Note: This story contains revelations from Game of Thrones season 6, episode 7, “The Broken Man”…
Ian McShane made his Game of Thrones debut — and his Game of Thrones exit — on Sunday night’s episode, “The Broken Man.” The Emmy-nominated Deadwood star’s storyline included the return of fan-favorite The Hound (Rory McCann) into what was a stand-alone tale that stepped back from the show’s usual action and palace intrigue and instead philosophically reexamined the topic of violence — the brutal life that characters in Westeros just naturally accept as a fixed reality. From the episode’s start, the storyline was unique; introduced in a rare cold-open sequence before the opening credits. We saw McShane’s Brother Ray spiritually nurture The Hound into a potential new way of life, only to be murdered by a band of attackers. Below we spoke to McShane about the character, his brief time on Thrones, his notorious “tits and dragons” comment, and some of his other projects in the pipeline — such as Starz’ American Gods, John Wick 2, and the Deadwood movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get involved with Game of Thrones?
IAN McSHANE: Well, they wrote a two-page speech — so that’s why they invited me. It’s a big soliloquy, like in Deadwood, and they needed to get somebody who could do that. It was really well written. Rory was a delight to work with, and so was the director. The whole experience was five days in Belfast, and I enjoyed it a lot.
What did you appreciate about Brother Ray? It seems like a different kind of role than some of the others that you’re best known for.
It was one episode, for a start, which is why I wanted to do it. Obviously he’s going to die. But when I read it, it’s nice. It’s like he’s holding an improvised meeting — not Alcoholics Anonymous, but Murderer’s Anonymous. He’s an ex warrior who’s grown tired of the murdering life and trying to lead another kind of life. But I think my main use was to re-introduce a character people thought was long gone and who needed some humanity. The Hound has not been shown much humanity in his life, and he gets a little from Brother Ray and carries that forward into his character, which makes it more interesting for those who watch him. Also, my daughter, who’s an avid watcher of the show, was like, “Oh, The Hound! That will be good!”
One message Brother Ray keeps giving The Hound is that it’s never too late to change, to start again. Do think that message will stick?
I don’t know what happens in the next episodes. But if they’re following the Western code, he’ll seek to avenge me, then continue his life in a different way. You have to have revenge, and expedient revenge. I don’t believe in the death penalty, but I understand personal vengeance. How do you reconcile those in real life? In film, you can do it very easily. You show somebody has been wronged and therefore their morality is in the right place.
What’s it like filming a death scene where you’re hanged? It’s got to be different than just rolling over and playing dead.
It’s very easy. You just have to hold your breath for 10 seconds and look sufficiently dead for them to get it.
Was it odd coming into this huge international hit for what was essentially a one-off performance? Any pressure there?
No pressure! It’s the most popular TV show in the world, isn’t it? I enjoyed meeting [showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss] — nobody ever expects the kind of reaction this has gotten. It’s kind of like Deadwood when we started off, but they’ve managed to go another three seasons. It’s interesting because you’re a part of the show, but you’re not part of the show. I only needed Rory [for my scenes], so I didn’t meet anybody else in it.
Everything about the production is so secretive. Once it was public that you were on the show were you hounded, so to speak, about the role?
That’s the natural extension of the Internet. I don’t pay much attention to that. I don’t do social media. So I’m constantly surprised that when anybody says anything — when a dandelion farts in Belfast things go crazy in the Far East. It’s like the [butterfly effect] multiplied by 20; little things that have great affect. And you know it’s all just more publicity and it just adds to the popularity of the show. People are fascinated by it. Is Jon Snow going to come back? Is it going to be The Hound? [Fans are] involved in the world and then they work it out, which is great. It all about publicity, which is why I’m talking to you, isn’t it? … I did the DVD commentary the other day with [co-executive producer Bryan Cogman] and Natalie Dormer, who seemed lovely. It’s so protected, you walk into the room, and they say, “Can we take your phone?” The screen comes up and it’s watermarked and black and white. It’s like viewing the Navy’s war plan.
Speaking of your teases about what was going happen in the show, you’ve rather famously — perhaps more famously than you intended — described Thrones as a show about “tits and dragons.” What was the reaction you got to that. Did the producers or network say anything?
I was doing a completely separate interview about [the UK miniseries] Doctor Thorne, which happens to be on now. And the interviewer asked about the commotion my remarks had [about The Hound coming back], had I said anything out of turn. And I said — well, you know what I said. Suddenly they all go apesh–t. And I thought, “Oh they’ll probably love that at HBO!” And they did, despite their protestations about the fans, saying, “Oh you’ve given something away!” I find the whole thing funny.
One project you mentioned earlier, we keep hearing there’s a Deadwood movie in development and David Milch is working on that script. Are you willing and able to reprise your role as Al Swearengen given your other commitments, and what’s the latest you’ve heard on that?
Yeah! Of course I’d love to reprise that. How could one not, when it was snatched away rather unjustly by a combination of forces we’ll never know about? Hubris or money or whatever. But [Deadwood] certainly finished too early. At the time, most of us working on the show were incredulous. It’s been announced by HBO, so its not like I’m saying it. I know for a fact David is working on the script. It’s been 10 years since it finished. [Star Timothy Olyphant’s] free from Justified. I’m hoping they’ll make the deal soon, for two or four hours, whatever they decide on. It was a very close knit group of actors on it. We got along very well. I’m sure David will decide to set it 10 years later, after the great fire or whatever happened in Deadwood. They haven’t done the deal yet. They [were planning] to do it late this year or early next year.
You also have another show coming up, Starz’ American Gods based on Neil Gaiman’s novel. Can you give us a sense of what that’s like so far?
Yeah, another show the Internet loves. I think it’s terrific. I read the book. It seemed to be a perfect blueprint for a series. Neil is a prolific author and I thought, “Wow, he jumps here and jumps there with all these old gods.” Mr. Wednesday is the character I play — he meets up with this character, Shadow Moon, played by Ricky Whittle, who I think is going to be terrific in this, he’s a good lad. I also worked with the producer before, Michael Green, on Kings, who is a very gifted writer-producer and a very decent guy. It just seems like one of those shows that could be quite extraordinary. There’s a lot of special effects, which is why I have time off now. They got these big sequences they have to do back in Toronto. Good writing, great character, there’s other terrific people in the show playing the various guest gods. And there’s [executive producer] Bryan Fuller, who I haven’t worked with before, as the other producer. It’s a very ambitious show but it’s something very different, which is what drew me back to long-form TV.
Speaking of your film work, I’m very excited about John Wick 2. What can we expect? You have a role bigger than the first one I hear?
Well, I’m kind of the only one left from the first one. This is same kind of premise. It’s not like two years later, but pretty soon after the first one. Keanu [Reeves] is a great guy. They got this terrific Italian kid, Riccardo Scamarcio, who plays the chief villain, who’s excellent, and we have a lot of stuff together. And the guy who directs it, Chad Stahelski, is really smart. He’s been Keanu’s stunt guy for [nearly] 20 years and he’s studied muay-thai. He’s got every stunt man who’s available for [this film]. The action looks like it was done by somebody out of Hong Kong instead of Hollywood which I always think is a great sight.
And so, the story is again a vengeance premise, to some degree?
Keanu gets a new dog. But yes, it’s about what comes on him after that. It’s all about the assassin’s code, if you like. He’s killed a Russian gangster and now there’s a contract out on him, so it’s a continuation. I loved the first one. This could be even better than the first.
Finally, you have yet another project that’s also really secretive: Vital Signs, a high-concept semi-autobiographical show starring Dr. Dre and coming from Apple, where various actors play different aspects of Dre’s personality.
Sam Rockwell plays Ego and Michael K. Williams plays Negativity. I play Vengeance. It’s all part of Dr. Dre’s psyche. It’s Dre’s idea — a cross between reality television, scripted television, and dramatic television. This is Dre examining his life from his beginnings in Compton to being a millionaire, and questioning his friends, his background, and himself. Sam, I’ve never worked with, but I’ve been a fan of, and we had a good time together. It’s great.
More “The Broken Man” coverage: Read our Q&A with writer-producer Bryan Cogman on the return of The Hound. Separately, Cogman gives a bit of insight into that scene with instant breakout Lyanna Mormont. Read our deep-dive recap of the episode, and don’t forget to subscribe to our Game of Thrones Weekly podcast (new episode posted below).