Michael Shannon is beating himself up. It’s the day after a Q&A for his film 99 Homes and he’s festering over an exchange with an audience member who aggressively maintained that his character, morally challenged eviction specialist Rick Carver, is “detached”.
Every time she said the D word, Shannon bristled and vehemently disagreed, finally, forcefully but calmly saying, “I was there every day. I think your perception of the character is faulty.” By this afternoon, the clash has escalated in his memory and he’s feeling contrite. “I just kind of lost it a little bit. I was a little embarrassed. I got into it with a woman and I shouldn’t have gotten into it with her,” he says, folding his six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch frame into a chair at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood. “I should have just let her say whatever she wanted to say, but this woman kept insisting that Rick has no feelings.”
Rick isn’t real, of course. But to Shannon, 41, he sure is. For the past 15 years, the actor has served as the patron saint of misfits and creepy characters, making a name for himself by playing people most of us would cross the street to avoid. There’s the delusional paranoiac Peter Evans in 2006’s Bug, apocalyptic prophet Curtis LaForche in 2011’s Take Shelter, and mentally unstable neighbour John Givings in 2008’s Revolutionary Road, for which Shannon was singled out—in a cast that also included Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio—for a best supporting actor Academy Awards nomination. Last year, he wrapped the fifth season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, portraying the puritanical, repressed Nelson Van Alden.
Even in a superhero movie like Man of Steel, his character, Superman nemesis General Zod, has issues. So it’s no surprise that Shannon admits to feeling protective toward outcasts like Rick. “I do, because everybody hates his guts and Rick knows that, but he’s still trying. He’s like, ‘Should I just quit? If I wake up tomorrow morning and say I’m never evicting someone from their house ever again, do you know what would change? Nothing.’ Why should he stop? It’s not his fault.”
Though he may be best known for playing characters on the fringes of society, his resume is filled with regular Joes who rise above their circumstances to accomplish great things. In Oliver Stone’s 2006 film World Trade Center, he played Dave Karnes, a former U.S. Marine who helped rescue two police officers trapped in the collapsed buildings. In this fall’s Freeheld, he portrayed Dane Wells, a police officer who became one of his lesbian partner’s leading advocates when she fought for her same-sex lover to receive her pension benefits as she dies from terminal cancer.
The ability to bring empathy and non-judgment to his characters makes Shannon stand out among his peers, says 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani, who calls Shannon “one of the greatest actors working in the world today … I see Michael as a sensitive realist with a huge, generous heart that is in pain because our world is so violently cruel,” Bahrani says. “That is why and how he was able to make us sympathize with Rick Carver. To be clear, no child in kindergarten raises their hand and says, ‘Teacher, teacher, I can’t wait to grow up and evict families one day.’ ”
That belief that every human deserves compassion extends to the real-life characters Shannon has portrayed, including egomaniacal Svengali (and now alleged rapist) Kim Fowley in 2010’s The Runaways and notorious hit man Richard Kuklinski in 2012’s The Iceman. “I’m like, well, yeah, okay, I can’t dispute that the man claimed to have killed a lot of people, but that’s not what drew me to the story,” Shannon says. “He was a monster, but he also possessed a great amount of love and longing for traditional things.”
Shannon has made a name for himself by playing people most of us would cross the street to avoid.
Shannon’s wide-eyed intensity, male equivalent of resting bitch face (check out the “Michael Shannon Tries to Smile” Tumblr), and rugged jawline just miss making him movie-star handsome in a way that lends itself to playing oddballs (Shannon told David Letterman that as a young actor none other than Sidney Poitier called him “weird”), and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “If somebody hands me a script where a bunch of dudes run around shooting at each other and driving cars, I don’t give a shit,” he says. “The point I’m at now, I’m not going to go do a job unless I think it’s compelling [and] unless I think that somebody could sit in a dark room and get something out of it.”
It’s a bit of a cliché by this point, but part of Shannon’s tenderness toward outsiders comes from being one himself, with piercing adolescent wounds that have scabbed over, but never healed. Growing up, Shannon wasn’t thinking about acting. He was too busy navigating the tricky path between his mom’s home in Lexington, Kentucky, and his dad’s house outside of Chicago after his parents divorced when he was “tiny”. A few years after the split, his mother, a social worker, remarried and had three more children. “Then he goes out and has an affair,” Shannon says of his stepfather, running his hands through his short, medium-brown hair. He’s still getting used to the parameters of the cut he received the day before.
“The next thing you know, he’s gone and it’s my mom with four kids. It was hell for all of us. It was hell for my mom, it was hell for me,” Shannon says. “I was like, ‘I’m getting the F out of here.’ ” He moved in with his father, a professor at DePaul University, and transferred to New Trier High School in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, notable for being the inspiration for John Hughes’s The Breakfast Club. He hated the school, calling his time at New Trier “dark and eerie. I came there my freshman year from Kentucky. I didn’t know anybody.”
Salvation came in the form of theatre. His first play was Winterset at the Illinois Theatre Center in Park Forest, Illinois, when he was 16. His memories of the production are deliciously appropriate for an adolescent boy: “It was pretty far from the city, so I would stay with another guy in the play. I remember he had a ferret that would piss all over everything.”
Shannon had no epiphany that he would become an actor following Winterset, he only knew that plays provided solace. Acting “kept me from going completely bat shit crazy because high school was a rough time,” he says. “It was tremendously therapeutic to have that outlet.”
He continued to work in theatre and also began appearing in film, including 1993’s Groundhog Day, where he played WrestleMania-loving newlywed Fred. After moving to Los Angeles in 1999, he landed small parts in big films like Pearl Harbor, Vanilla Sky, and 8 Mile, slowly gathering acclaim as he toggled between major studio projects and indie films. He also started an indie rock band, Corporal, that still plays together on occasion, most recently on his birthday in August. “It’s not like a lot of people show up when we play,” he shrugs. “At the end of the day, I’m an actor. There’s a stigma around an actor having a band. It seems kind of silly. I don’t fault anybody for thinking that.” Yet, like any aspiring musician, he can’t help but wonder what might have been if he were able to devote more attention to Corporal. “It’s frustrating because I feel like it could probably be fairly successful, but I just don’t have the time, so when I actually do it, it makes me kind of sad. We’ve been at this level for a long time now and I wish I could take it to the next level.”
In person, the coiled intensity Shannon brings to many of his on-screen characters comes across as slightly introverted and contemplative. His blue eyes seem kind rather than menacing, enhanced by the blue Deerhoof T-shirt he’s wearing. He is engaged and present, coming back to questions if he doesn’t feel he answered fully initially. He looks away frequently, rarely making eye contact when he speaks and only occasionally when being spoken to. Unlike almost everyone else in 2015, he isn’t shackled to an iPhone.
Shannon essentially lives off the grid or, perhaps more accurately, sometime in the 1990s. He has a flip phone and a CD Walkman and only uses e-mail when absolutely necessary. He has no Facebook or Twitter accounts or even his own webpage. “Steve Jobs. He’s the devil. Fricking Apple stuff. I don’t know how he did it,” he says. “I mean I have a little, tiny one-and-a-half-year-old and anything that’s made by Apple, even little babies are hypnotized by it.” He tries to keep his girls—he and partner Kate Arrington also have a seven-year-old—off screens as much as possible. “But it’s hard to do. My daughters are not zombies yet. They’re still paying attention to the real living and breathing world.”
He pauses as if to connect the dots: “Maybe that’s why I’m so averse to technology, because it takes you out of the moment. And that’s the nature of what I do. That’s what people pay me money to do—[to] be in the moment.”
Shannon’s been “in the moment” a lot lately. He shot six films in eight months, often beginning one, jetting off to shoot another, and then returning to finish the initial film. “I’m kind of like a paratrooper. Just drop me out of the plane,” he says. “I land on the ground and start doing the job. Then once everybody’s wiped out, I run out of the jungle and go on to my next thing.” But not before giving the character everything he’s got, Bahrani says. “Michael is a relentless bulldog who never gives up until he has found the best way to attack a scene … He’s an endless slot machine that shoots out nothing but gold.”
Director Ramin Bahrani calls Shannon “one of the greatest actors working in the world today.”
Up next in theatres is The Night Before (November 20 release), a comedy starring Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Shannon has a small role as their high school pot dealer. “To all those people out there wondering when I was going to be in a comedy, here it is. Merry Christmas,” he says dryly.
While Shannon doesn’t appear often in standard-issue comedies like The Night Before, he finds the humour, dark as it may be, in plenty of his characters. “I mean, they wrote Van Alden funny in a very warped way. The scene where I’m ironing the guy’s face. It’s ridiculous, for sure. How could you not laugh? Comedy is brutal as much as it’s guys smoking weed and cracking jokes.”
His string of playing real people continues with 2016’s Elvis & Nixon. He plays the King to Kevin Spacey’s Nixon in the true 1970 tale that pivots around Presley trying to persuade the 37th president of the United States to give him a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.
“I never thought it was a good idea for me to play Elvis and I was scared shitless to do it,” Shannon admits, adding that on the first day of shooting he always finds himself “completely terrified.” Then former Elvis aide Jerry Schilling, who accompanied Presley on his White House trip, took him out for fried okra in Memphis and to Graceland, Sun Studio, and even the public housing project where Presley grew up. “He put his hand on my shoulder and he said, ‘Look, Elvis was my best friend. I knew him for years and years and years and I’m telling you right now, I know you can do this. You have more in common with him than you think.”
He has also reunited with Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols for 2016’s Midnight Special, in which he plays a father who resorts to drastic measures to protect his son, who has special powers. Shannon is De Niro to Nichols’s Scorsese, having appeared in each of Nichols’s films, including flying to Virginia for one day to make a cameo in Loving to keep his streak unbroken. “I want to be in all his movies,” Shannon says. “His scripts are all bulletproof. He’s very compassionate and we’re both from the south. That has something to do with it.”
In March, he heads to Broadway to star in a revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne. The immediacy of live performance still enraptures him and he remains active in the 75-seat A Red Orchid Theatre, which he helped start in Chicago 22 years ago, returning from his and Arrington’s Brooklyn home for productions. “Camera work is very technical. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but it’s not the same. Acting in front of a camera is like surgery, it’s very precise. But the stage is spiritual to me. It transcends thought,” he says. The more demanding the role the better, says Shannon, who revels in the exhaustion that comes from being on stage. “You can get lost in a play. I love being out on stage for three hours because two hours doesn’t do it. There’s something about keeping on going even when you’re tired, [when] you just don’t think you can do it anymore, but you have to do something. The ghosts come out,” continues Shannon, who had a 45-minute monologue when he performed Eugène Ionesco’s The Killer last year off-Broadway. “That doesn’t happen much on movies. I mean, it’s a long day on a movie set, but when I hear people complain about it, they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so tired’ I just think, ‘Pussy’.”
Appearing in the Eugene O’Neill play feels like a tip of the hat to his late father, who revered seeing Jason Robards, Jr., on Broadway in an O’Neill play in the late fifties and used that experience as a way to relate to Shannon’s decision to pursue acting. “When I started acting, my father, initially, was perplexed. The only way he could relate to it was [recalling that play] and he would tell me how much that means to him.
“I’m a lot like my father,” Shannon continues. “My father was actually a very charismatic and volatile person. When he went to school, undergraduate at Duke, he enrolled in all these Bohemian classes like philosophy and French literature and he taught ballroom dancing. And then one day he decided that life’s questions were too much for him to contemplate. He just wanted something that made sense because it overwhelmed him, so he went to accounting. Me, I didn’t get overwhelmed by it. I just kept asking.”
Styling: Karla Welch for the Wall Group.
Grooming: Lauren Kaye Cohen for Tracey Mattingly using Tom Ford for Men.