Michael Shannon’s innate intensity, along with his ability to express the complexity of a character’s life beyond the tidy borders of a single scene, have made him one of the most in-demand actors of his generation. He’s received Oscar nominations for his supporting performances in Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals, and a Golden Globe nomination for his work in 99 Homes, among other plaudits.
But he’s also capable of lighter fare, like his leading performance as a man searching for something, even if he’s not quite certain what it is, in the recent drama-comedy A Little White Lie. Shannon stars as Shriver, a handyman who, upon being mistaken for a famously reclusive author, accepts an invitation to a literary festival from a college professor (Kate Hudson). As Shriver ambles through this loosely embraced deception, the arrival of both Shriver’s agent and then the real Shriver threatens to bring consequences.
The A.V. Club recently spoke with Shannon via Zoom about A Little White Lie, as well as his work in a slightly larger project, the upcoming summer DC tentpole The Flash, which finds Shannon returning, somewhat unexpectedly, to the role of General Zod, a part he first played in the 2013 Superman film Man Of Steel. Shannon talked about his affinity for certain characters, his newly minted knowledge of cinematic multiverses, and the status of his directorial debut.
The A.V. Club: A Little White Lie had quite a few hurdles on its way to the screen. Were you familiar with Chris Belden’s book?
Michael Shannon: I wasn’t familiar with the novel, really. The director, Michael Maren, came to see me in Chicago. I was doing a play there, at this theater company I work with, A Red Orchid Theatre, and he came to see the play, which I was pretty impressed with. We went out for dinner afterwards and he kind of told me about his life. I was very impressed with that, because he’d been a war correspondent and had been a lot of places. And he’d dealt with a lot of personal struggles with his health and whatnot, and I was very moved by just how determined he was to get this movie made, no matter what. I generally have kind of a soft spot for people that are in that situation, you know? And I read the script and I just fell in love with the character. It’s one of my favorite characters, really, that I’ve ever played.
AVC: The film has such heart, and I love that it addresses this idea that imagination isn’t something fanciful, or an add-on, it’s actually necessary to understand the world. There’s a line about needing fictional worlds, and them serving as laboratories to understand real-life experiences.
MS: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly.
AVC: Is that something that you’ve felt in your own life, and maybe drew you toward acting?
MS: Oh yeah. My silly little line about it is that I got into acting so that I could take a break from being myself. [Pauses] And that’s kind of what it felt like at the beginning—and probably still to this day. Just getting to get outside of yourself and imagine other possibilities, other realities, other scenarios, it’s refreshing. I can’t imagine having to just be me all the time. That would be a total drag.
AVC: The film touches on this idea of authorial recall, and that we can forget something we create. Is that applicable as an actor? When you go back and look at your own work, do you remember or forget the choices you made while shooting?
MS: Yeah, I mean, it can be (applicable). It has to be a really long time for me. Like, it happens more when I pick up a play that I did 25 years ago or something and I sit there and read it and I can’t believe that at some point in time I actually knew all these lines. Because I’m sitting there reading it, and it’s like I’ve never seen it before in my life. But at some point in time I was walking out on stage pretending to be this character that I can barely remember. But obviously with film, it’s a little trickier—although now that I think about it, I don’t make a habit of going back and watching my old films. So that might be an interesting experiment to do that. Sometimes I see pictures from the past, though, and I look at that guy and think I don’t even know who the fuck that is. That was me! I can’t believe that was me. It’s strange.
AVC: We get a sense of what Shriver’s hit book is supposed to be about largely through other characters’ reactions to it. Was it important for you to have a firmer sense of the story of “Goat Time?”
MS: [Laughs] It’s funny you say that. I would speculate about that. We didn’t actually have … well, nobody went through the trouble of actually writing “Goat Time” in its totality, obviously, because we imagined it to be a book quite like “Infinite Jest” or something, that just goes on forever. So I guess if I was being very vigilant I would have done it myself—but to be fair, I didn’t actually write it. [Laughs] Shhh.
AVC: Shifting gears here into your other projects, we have to ask about the DCEU. We know that General Zod pops up in this summer’s The Flash, even though he was killed off in Man Of Steel. With big-budget comic book franchises, there are always options for additional films, but were you surprised to get a call about coming back?
MS: Oh yeah, I was shocked. I mean, I didn’t understand, because I was dead. Superman killed me pretty hard-core. But I just wasn’t hip to the whole multiverse thing—they had to walk me through it, because I hadn’t seen any of those multiverse-type movies. But it was fun to revisit the character, however briefly. You know, it’s not like Man Of Steel, where you really get to roll up your sleeves and get down to it. With the multiverses, it’s a little bit of this person and a little bit of that person, there’s a lot of fun cameos or whatnot. But it came back to me, it came back to me.
AVC: Did you revisit Man Of Steel before revisiting the character, or was it all on the page?
MS: No, I went back. I didn’t watch the whole film, but I watched certain scenes, just to get that flavor back in my mouth. But it also has a lot to do with getting back into the hair (and makeup)—when you look in the mirror and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I recognize that guy, okay.” It’s then that it just kind of comes out of the file cabinet.
AVC: Is the process of preparing a character for a huge-budget genre film different than a small indie like A Little White Lie?
MS: You know, every job is different, every single one. All these characters come to me in a different way. George & Tammy was a ton of work. A ton of prep went into that, a ton of research, working on the singing and all that. With A Little White Lie, that guy was just kind of in there. I mean, maybe even I have more in common with him than some of the other characters I play—and that’s not maybe the most flattering thing. But he just kind of made sense to me. I didn’t have to bend myself into a pretzel to figure it out.
AVC: Where you are on your directorial debut Eric Larue, which is now in post-production?
MS: Right now I’m in Ireland rehearsing a film, and the day before I flew to Ireland I watched Eric Larue, the finished movie. Everything: color, sound, all locked. I sat there, I watched it, and I said, “There’s my movie, there it is,” so that I could come over here and focus on what I’m doing now. So the ball is really in the producers’ court now in terms of getting into a festival or getting it sold, because we don’t have a distributor. It was a low-budget film, much like A Little White Lie—in fact, it was actually financed by the same company. So we’ll see if anybody bites. It’s a little freaky—you put so much work into it, and then there’s no guarantee that anybody is going to give a shit. But you’ve gotta do it anyway.