ARTICLE JUSTIN TAYLOR
PHOTOGRAPHY MICHAEL HALSBAND
STYLIST SABINA SCHREDER
MICHAEL SHANNON IS ONE OF OUR MOST INCENDIARY ACTORS. ON STAGE AND ON SCREEN, OFTEN AT THE DIRECTION OF OUR GREATEST AUTEURS, HIS PERFORMANCES ARE ALWAYS IGNITING, AND THEIR STRANGE LIGHT ILLUMINATES THE DARKER TRUTHS OF MAN.
BUY VMAN 31
Michael Shannon is an expert at a certain kind of menace. Or maybe the menace comes naturally and his expertise is in everything else. He’s tall and imposing, with a blocky jaw—a born bruiser—and when one of his characters does smile, he often seems to be simultaneously wincing in pain. Shannon has played many cold-blooded (as well as a few hot-blooded) murderers, and all manner of men on the verge or in the midst of psychic disaster. His Nelson Van Alden, probably the most interesting and underrated character on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, always looks like he’s about to be crushed by the endless abuse he suffers, but then, just when you expect him to finally collapse, he explodes instead.
To really get a sense of Shannon, it helps to get beyond the menacing stuff. This is the guy who made his film debut with a tiny role in Groundhog Day, as a teenager sitting in a diner eternally eating the same omelet while Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is forced to live in Harold Ramis’s idea of No Exit. This is the guy who played Eminem’s mom’s boyfriend in 8 Mile, and Hart Crane’s lover in The Broken Tower (the former role required him to believably lose a fight with Eminem, the latter to wear a sailor suit and chase James Franco across the Brooklyn Bridge). This is the guy who basically won the Internet last summer with a dramatic reading of the “Delta Gamma Sorority Letter” for the website Funny or Die. All this is to say nothing of his theater career or his work with legendary directors such as Werner Herzog, William Friedkin, Sam Mendes (whose Revolutionary Road earned Shannon a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination), John Waters, Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, and particularly Jeff Nichols, a writer-director who has featured Shannon in all of his films to date, from 2007’s Shotgun Stories to 2011’s Take Shelter, a film that should have won every Academy Award it should have been nominated for—which is all of them (but was none of them).
I caught up with Shannon, who was weary but genial, fresh off his third or fourth flight of the past week. He’d been at Sundance supporting an action sci-fi movie called Young Ones (he also has a cameo in another Sundance premiere, They Came Together, David Wain’s new rom-com satire, starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd), then he went from Park City back to Brooklyn for the birth of his second daughter, then he hit the road again a few days later to meet up with Jeff Nichols in New Orleans. Their new film, Midnight Special, began shooting the very next day.
“Jeff wanted me to say as little as possible,” Shannon replied when I asked him about the movie. “But I can say that it is set in the future, in the Midwest, Colorado or Wyoming-type areas, and I play a man who is trying to protect his son from…forces.” Midnight Special is Nichols’s first time working with major studio backing, and though Shannon himself has done everything from community theater to Man of Steel (he plays the genocidal alien warlord, General Zod), his collaborations with Nichols have all been intimately scaled and budgeted independent films. I asked how the transition from indie to Warner Brothers might affect the way they worked. Shannon chose to interpret this question as being specifically about Nichols. “He’s earned it,” he said. “And he won’t be wasteful. But there are just certain…considerations, when your budget is only a few million dollars or a few hundred thousand dollars.”
This notion of “considerations” led me to wonder about the difference for Shannon between working on stage versus acting for the screen. I’d read an Onion A/V Club interview with him in which he’d said, “Theater is the best. That’s where you get the work done.” I asked him to expand on that thought. “In film,” he said, “I don’t feel like I get to spend enough time with the character. No matter how much time you spend preparing, once you shoot the scene, it’s over. Maybe a week later you would have thought of something different to bring to it, but it’s already shot.”
But what about Boardwalk Empire? Sure, any given scene with Van Alden is prepped, shot, and done, but Shannon has lived with and shaped the character for a full five years now. “Van Alden is like a ghost,” Shannon said. “He comes when he is called. I go away from him for six months and don’t think about him, and then I go back to him and I can just do it.”
Theater, Shannon said, offers the possibility of recreating—and reimagining—a performance over time, day by day or over the course of years, and that creates a different, deeper intimacy. Also, “there’s an assumption in film that what you are going for is some kind of naturalism, and in theater you don’t have that.”
Shannon is also a musician. He played in his school jazz band as a kid in Louisville, and later got into playing guitar. “I would say more than half of actors play guitar,” he said. “I like playing guitar. But everyone likes playing guitar.” His current band, Corporal, was founded with Ray Rizzo, another Louisville-to-Brooklyn transplant, and Rob Beitzel. Shannon writes lyrics, plays guitar and keys, and sings.
Their self-titled debut, which came out in 2011, has a fairly straightforward indie/folk-rock sound with occasional punk outbursts and 12-minute epics. The band’s influences include Pavement, the Silver Jews, the Fall, Wilco, and the Magnolia Electric Company, whose “Farewell Transmission” Shannon counts among his favorite songs. At the end of that song, singer-songwriter Jason Molina (RIP) repeats the word “listen” several times with a ghostly pleading passion that has to be heard to be properly understood. Shannon told me that when he was directing a version of Eugene Ionesco’s Hunger and Thirst (the only play he has ever directed), one character had to tell her husband, “Listen,” and Shannon told his actress to listen to the song. “Not to imitate him, but to absorb the energy.”
The absurdist Ionesco is Shannon’s favorite playwright. Romanian-born but Parisian by choice, Ionesco is one of the touchstones of avant-garde theater, and Shannon will star in a newly translated version of The Killer at the Theater for a New Audience, in Brooklyn, this May and June. The play is about a Regular Joe who finds a secret “radiant city” near his own bleak urban neighborhood, a kind of tucked-away utopia troubled only by a single maniacal serial killer whom the police have elected to allow to remain at large. Shannon, interestingly, will not play the maniac, but the Regular Joe.
“How can you take your life completely seriously, knowing how fragile it is?” Shannon said. “You want your life to be sturdy, but it isn’t. Life is very unsturdy.” This absurdist streak is evident, albeit subtly, in much of Shannon’s dramatic work as well. Richard Kuklinski, the remorseless contract killer Shannon played in The Iceman, is a deeply absurd figure: his unique combination of bloodlust and detachment makes him ideally suited for his line of work—he’s a kind of exemplary abomination—though it’s sheer serendipity that turns him pro. Up until then, he’d been killing people just for the hell of it.
Even Take Shelter is, in a sense, an absurdist tragedy—and Shannon’s Curtis La Fourche a kind of inside-out Iceman. Instead of meting out endless punishment, Curtis suffers slings and arrows shot not by enemies but by devastatingly impersonal forces: the economy, life in tornado country, the Kafkan nightmare of health insurance, his own genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, his daughter’s medical needs. The film derives much of its tension from the question of whether Curtis’s visions of a coming super-storm are prophecy or paranoid delusion, but it does not hinge on this question, and ultimately refuses to resolve it. “People want it to be a fork in the road,” Shannon said. “He’s crazy or the storm is real. But why can’t it be both?”
Justin Taylor’s third book, Flings, will be published in August by Harper Collins
GROOMING LAURA DE LEÓN (JOE MANAGEMENT) DIGITAL TECHNICIAN GARY BARDIZBANIAN PHOTO ASSISTANT MALCOLM NEO STYLIST ASSISTANTS NATASHA DEVEREUX AND LOTTE ELISA AGULLO-COLLINS CATERING MONTERONE SPECIAL THANKS RAJA SETHURAMAN AND ALAN BALIAN AT GLOSS, NYC