Ian McShane smells amazing. I don’t mention it, and he doesn’t mention it, but we’re both aware of it. It’s an embarrassingly good smell. He radiates a delicious waft, an intoxicating Hollywood pong. Ian McShane smells like you after you’ve wandered out of the duty-free perfume shop at Gatwick. “I don’t go through life worrying,” he says at one point during our interview. Yeah. If I smelled like that, neither would I.
I’m sitting at right-angles to McShane on a sofa and, before I can articulate a fully-formed question, he’s on message and waxing lyrical about Jawbone, the boxing film we’re met to discuss. In truth, his time onscreen is fleeting. But, as boxing promoter Joe, he makes it count. Crafty old Joe is the man to whom Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) turns when he is looking for an unlicensed fight to help restore him to his glory days – a time when he was a youth champion, not a drink-addled has-been. Joe is a shady old boy, and a perfect character for McShane to sink his teeth into. What’s the trick to playing scary men, I want to know. “You don’t move,” he says. “You don’t blink. And you don’t speak that quickly. And you look at the other guy and you don’t take your eyes off him.”
I tell McShane his performance reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s in The Departed. This doesn’t go down brilliantly. “I think that is maybe one of the worst Nicholson films,” he says. “I prefer the original: Infernal Affairs.” As well as the smell, this is why being in McShane’s company is an exciting prospect: his disarming honesty. He has a gleeful tendency to acknowledge which of his own films were abysmal. “I haven’t seen a lot of films I’ve done,” he says, citing Michael Caine’s retort about his involvement in Jaws 4: “I have never seen it but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house it built and it is terrific.” When you sit down to speak to an actor, you cross your fingers for McShane levels of candour. “There’s all sorts of reasons why, later on [in life], you do projects,” he says, explaining that it might be because you’d like to travel or because the money would enable you to take on smaller subsequent films. “I’d hate to think you’d spend your entire life doing Pirates of the fucking Caribbean,” he says. He first met Johnny Harris – and re-met Ray Winstone (also in Jawbone, playing a boxing coach) – when the trio were cast as dwarves and filming Snow White and the Huntsman: “You get to know somebody pretty well when you’re spending six hours in prosthetics and wearing false arses every day.”
McShane leaves no room for doubt that he views Jawbone in higher esteem than films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Pirates of the Caribbean. He calls the film “a jolting, emotional experience. The film is visceral. There’s not a lot of time spent on back story, which I love. It’s all about moving forward.” Although he thinks of himself as a football guy (saying ‘soccer’ initially, on account of the fact that he divides his time between the US and the UK), he recognises the enormous symbolic power that boxing can wield. “What boxing gives you – and why it’s such a great metaphor in movies – is it’s a metaphor for life. It’s not a working man’s sport but it’s the way that people break out of poverty – sport. Boxing particularly, because it represents breaking out of whatever shackles have been put on you as a person.”
Like Harris – who wrote the film, as well as playing its lead – McShane has given up the drink. He is teetotal now, after spending a good deal of his younger days intimately acquainted with the bottle. (A recent Guardian profile said that in the ‘70s Richard Burton taught McShane “the delights of vodka for breakfast”.) Looking back on a 29-year period of sobriety, he describes giving up drink as the best decision he’s ever made. There is no doubt that, had he continued to knock them back, he would have aged far worse than he has. It is positively obscene that he is a 74-year-old man, looking as he does.
For many men, the prospect of stepping into an enclosed space and being constantly punched in the face is an utterly terrifying prospect. What still scares Ian McShane? “I think it’s the classic with me,” he says. Death? No. Spiders? No. “The doorbell rings at two in the morning, you answer it, and there’s a clown standing there.” Right. “That’s really fucking scary.” But on the whole, Ian McShane is of the opinion that life is simply “too much to be enjoyed” to waste time on fear. “I think people get nervous when they get out of control. But you realise that there’s not much you can control anyway. The rest of it, just give it up and have a good time, kid.”
And what of things left undone? What does he still have on his to do list? He is dismissive; this level of planning sits uneasy with him. For McShane there are no “one day I must play Lear” moments. “I don’t have that. Things have worked out pretty well.” He considers his lot. He seems happy. It sounds like acting’s been good to him? “Oh it’s a great job.” He smiles. “Better than working, kid.”
Jawbone is releasing in cinemas from 12 May, and will be available on DVD from 5 June.