposition that has served him well on screen, delivering gallows humor with commanding, often impenetrable intelligence. “I’m not a crazy workout guy, but in each role, at the core it’s you — but you adopt something else. And I think if you think about what you’re doing, it comes out physically too,” he says. After the filmmaker pitched “American Star” to him during production on “The Hollow Point,” McShane carried it with him until they could get the movie made, a weight that helped him get his acting muscles into shape.
“Having been so involved with it over five years, I was fully prepared,” he says. “By the time we started shooting, I knew the walk I wanted to have. I knew the way he wanted to shoot it. And we started shooting on a Monday, and five weeks later we packed up and went away.”
The elder statesman role fits him like a glove, especially after learning over the years from many of Hollywood’s best. “I was lucky enough as a younger actor working with people like Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, George C. Scott, giants of the cinema,” McShane remembers. “They were regular good guys and they just got on with it and did the acting.” As much as following in their footsteps, he says that just plain getting older helps an actor more ably fill the shoes of characters with wisdom to share. “Over the years, you acquire a gravitas. And if you don’t, you should give the business up,” he adds.
“You wake up, you put the suit on, and you hope you bring all that experience with you.”
With almost 150 credits to his name, McShane has played a lot of different “types” throughout his career, making him astutely aware not just of a character’s responsibility in a story, but the genre in which he’s operating. He says that “American Star” appealed to him because it took a different approach than he’d seen to the familiar tropes of films about slick assassins. “I think about the scaffolding of the genre because it started off more as a classic hitman movie,” he says. “I think it’s very boring if it’s just a guy killing. But the very fact that he gets to the island, and he gets drawn in by the kid and then the woman, and then her mother. And he tries to get himself out of it, but it’s too late to take charge of anything. His life has already been compromised.
“It’s a genre that’s been explored forever, the lone guy who’s an angel of death,” he continues. “I love those kinds of movies, but this is more of a mood piece. And I’m glad that the violence is very minimal.”
That choice marks a dramatic contrast from the role that’s kept him busy now for ten years, Winston Scott, the mysterious owner of the criminal underground weight station, the Continental, in the “John Wick” franchise. To be fair, Winston is seldom involved too heavily in the series’ bloodletting, but McShane says he’s happy to be on director Chad Stahelski’s seemingly indefatigable gravy train for Lionsgate. “People say, ‘Do you come to them?’ But I never suggest anything about ‘John Wick’ — because they kill everybody off until they decide what they’ll do,” he adds, again laughing.
About offering input on the scripts, he quickly corrects himself. “I suggested the tattoo on the hand and the last line being delivered in Russian, which just adds a little mystique to it,” he reveals, referring to Winston’s reinstatement as manager of the Continental at the end of the fourth “John Wick” installment. In fact, he similarly collaborated with director Les Wiseman on “Ballerina,” the forthcoming Ana de Armas film which takes place in between the events of “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and “John Wick: Chapter 4.”
“‘Ballerina’ is very different,” he says. “We had these three scenes and we added another couple of scenes at the Continental.” He attributes his willingness to make suggestions with Winston to the confidence that Stahelski has placed in him throughout the series. “Chad trusts me with knowing my character, so I try to bring a little twist to it each time.”
Though at last report there seemed to be a bit of gridlock between Stahelski and franchise star Keanu Reeves and Lionsgate brass over what direction to go in with the franchise, McShane says “we’ve been having a few scenarios” about a fifth film as its predecessor cycled through awards season. Recognizing that Stahelski and Reeves’ reluctance to resuscitate John Wick stemmed from making sure they’re able to “deliver two uniquely special experiences,” as Stahelski told press in 2023, McShane leans on his experience — which he says is encapsulated in “American Star” — to suggest that the path forward not only does not need to be brand new, it likely can’t.
“Everything’s been done before, but it’s the way you do it. If there’s a little twist in it, that’s good. And I think we did that with ‘American Star’,” McShane says. “It wasn’t a bang-up, shoot-em-up. It was more psychological. It has a lot of human elements in it, which I think adds to the genre.”
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