Keen On Rough Edges
Sunday Times Culture, November 13, 2011 by Jeff Dawson
Is there a more intense screen presence than Michael Shannon?
As Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden — Bible-thumping, self-flagellating nemesis of Prohibition bootleggers — Shannon has been a critical element of Boardwalk Empire, the Emmy-showered, Martin Scorsese-produced drama currently into its second series on Sky Atlantic.
It’s not everyday, for example, that you witness a fanatical God-botherer drag a duplicitous colleague to a Christian baptism only to dunk him with such zeal that his sins are washed away for all eternity.
Shannon laughs. The forty-strong congregation of African-American extras on the riverbank for that scene — a Van Alden standout — thought he really had killed actor, Erik Weiner.
“I took him out there and started drowning him and just lost my mind. When the director’s megaphone goes ‘Cut’ there was this pause… and then I heard like ‘Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!” (he mimes wild applause). And one guy was like, ‘Damn, you’re nuts man.’”
In person, Shannon’s not nuts at all. Actually rather mellow — a laid-back, slow-talker with a deadpan wit. But he’s an imposing presence. “I’m tall and I have a certain way about me. People find it intimidating sometimes.” A broad man of 6’4”, he shuffles along with feet at ten-to-two, as if he’s wearing manacles.
Having been hauled to London on a 48-hour furlough from the Vancouver set of the new Superman film, there are mitigating circumstances. “I’m on a bit of a catapult,” he sighs — perhaps the reason, too, for nursing a glass of Adam’s ale in the hotel bar where we meet. Van Alden would approve. Officially anyway.
There’s little wonder that in his new film, Take Shelter, Shannon’s not exactly a ray of sunshine. Though the 37-year-old actor has been getting raves for his performance. The film won Critics' Week at Cannes.
Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a foreman with a mining company in smalltown Ohio, who becomes plagued by nightmare, apocalyptic visions. His conviction that the end is nigh leads him to build an excessive storm shelter in the backyard, much to the consternation of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their young, deaf daughter, whose medical fund he blows.
Is Curtis a Midwestern Cassandra, to be ignored by the locals at their peril? Or simply succumbing to the same mental illness that has afflicted his mother (Kathy Baker)? Part of the intrigue is down to the fact that this is all happening in the unlikely, realistic blue-collar backwater of Independent Movieland.
“Usually when you have a movie about the apocalypse, it’s in some metropolis and there’s aliens involved and people with guns running around,” says Shannon. “And as fun as that might be, I would think it’s nothing like what would actually happen.”
The film was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, with whom the actor made 2007’s Shotgun Stories. Nichols penned Take Shelter during a bout of neurosis about becoming a father. “It’s a film about tying to come to terms with the fragility of things,” muses Shannon (who has a young child himself). And mere coincidence, he adds, that their film comes out alongside doomsdayers like Melancholia and Another Earth.
“I guess that’s how the zeitgeist works — people all just happen to be thinking about the same thing at the same time.”
Shannon is a busy chap. He currently has another movie in cinemas, Machine Gun Preacher — the less said about the better — although he does sterling support work there, too, as a crack-addled Hell’s Angel.
Having cropped up in such works as Bad Lieutenant, World Trade Center, 8 Mile and, more recently, The Runaways, the film about Joan Jett, with an underrated turn as the producer-svengali, Kim Fowley, Shannon had always been a solid pro, known to insiders, but not necessarily by the public.
It was only with 2008’s Revolutionary Road that people started to put a name to his face. Shannon was Oscar-nominated for his role as John Givings, the psychologically troubled neighbour to desperate suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).
Shannon was as “totally shocked” by the accolade, he concedes, as anyone else. He hadn’t been nominated in a single one of the awards leading up to it and so spent Nomination Eve at a Sundance Film Festival party, crawling back his pit a four in the morning. "And then, at five, the phone started ringing.”
Beating a dead man would have been plain unsporting, the statuette going, inevitably, to Heath Ledger. "It was funny because everybody was, ‘We’re so excited for you… (then whispering) There's no way you're gonna win.' So I guess the victory was just to get invited."
It was never Shannon’s intention to have a film career in the first place. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky to an accounting professor father and social worker, his first love was music.
He still sings and plays guitar with Corporal a sort of thrashy acoustic outfit. “It’s kind of a cliché really most actors want to be rock stars and most rock stars want to be actors.”
When his parents split, Shannon divided his time between Kentucky and Chicago, where he got into theatre. He remains a highly regarded stage actor with a long association with playwright Tracy Letts, whose Killer Joe and Bug he performed in London.
Inevitably the movies came calling. There are worse places to start than Groundhog Day, in which Shannon appeared as a diner in Bill Murray's recurring sojourn in Punxsutawney. “Fred and Debbie Kleiser and they're going to get married. Although Debbie's having second thoughts,” he mimics.
Eighteen years later and Shannon’s is the name above the title, playing superbaddie General Zod in Superman: Man Of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, starring Henry Cavill as the man in tights. “It’s a real adventure. I'm doing a lot things I've never done before like the whole green screen experience and motion capture. The first day you put on one of those suits you feel like a bit of a moron, but you get used to it."
Much of the film entails Zod going head-to-head with Superman’s father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) in roles originated by Terence Stamp and Marlon Brando. “Although they get didn’t get quite as down and dirty as we do," he assures.
Shannon has several films in the works, including The Iceman about contract killer Richard Kuklinski. More pressingly comes season three of “Boardwalk” which Shannon now treats as a day job, commuting from his home in New York to Brooklyn's Steiner Studios, where sits the enormous Atlantic City set.
He has no idea where his character is going, only that — shall we say — Van Alden is getting to know Sin a little too personally. “Everything’s kind of a surprise because when I originally went in, I assumed they wanted me to play some gangster. They went, ‘No, no, we want you to play the cop.’ I said, ‘Great this is just what I’ve been looking for.’ Little did I know I’d be getting the scripts and it was, 'What? What’s this? What am I doing?'"
He does seem to have an attraction to darkness, I say. "I don’t think I’m a moody person but the whole Buddhist mantra that ‘life is suffering’ has always made a certain sense to me. Maybe I just get it all out of my system when I’m working. It's not like I call up all the studios in Hollywood and say, 'Hey, I only play edgy characters. So that romantic comedy that you were going to send me? Keep it in your office.' I mean, people give you the opportunities and you can either say yes or no.”
Actually, he admits, he did try out for a romcom recently, rehearsing with a name actress. “But I think we all knew," he says. "The director was very sweet, but in the end, yeah, it was, 'It just doesn’t make sense.' "