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The actor: Michael Shannon, a veteran character actor and Academy Award nominee for his role in Revolutionary Road. Shannon hails from the Chicago theater scene, where he helped found the Red Orchid Theatre and starred in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug, latter reprising his Bug role in a 2006 film version directed by William Friedkin. He plays the lead in two independent movies currently in theaters: Noah Buschel’s The Missing Person and Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and he’s part of the rich ensemble cast for the upcoming HBO series Boardwalk Empire.
The Missing Person (2009)— “John Rosow”
The A.V. Club: Here’s a movie very much rooted in old-fashioned genre films and detective novels. Were you looking to any particular character as a model for this performance?
Michael Shannon: I don’t particularly find it interesting to watch actors mimicking other actors, or mimicking other performances. So as much as the other performances [in classic detective films] are legendary, wonderful performances, they wouldn’t really be any use to me. I feel like the character of the private detective is an archetype, kind of iconic character, and is certainly lurking in the collective subconscious. I think anybody could do their imitation of a hard-boiled private dick, and they’d all be slightly different and mostly the same. It’s just something that’s ingrained in our culture.
AVC: What sorts of idiosyncrasies did you bring to that performance? How did you conceive of this character in your mind when you prepared to play it?
MS: As much as I would like to take all the credit, a lot of the character is in the script. It’s in the dialogue and it’s in the screen directions, and a lot of the behavior is suggested by [writer-director] Noah [Buschel]. I approached it not so much from trying to play a detective per se, but from the knowledge of what actually really happened to this guy. The kind of humiliation and despair that he’s been dealing with since this terrible tragedy [9/11] happened to him. I think a lot of the jokes he cracks and his personality—kind of a sardonic personality—are a defense. He’s trying to forget about what happened to him, forget who he is. In a way, he’s playing this character as much as I am, you know what I mean?
AVC: The film is really unusual in the way it pays homage to ’50s noir while referencing something as unmistakably modern as 9/11. How do you feel the film reconciles these two things?
MS: It’s a big part of what I liked about it. I think without that aspect—if you just tried to tell the story straight—I think it would be too much to bear. I mean, it’s obviously subject matter that’s still a fresh wound for a lot of people, particularly here in New York. So I think combining it with the noir elements, while not necessarily making it more palatable, certainly makes it more poetic. It’s not just a straight-ahead narrative. The noir genre itself is born out of destruction and war, and I thought it was very clever of Noah to do this that way.
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)—“Brad McCullum”
AVC: [Director] Werner Herzog has had famously combustible relationships with his lead actors. What was it like between the two of you?
MS: I guess if there’s one thing that might surprise people about me, it’s that I’m very obedient. I’m kind of like a dog. I look at acting as kind of a service industry. You’re there to serve the writer and the director. I don’t really look at it as an act of self-expression, like I’m going to say what’s on my mind. Because you’re not saying what’s on your mind, you’re saying what somebody else wrote, and you’re doing it the way someone else tells you to do it. So in a way, I’m his dream actor, because he can just kind of tell me what to do, and I’ll do it. At some points, I wished it was a little bit more collaborative. I mean it was certainly the most extreme example of that type of situation—
AVC: Of where you had to be obedient?
MS: Yeah. Werner’s decided in advance what he wants and how he wants it to be. And the thing about Werner is that what you’re really seeing when you see one of his movies, more than any particular story, is you’re seeing him. You’re seeing his personality, his view of the world. He is definitely expressing himself. For him, it’s almost like the stories exist parallel to him expressing himself. So he’ll tell the story, but he’ll also tell you some things about the way he sees the world, at the same time. And he manages to take these two streams and turn them into one river.
I certainly did a lot of traveling with this film. I went to Peru with Werner, and that alone made the experience worth it. Because first of all, I went to Peru, which I would have never done. I don’t travel for fun, because I travel so much with my work; when I’m not working, I mostly want to stay home. So I went to Peru and China, to Kashgar. I saw the old city in Kashgar, which 10 years from now probably won’t even be there anymore. Those are the fond memories. You know, standing up at Machu Picchu and Werner pointing to the various places, like [Affects Herzog’s voice.] “I shot the opening of Aguirre over there. When were shooting Fitzcarraldo, we stayed in those shacks down there by the river.” It’s like his own personal playground.
AVC: It’s gotten to a point where Herzog has become as much a legend as a filmmaker. Did anything happen during production that was particularly unusual, or that would add to the Herzog legend?
MS: Hmm. It was pretty mild-mannered, though the trip to China was certainly unusual. Basically, we flew all the way to China for one shot. It wasn’t even a scene. It was one shot, but he insisted that we had to go to China to do it. It was me and him and his wife and our producer, Eric Bassett, the four of us flew to China. And there was no cinematographer, because I was the cinematographer. I wore a harness around my chest that had a camera attached to it—this wooden arm with a camera on the end of it, shooting back in my direction. So the shot was me walking through the market in Kashgar with the ancient faces of the Uyghur people, you know, staring at the oblivious white man. [Laughs.]
And this is a perfect example. This has nothing to do with the actual story of the guy who the film is very loosely based on. Not only did Werner insist that we go to China to get this shot because of this movie, he wanted to get the shot because it’s a shot he’s been thinking about for 20 years. He’s been dreaming about this shot for 20 years, so now he’s like “Ah, I think I can fit it in this movie—it’ll make sense in this movie.”
AVC: Does it make sense?
MS: It does. The film is not some thoughtful explanation of why someone would kill their mother with a sword. And I like that about the film, because truth be told, there’s no way to really explain in an hour and a half why someone would kill their mother with a sword. And anytime you see a movie that purports to do that, you’re really being hornswoggled, because that’s just not possible. It’s too complicated a subject. I think what this film winds up being is a chance to really see the world from this character’s perspective, which is a very stilted, unusual, and at times juvenile perspective. But that is probably the most accurate representation of what his perspective would be. This is not a guy who would have a very sophisticated point of view. I mean, he ran a sword through his mother’s chest. Anybody with any sort of elevated consciousness wouldn’t do something like that.
Bug (2006)— “Peter Evans”
MS: Bug came into being, the story goes, because William Friedkin came to see the play in New York. [Shannon had played the role in Tracy Letts’ play since its inception in Chicago. —ed.] Then he came to see it again with his wife [former Paramount studio boss Sherry Lansing], and he asked her what she thought about it, and she was excited about it. The more he thought about it, the more he could imagine it being a film, and he finally approached Tracy. Initially when he talked to Tracy about it, he was trying to make the film with the cast as it was in the play, which was very, very sweet of him. But we all know that it’s hard to get money to make a movie if you don’t have famous people in it. He went on to cast different folks in the other roles, but he was always pretty adamant about me doing the movie, which was also very, very kind of him. I guess according to him, he just couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it. I don’t really agree with that. I’d kind of like to see Billy Crudup or Peter Sarsgaard do it, just because I’ve done it so many times, I’m interested to see what someone else would do with it. But I’m very grateful that I was able to stay in the project.
It was weird. I showed up on the first day of shooting and I realized that there was this play that I had done 200 times, and I was surrounded by people that had little or no history with it at all. It was something that was just ingrained in me. I could do it almost reflexively, without even thinking about it. The people around me were kind of struggling with it, like, “What the hell is this? What the hell is going on, and what does it mean?” and Ashley [Judd], God bless her, she was incredible. Because she came in, we did not have a lot of rehearsal at all. We got there about a week before we started shooting, we shot in New Orleans, and she just worked so hard and showed up every day and was able to keep up with me, who was basically doing something I could have done in my sleep, and she surprised me and kept me inspired. Both her and Billy [Friedkin] kept me on my toes, so I wasn’t just doing something by rote. But I didn’t feel like I had to protect the material too much, because nobody was there to make a whole bunch of money or anything. Everybody was there because they were intrigued by the story, and ultimately felt it was important to do.
AVC: With Ashley Judd, it would seem like just the nature of your character would help get her through the performance. You’re there to wind her up.
MS: I’m the wind beneath her wings. [Laughs.]
AVC: Friedkin is renowned for his intensity. Did he live up to his reputation?
MS: There are a few directors I’ve worked with who have been notorious for having a flamboyant side. The thing is, by the time I work with them, they’re a little bit older, they’ve learned some things, and I think they’ve kind of mellowed out. So when I’m on the set with them, I’m not seeing any of this behavior. I don’t know what it was like to work with [Friedkin] back in the ’70s, but working with him now was just very gentle. He was actually cracking jokes a lot and having fun. I think he had a lot of fun making the movie. He knew when to get serious, and he knew when to clamp down and get focused on something. When something had to get done, he knew how to get authoritative, but he was never a bully or anything like that.
Groundhog Day (1993)— “Fred”
AVC: This was your very first appearance in a feature of any kind, much less a Hollywood production. What do you remember about it?
MS: I remember going to that little town, Woodstock [Illinois]. It was shot during the summer, so they had taken over this town and covered it with fake snow, and everyone was walking around wearing down coats, even though it was 80 degrees outside. So it was a very surreal kind of atmosphere. I remember I walked up to Bill Murray. Bill Murray had a little boom box that he would listen to between takes, and he was listening to Talking Heads. I think he was listening to Speaking In Tongues or something. And at the time, the Talking Heads were probably my favorite band. During my teenage years, my formative years, every kid has a band that they think is the greatest band on earth. And for me, that was the Talking Heads. So I was standing there watching him groove to Speaking In Tongues, and I got so excited. I was like, “Bill Murray likes Talking Heads! I like Talking Heads too, so I’m gonna go up and ask him about it.” So I walked up and I said, “Mr. Murray, you like the Talking Heads?” And I realized as soon as I asked the question that it was a profoundly stupid question, because obviously he was standing there listening to the Talking Heads. So he kind of looked at me like I was slightly slow, and said, “Yeah, I like the Talking Heads.” So then I was crushed, I was devastated, and I was moping around.
One day, [director] Harold Ramis during lunch asked me to come play pool with him, because he liked to play pool during breaks. We were talking and he asked, “You having fun?” And I said, “Yeah, but I feel really bad. I think I said something really stupid to Mr. Murray.” I told him the story, and I basically said “I don’t think Mr. Murray likes me very much.” And Harold said, “No, no, don’t worry about that. I’m sure you just caught him at a bad time or something.” So then we finally—and I’d been hanging around for two weeks—we finally get to the reason I was actually there, which was to shoot that scene in the dance at the end. For most of the shoot, I had to be in the restaurant every time there was a scene there, even though 90 percent of the time, the camera wasn’t even pointed in my direction. They wanted all the same people in the restaurant. Anyway, we finally get to the big dance scene, and I’m really excited, because I’m finally going to get to do some acting. And we’re rehearsing, and Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell are going around to all the different people, and they come to us. And Harold comes up, and he’s like, “Now before we rehearse this scene, I want Bill to say something.” And Bill turned to me and he was like, “I like you, Mike. I’m not upset with you. I’m sorry if you thought I was upset with you.” Harold Ramis had gone to Bill Murray and told him that he had hurt my feelings. It was really one of the strangest things that had ever happened to me. I couldn’t believe it. It was kind of like that thing where you get embarrassed, like you have a conversation with someone you think is private. Like, “Aw, I really have a crush on Sandy.” And then the person goes and tells Sandy. I was just beet-red.
AVC: So was this your impression of how Hollywood was going to work for you?
MS: That movie was very friendly, actually. It was like a little city. Everybody who worked on it was just very nice. And the fact of the matter is that I probably just did catch him at a bad time. I’m sure for him making that movie, he probably had some days where… That’s the kind of part that could put you in a funk. You’re stuck doing the same thing over and over again. I’m sure he had some days where he probably felt a little nutty.
Pearl Harbor (2001)— “Lt. Gooz Wood”
AVC: This, Bad Boys II, and Kangaroo Jack were all films you did for Jerry Bruckheimer. How did you come into his orbit?
MS: I had been in New York doing Killer Joe Off-Broadway. I got a manager, this guy named Lee Daniels, who is actually now a filmmaker. He made Precious. But once upon a time, he was my manager, and when I was done with Killer Joe, he encouraged me to move out to L.A. Which is something I never thought I would do in a million years, but he was pretty adamant about it. And I moved out there, and he was really good about getting me meetings and stuff. He got me in a room with Michael Bay, and I believe Jerry was there. To get that part, really, it was a lot of improv. I had to go in there and basically just try to make him laugh. He thought I was funny, and the rest is history.
AVC: What about your experience on the set itself? This was a gargantuan project.
MS: Oh yeah, it was really crazy. You’re recreating one of the worst events in the history of our nation. There was a month in Hawaii where we would show up at Pearl Harbor every day, and it was like, “Today we’re going to blow this up and you’re going to run over there, and this is going to shoot at you, and this plane is gonna fly down and try to kill you.” I developed a really bad headache about halfway through the month, because it was just loud every day. Things blowing up and everybody screaming and running around. But it still paled in comparison to what it must have actually been like. The thing I’ll never forget is actually seeing the USS Arizona there in the water. I got to see it from the air. I went up in a little plane and flew over it and looked down on it, and it was one of the most chilling things I had ever seen in my life.
8 Mile (2002)— “Greg Buehl”
AVC: You play an abusive character in that movie.
MS: I was mainly dealing with Eminem and Kim Basinger. They’re both pretty hard people to shock; I mean, Eminem had a really rough go of it. The movie is loosely biographical to him, so it’s not like there’s much I can do that’s really going to frighten him. At the end of the day, he knows I’m an actor. He was actually very respectful. What made him nervous more than anything was just the prospect of acting, because he had never done anything before. He took it very seriously, and he prepared for weeks in advance before they even started shooting. He was incredibly respectful to Curtis [Hanson], the director, and to whoever he was doing a scene with. He just wanted to make sure that he was doing it right, and that everyone was happy. So I feel like with that character, he’s really more talk than any actual threat. More than anything, he’s just an asshole. And then Kim was also very sweet. Jesus, she’s done like a hundred movies. She’s an old pro, and she was very easy to work with, too. As dark as the movie actually came out, my experience working on it was pretty… well obviously there’s the fight, but that was very much choreographed, and nobody got hurt.
Shotgun Stories (2007)—“Son Hayes”
MS: I got involved because I was at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab one year, and I was working with a man who teaches at the North Carolina School For The Arts. A man named Gary Hawkins was Jeff Nichols’, the director’s, teacher. So Gary, when he went back to school in the fall, wanted to show his students this work he had been doing at the Filmmakers Lab. And Jeff saw what we had been working on, and he went up to Gary afterwards and said, “Who’s that guy you were working with?” I think Jeff had the idea for the film in his mind before he saw that, and he called me up one day and said, “You don’t know who I am, but you worked with my teacher, and he gave me your number, and I know you’re probably going to say no, but I just thought I’d ask. Would you mind reading this screenplay I wrote?” And I said, “Oh yeah, sure, send it to me.” And I read it, and I just thought it was one of the best screenplays I had ever read. And I called him back and I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it. I’ll do it whenever.” And he didn’t have any money at all; it was a super-low-budget movie. But indicative of the reason that I love Jeff is that he insisted on shooting on 35mm anamorphic, even though he didn’t have two pennies to rub together. Basically, the entire budget went into the camera and the film. And everybody else did it for free.
AVC: It looks a lot like George Washington. It’s really gorgeous.
MS: The thing is, [cinematographer] Adam [Stone] would do all the B-roll footage on [George Washington director and Shotgun Stories producer] David Gordon Green’s movies. So anytime you see any kind of a montage-y shot or establishing shot, that’s probably something Adam shot. And that’s one of Adam’s favorite things to do, just go around and collect footage. When we were doing Shotgun Stories, we’d finish a day of shooting, and while most of us would go off and have dinner, Adam would go off with the camera. He’d be like, “I saw this really cool dog. I’m gonna go shoot this dog for an hour.” He’s just really into creating images. Anyway, I think in terms of the atmosphere and all that, it just helped that we were in Arkansas. And I grew up in Kentucky, so I know a little bit about the South, not as far South as Little Rock, but the environment really informs the performance, I think. The way the air is down there, you really start to understand why people don’t talk very much. It’s hard to talk when it’s so humid, and you’re always kind of tired, and don’t really want to do anything unless you have to. It’s just in the air down there.
Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)—“Dex”
AVC: This was a small performance, but a really memorable one. And you got to work with Sidney Lumet, who’s known as an actor’s director.
MS: Oh he’s just a pleasure. He’s such a sweet guy. If you didn’t know he was Sidney Lumet, you would think he was just a regular guy. He always dressed in jeans and a plain blue button-down shirt, and he just looks like a guy from the neighborhood. But he’s directed all these classic films. He was a lot of fun to work with. He rehearses his movies almost like plays. We did a run-through of the whole movie before we started shooting. He had all the sets taped out on the floor of this ballroom so we could go from location to location to location to location, and it was really fascinating to watch the movie happening in a ballroom, people just kind of puttering around from place to place.
AVC: Did you like that? Is there a risk of losing some of that spontaneity if you give it all up for rehearsal?
MS: I don’t know where I’m at on that issue. I think spontaneity can be overrated. I think it’s better to know what you’re doing. I’d rather work with somebody who’s prepared than somebody who is just going to show up and try to wing it, because you end up wasting a lot of time that way. [Lumet] just doesn’t waste time. Because of all that preparation, he can get through twice the amount of pages that you could get through on another movie. Like if it were 14 hours to get through 10 pages on another movie, he can get through it in seven and go home early. It makes you realize how silly a lot of the time is that you spend sitting around waiting. They always say it’s inevitable, and nothing can be done. But there is something that can be done if you’re diligent and you prepare, so everybody is not sitting around and trying to figure out what to do all day long.
Boardwalk Empire (2009)— “Van Alden”
AVC: This is an HBO series about Atlantic City that Martin Scorsese is producing, and he also directed the pilot. What can you tell us about that?
MS: Scorsese was a huge draw for all of us. We wanted to be in the show just to be able to spend any time at all in the same room as him. I mean, he’s one of my favorite directors, and I got to watch him work. He’s obviously a very visual filmmaker, which I guess sounds kind of silly, since film is a visual medium. Anyway, he’s very concerned with composition, camera movement, angles, storytelling through the photography, and editing. He’s somebody who fundamentally understands what the term “motion pictures” means—it’s half cinematography and it’s half editing and .119 percent everything else. So that’s what he’s really kind of obsessed with. So as an actor, we didn’t have any huge in-depth conversations. What I had to do in the pilot is pretty simple. Pilots by and large tend to be like a parade where you have all these characters, and you show just enough of them so that they can have a burgeoning storyline somewhere down the road. But there’s nothing too complicated going on as far as the storytelling or the acting of any one particular role in the pilot. So I guess if I had a regret, it would be that I didn’t get to roll up my sleeves and work with him as an actor as much as I would have liked. But I loved watching him compose the sequences visually.
AVC: Was there a sense that you were auditioning for a future role, in a way? Were you anxious to make a good impression?
MS: Oh no, no, no. That would have been annoying. It was a really intense thing, an intense schedule. It was like we were making a Scorsese film but we weren’t. We were making a television pilot. He wanted it to be up to the standards of his films, but with less time and less resources. So there were very long days, and he was very passionate about it, because he’s no spring chicken, and he’s there pulling 18- or 19-hour days because it had to be done in a certain amount of time. And I never saw him once seem tired or out of it or anything. I don’t know how he does it. I think he just has such a passion for what he does that he could probably stay up for a week straight if he needed to.
Revolutionary Road (2008)—“John Givings”
MS: I read the book before there was any notion of making it into a movie. And then I saw that they were—I can’t remember if I saw in a newspaper or magazine or what—I just called my manager and said that I really wanted to audition for that.
AVC: And was John the part you knew you wanted?
MS: Actually, I didn’t have a specific part in mind. Of course, any actor who read that book would love to have a chance to play John. I thought maybe I’d have a better chance of getting Shep, or another part. I really didn’t know. It was a real shot in the dark. I just said to my manager, “Could you please call them and see if they’d let me audition for anything?” Me playing John was the casting director’s idea. So I just went in and I put myself on tape in the casting director’s office, and [director] Sam [Mendes] saw it. Then I went back again and met him. We talked for a few minutes, and he told me while I was sitting there that he wanted me to do it. So that was that.
AVC: You obviously got a lot of attention for that role, including an Oscar nomination. Are you getting more opportunities because of it?
MS: It certainly was a very thrilling experience, and it’s something I’ll always remember and cherish. But it’s not like all of a sudden I’m Superman or something. Bottom line is, what really drives this business more than the acclaim or the accolades is, “Will people pay money to see you in a movie?” And I don’t know at what point that I am there. I feel like there are people that get a kick out of seeing me do this or that, but I’m certainly not a household name. But it was by far the most attention I had ever gotten for doing something. It maybe elevated my profile a little bit, but to my dying day, I swear to God, the two movies I’ll be most remembered for are 8 Mile and Bad Boys II.
AVC: What makes you think that?
MS: Those are just the ones I’m most recognized for. Inevitably what happens is that people come up to me and they’re like, “You’ve been in a movie. Which one was it?” I’m like, “Well, I’ve been in more than one. I’ve been in a few.” And they say, “Well tell me one. Tell me one I know.” And I know if I say 8 Mile or Bad Boys II, I can bring the conversation to a close. Inevitably, it’s one of those two.
AVC: Maybe 10 or 20 years from now, you’ll be remembered for more movies than just the ones that were popular at one time.
MS: That’s true. I guess there’s just a reluctance on my part to think that I ever cracked the code or something. I’m sure when you start feeling that way, that’s when it all starts crashing down. Humility in this business isn’t just a matter of being polite, it’s kind of a matter of survival. You can’t ever afford to think that you’re the bee’s knees, because you could always afford to be better. Even what I did in Revolutionary Road could be better. You have to always be searching for something better.