Outside Looking In: Michael Shannon

  • From theatre to Boardwalk Empire to Man of Steel, Michael Shannon has gone from outcast to centre stage. In a world exclusive he tells Jonathan Lethem about critics, what it’s like to play “the scumbag” – and why acting is a service industry

    Michael Shannon

    Words: Jonathan Lethem
    Photography: Nadav Kander
    Styling: David St John-James

    We’re at a restaurant, a nice Brooklyn brunch place, Michael Shannon’s local place, where he is known. At the start, as if by way of an overture or an inoculation, I am treated to a Michael Shannon Rant. “I’m really bad – I read reviews. It’s been weird. The producers called me up; they said we really want you to see this movie, since you’re doing interviews. So they fly me all the way out to LA and I’m sitting in this theatre alone, watching this movie. I was in awe. Here’s this movie I’m in – it’s incredible. Oh my god, look over here, look over there. It just completely blew my mind. I walked out and I’m just like – vibrating.”

    The elastic instrument of Shannon’s voice, his large, expressive features and – well, it has to be said, his intimidatingly huge and craggy head – all are employed to convey a seductive mixture of grave sincerity, irascible stubbornness, hesitant shyness and subtle self-satire. “I was like, I can’t believe my unbelievable good fortune that I’m in this movie. I’m so lucky. And then you go and do all these interviews, and the people who are interviewing you, they’re not really critics, but you can get a vibe, and you start to think, ‘Huh, some of these people don’t seem that excited. They’re definitely not as excited as I was!”

    Left: Mohair wool suit, shirt and tie PRADA

  • Michael ShannonUnprompted, the Rant gathers steam. As much as Michael Shannon is a man of the moment – the acclaimed star of stage and indie film and long-form television, one now becoming a household name and a Quality Signifier in all these various realms, what he’s wound up about, today, is the critical reaction to his performance as General Zod, in Man of Steel: the villain’s role, that is, the part of the ‘heavy’ in the large and spectacular relaunch of the Superman franchise. This film, on the day Michael Shannon and I sit together, plays on as many screens as a motion picture has likely ever played in the history of the known universe – a fact which makes critical reaction, well, rather secondary. “And then the critics start coming at you, and you’re like, wow, some people actually find this quite boring, and you know, it may in fact be boring. But I know I was excited when I saw it. And then I think, maybe I should never have seen it to begin with.”On the whole, Shannon conveys a restless need to remain rooted in other integrities; his life as a man, as a father; as singer and guitarist in a (as it happens, very good) rock band; as humble fan of other artists; as a guy who is in on the joke of it all, but also one bearing a grudge at anything half-assed or superficial. The response to Man of Steel, then, is less a matter than has gotten under his skin than something he seems to want to explore, to chew on. “I was reading this one interview in The Atlantic. This guy seemed to like the movie a great deal, but his line about me was something like, ‘I wish they’d told Shannon to tone his thing down, his patented Shannon thing,’ and I was like – what the fuck was that?”
    Leather jacket PRADA
    Silk scarf TURNBULL & ASSER

  • Here, he switches gears. Though it takes me a moment to grasp, what Shannon does next is take me inside his role – that’s to say, inside Zod. “Let’s say, you were in charge of Earth. And you knew that earth was basically going to implode and it was your job to save the entire population of Earth from Earth’s demise. You tried to do it, and then you get arrested for your efforts and thrown into prison in a black hole for an infinite period of time. And you’re only able to escape the prison because your planet does in fact explode and you watch it explode from the window of a spaceship. And the guy’s telling me I should turn my shtick down? How am I supposed to react to that? Bemused? Slightly ajar? It’s pretty extreme circumstances. It’s not a shtick. I’m just standing there thinking, my planet just blew up. And then the one guy that could start the thing back up again is in a little spaceship flying out into the middle of space and I’ve got to go find the guy. And it’s very explicit in the film that that’s in the story – it’s not obscured in any way, shape, or form. And yet there’s a guy that can sit there and watch that and think, ‘Tone that down. That’s too much. Why’s he so upset?’”

    Now, what’s this Rant for? What can it accomplish? A few things, it seems to me. This actor is an artist who’s still arriving – at a comfortable rate, it appears, through years of acclaim on stages, first in Chicago, then in New York and London; through years of bit parts in movies and on television, often in the role of what he calls “The scumbag”; through lead parts in acclaimed but lightly-distributed independent films like Take Shelter; through the prestigious Dicaprio-Winslet adaption of Revolutionary Road, in which he stole the movie and gained an Oscar nomination in the space of two scenes – to this moment, when, thanks to the title role in the nightmarishly effective hired-killer drama The Iceman, thanks to Zod, and thanks to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he threatens omnipresence.

    His slow arrival means two things: first, Shannon’s accustomed himself to an outsider’s stance, an insurgent position – so here, by deliberately overreacting to the unimportant criticism, he’s probing to find out what outsider stances are still available from the top-dog position. A bad review or two may actually be something to savour, if you want to keep your edge.Michael Shannon

    “Terence Stamp was like the Robert Plant version of General Zod. He’s like: I’m sexy, I’m badass, I’m gonna yell at you and tell you what to do. I’m more like the Woody Allen version of Zod: I’m worried, I’m upset, there’s bad things happening, what am I going to do? I’m trying to be threatening, but inside I have my doubts.”

    The second thing is that by this point Michael Shannon is no novice at giving his interviewer what’s needed. He’s well aware that he’s gained a reputation for coming on a bit feral. If part of him is weary of that reputation and eager to display other faces, he’s also a professional who’s going to give me something to work with. (Later he’ll say to me, “I’m fond of saying that acting is a service industry. There’s a reason that actors make good waiters, because it’s the same thing: they’re just figuring out what you want and giving it to you.”)

    Above: Mohair wool suit, shirt and tie PRADA

  • The Rant has a couple of other effects – one purposeful, the other, I suspect, not. The purposeful one is that it’s hilarious. Like Shannon’s now-legendary Funny Or Die clip – in which he reads aloud, with an edge of disturbed intensity, a real-life letter from an angry sorority girl to her hapless compatriots – his defense of General Zod’s own disturbed intensity has got me tittering uneasily at the disproportion of energy to its just causes. The result is recursive. Angry Shannon knows that Angry Zod is a bit funny, precisely because Angry Zod doesn’t know that he’s really in a cartoon universe. Therefore, presumably, Angry Shannon knows that the whole game of caring about the review is a cartoon.And yet (and this is the effect that I don’t believe was purposeful, though I may be wrong), the rant has created a desire in me to see the movie in Michael Shannon’s head: the one in which General Zod’s disturbed intensity, as the wronged champion of a destroyed planet, is ratified on all sides by a depth of tragic feeling unimaginable to Superman, let alone to any merely human creature. I want to see that movie badly. For a moment, I have.
  • At this we depart the restaurant and start for Shannon’s home, an apartment in a deluxe waterfront building. On this gorgeous day, one of the first in New York’s fresh summer, he’s suggested we shift our talk to his rooftop deck. During the walk, I try to get him interested in my Big Idea: that for Shannon to free himself of minor roles, or villainous roles – as he is plainly ready and eager to do – he’ll have to find material worthy of him and directors unafraid of what he brings to that material. I suggest that if he is placed alongside the callow and boyish male leads of his generation (I have in mind DiCaprio, Affleck, Depp and others, though Shannon is far too polite to acknowledge that I’ve dragged any names into the conversation) he might tend to outweigh them, given his gravity and the shadings of risk and trauma he conveys in his person. I mention Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin, but at this point Shannon is obliged to brush me off – and does: “All of those guys went off to war. I haven’t been in a war.”

    Circling back to Man of Steel, I ask him if he felt a connection to Terence Stamp, the Zod of the 1970s. He draws a firm line there as well: “Terence Stamp, when he did that part, he’d just gotten back from learning how to separate orgasm from ejaculation. I’m not anywhere near that level. Terence Stamp was like the Robert Plant version of General Zod. He’s like: I’m sexy, I’m badass, I’m gonna yell at you and tell you what to do. I’m more like the Woody Allen version of Zod: I’m worried, I’m upset, there’s bad things happening, what am I going to do? I’m trying to be threatening, but inside I have my doubts.”

    In truth, though, no comparison to Mitchum or Stamp is really useful in contemplating Shannon who, with his sheer size and physical oddness, blends the charisma of an old-school leading man with the tender menace of Boris Karloff or Jack Elam. I’m asking Michael Shannon to consider the problem of being Michael Shannon: to measure the limits and powers of his raw material, in an art form in which, as he tells me, “You don’t run out of paint, you don’t run out of paper” – but where the paint and the paper are coterminous with your body, with your personality, with yourself. He’s right not to want to journey there.Michael Shannon

    Above: Prince of Wales check wool jacket JOHN VARVATOS
    Shirt PRADA
    Silk Handkerchief TURNBULL & ASSER

  • As we enter his building’s elevator, we join there a couple of attractive women, an encounter perfectly timed to remind me of the baseline function of movie stardom. The woman nearest the elevator’s buttons shyly asks if Shannon is going to his floor. When he explains that we’re headed up to the roof, she presses the button for him. The other is carrying a cake in an open box and Shannon punctures the awkward silence with perfect comic understatement, when he says, “That looks good. You gonna – (long pause here) – eat it?” We all laugh, and she answers, “All by ourselves.” Then, mustering a flirtatious joke in return, the cake-carrier asks, “Would you like it for the roof? I’m happy to donate it to your picnic.” Shannon replies, with an air of soulful deflation that suggests he’d truly like nothing more, “No, no, that’s all right.” He manages to make it sound as though by securing the offer of the cake he has simultaneously won and lost the game. The women depart the elevator like birds.

    The rooftop deck is as casually spectacular as Brooklyn gets and we take a moment to drink it. Shannon says, “Statue of Liberty, huh? Pretty weird. Never thought I’d live somewhere where I’d be able to see the Statue of Liberty. Kinda small. But it’s there.” Then we sit together and talk about the place Shannon grew up: Lexington, Kentucky. “Where I’m from is getting completely – well, destroyed isn’t the right word. Every time I go back there, there’s like three more malls and 10 more condo buildings. Eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference between my hometown and China.”

    Effortlessly, then, we are into the matter of origins. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I just knew I wanted to do plays. I’d moved to Chicago and there was this little newspaper called Perform Ink – the Chicago theatre community newspaper. They had auditions in the back. There’d be, you know, a listing: ‘needed, teenage guy’. Or you could do it if you’re in your 20s but look like a teenager. I’d walk in and say ‘well, I actually am a teenager’. They’d give me the part. I had no idea. I was like a frog jumping from lily pad to lily pad, no rhyme or reason. I didn’t want to be famous or rich, I wasn’t planning on moving. I really liked Chicago. I got aboard when there was a real group forming: a miraculous group. But nobody was getting paid. So, one by one, they’d say ‘I’m going out to LA’. ’Cause they always say this bullshit in LA, like, ‘Chicago actors are the best actors’. Then you go out there and deliver pizzas. I remember one day I was out there standing in the parking lot of a pizza place, and I was watching four of the best actors I knew playing hacky sack in the parking lot, waiting to get an order to deliver. I’ll never forget that as long as I live. LA is a destroyer – what’s that Hindu god? Shiva.”

  • We pause then to notice a threesome of butterflies agitating just above our heads. “A love dance,” Shannon suggests. When I call it a ‘triangle’, he adds, “Like a Truffaut film.” Shannon’s film-literacy is worn casually, but not disguised – his living room features an enormous framed French poster for The King of Comedy. I ask about the experience of working with Scorsese. “I’d like to get into something with Scorsese. Something more involved. At the end of the day, we’ve really just done the pilot of Boardwalk Empire, which was fairly procedural. There were no in-depth philosophical discussions about anything. I look at the legendary directors that I’ve worked with and it’s very exciting, but I’m always working with them in the later part of their career. I’m not having the experience of being in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull.”

    “TV is not the new cinema. Every time I hear that I get irritated”

    Maybe the seeds I planted earlier have taken root, or maybe Shannon just likes to shift conversation to deeper levels. Maybe it’s just the sight of the Statue of Liberty, out on the water. All this freedom, what’s it for? “I’ve always wanted to work with David Lynch, but I’m afraid he’s gotten bored. What could he do? He really kind of put it all out there. Paul Thomas Anderson? I’m desperate to work with him. He’s at the top. And I’d love to work with Michael Haneke. Amour was my favourite movie last year. I had a grandma who had a stroke and that movie screwed me up pretty bad. But it was cool, because I got to give the New York Film Critic Circle’s award to Emmanuelle Riva – even though she doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French. I got to stand in front of her and say ‘Hey, you remind me of my grandmother and you made me cry.’” The answer, for him, isn’t premium television. “I get so sick of hearing that crap, and I’m on one of the shows that’s apparently proving that television is the new movies. I don’t feel that way when I go to work. TV exists to perpetuate itself. The mark of a good television show is how long it lasts. On our show, they’ll lose a strand and say, ‘well, maybe we need somebody else. Let’s put this person on’. And then a bunch of people get forgotten about for a while, and then it’s like, let’s bring him back, let’s get her. TV is not the new cinema. Every time I hear that I get irritated – kinda like when I see a street sweeper, just kicking up dust, moving the shit around. And you look at the guy driving the thing and you think – asshole. He knows.”Michael Shannon

    We circle back Chicago and to theatre – to Tracy Letts’s Bug and Killer Joe, still the defining roles of Shannon’s career. One he reproduced on film, with results that seem to leave him puzzled. (In the other, Matthew McConaughey took the screen part.) “I like that theatre disappears. It has to disappear to be theatre, otherwise it’s something else. Most people who’ve only seen the movie version of Bug liked it – they say, ‘That was cool, that was really creepy’. But the people who saw the play version, almost 10 years ago, will say, ‘It was like it was yesterday. I still haven’t had an experience like that’. That’s the telling thing. The movies last forever, but there’s something I’ve been part of in a theatre that I haven’t been part of in a movie. I’ve done movies that I’m proud of, movies that are significant, but never a movie that inspired that kind of response. The look in their eyes. It’s such a cliché, the whole notion of it is absurd – but they were actually a different person after they saw the play. It got into their cellular structure. Something happens in that room.”

    Above: Checked suit GIORGIO ARMANI
    Fine knit ribbed henley JOHN VARVATOS

  • Michael Shannon“I’m kind of a simpleton at times. Like Shakespeare: I could be seeing the greatest production of Shakespeare, the most touted production and I just get frustrated: what the hell are they talking about? I don’t understand it! And then I feel embarrassed and I say afterwards, ‘Oh yeah, that was great’, but truly –” he catches himself and laughs. “This is perfect, ‘cause your piece is coming out in London, so everybody’ll think I’m a real tool. This one production I saw – Stacy Keach played King Lear, it was one of those moments. You hear people say that there are actors who can actually say that stuff and get it across. I usually say ‘That’s a lie, I don’t believe them’ – but Stacy Keach did it.”

    “When I started out with Killer Joe in Chicago, in the little theatres, we’d do three shows a week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Did it that way for eight months. Then we went to London, to do it six times a week. That was a lot. Then we moved to the West End – now it’s eight times a week, in this huge theatre, bigger than any you’ve ever been in your life. You’re gonna take this tiny delicate thing you’ve been doing in these little rooms and find a way for people in the second balcony to understand what you’re saying. A mind-blowing thing. We were all grateful to get moved to the West End, but on the other hand we were terrified.”

    “I was in London just recently and I went back to that theatre, the Vaudeville Theatre, for the first time since I’d done the play. Not quite 20 years. 18. I walked in; there was a guy at the box office. I said, I did a play here a really long time ago, I was just wondering if I could look inside the theatre. He told me I could look in real quick, since there was a show rehearsing. When I looked in the theatre, I remembered the first time I was there; it seemed like the biggest theatre in the world. I looked in and it just seemed so small. It looked tiny.” Suddenly he laughs at himself: power-mad, hopped-up on the intensity of his own voyage from that place to this one. Michael Shannon cackles and puts on a voice that is sheerest Zod: “I had the whole universe at my fingertips.”