Ian McShane goes from foul-mouthed barkeep to one of NBC's Kings

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Ian McShane ran Deadwood's Gem Saloon with an iron fist, and now he's assuming the role of a very different kind of leader: The British actor stars in NBC's upcoming contemporary David-and-Goliath saga Kings. He plays King Silas Benjamin, leader of Gilboa. When a young soldier named David Shepard (Chris Egan) ignores orders and unwittingly saves the King's son, Jack (Sebastian Stan), everyone's lives are forever changed.

The show also stars Susanna Thompson, Allison Miller, Wes Studi and Dylan Baker. It's executive-produced by Michael Green (Heroes), Erwin Stoff (I Am Legend) and Francis Lawrence; Lawrence, who directed I Am Legend, helmed the first four episode of Kings. SCI FI Wire was on the line last week when Green and McShane joined reporters for a conference call for Kings, which premieres March 15. The following are edited excepts from that interview.

Michael, can you talk about how NBC has responded specifically to the more religious or overtly political aspects of Kings?

Green: Very supportive. I mean, this isn't a religious show in the sense most people expect. I think when people ask if this is a religious show, they're thinking more like the Hallmark movies. I think the definition of a religious show is a show that's designed to inspire religious feeling, where this is not a show that's designed to do that. This is a show that's designed to tell the best story it can.

So our goal is good storytelling. To that extent, having religion as a subject or ... something that's a preoccupation of characters within the show, no one has had any problems, because it just makes for good storytelling—I hope, anyway. So NBC has been nothing but supportive about that or about the political aspects of it. The politics just lends itself to good stories as well, so we've had nothing but support on that, really.

Going back to the beginning of that answer, is there a clarification you'd want to make between the show being religious in the dogmatic sense and being about faith, perhaps?

Green: You know, it's for the critics to make those determinations. I think our goal is the best [possible] storytelling. I liken it to Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a movie that is very much about religious [concerns], but it is not a religious film; it just takes as its tropes and as its subject things that are important in religion.

At the start of the writing process, how much of the history and culture of Gilboa did you have to determine before you could write a single word? And how much of that have you built into a mythology or a bible you keep somewhere?

Green: It started with definite ideas, and we let it evolve and build as we went. One of the best things about working in series television is you get a group of very talented writers together and let them take your original idea and improve upon it, and that's definitely happened. I had an idea of what this country was and felt like and an aesthetic for it, and then our director, Francis Lawrence, came in and really helped explode that and make it so much more real and vivid than I had ever imagined it. And then every subsequent person who comes in, whether they're the terrific actors or the terrific writers or a production designer who just keeps building a bigger and bigger city, it just all keeps improving on that original nugget that I brought to it.

The character of David is immensely likable, but everyone knows that power corrupts.

Green: I think no one stays good forever. I think this is actually a good question for Ian.

Ian, we can't tell right away how corrupt or honest the king is. He seems to be both. What's your take on it?

McShane: Silas as a character, he's been king too long. Anybody that does something for too long, eventually it overtakes them. And he sees in David a rival and maybe a protege, both of which are conflicting to him, because nobody wants to give up the reins of what he's got. And that's the journey in the first season that happens. And Chris Egan and I both have a relationship. As Michael said, nobody is good forever, and especially where ladies are concerned. So maybe passion overtakes all, but that's for them to find out in whatever season Michael places that particular hurdle.

Ian, what was your initial reaction when Michael said he wanted to retell the David and Goliath story? What appealed to you enough to sign on?

McShane: Well, if I'd done that, I'd say. "So I'm a little old to play David. So maybe ... " No, I mean, it was the Book of Samuel, and it's a great read. Whether you believe it or not, it's a terrific read. And when he started explaining the way the show would be and Francis [explained how he] wanted to create this world, it was very appealing. And at the time the last thing I wanted to do was some network show that was simply a procedural. This seemed like something more fitting to cable, if you like, which the regular networks have to face up to. They've got to do shows that are ambitious and have a broad appeal.

Michael, what guest stars can you reveal?

Green: Quite a few. We've been very, very fortunate with guest stars. Brian Cox comes in as soon as the first episode after the pilot. We have Macaulay Culkin coming in. We have Leslie Bibb. We have Michael Stahl-David. Oh, goodness, we've had a lot of really great people. ... Titus Welliver, who is also of Deadwood fame. Yeah, that's a good number right there.