Interview: Michael Shannon, actor

Having had a string of scene-stealing support roles, Michael Shannon is an actor about to hit the big time… and he’s even about to face off against Superman

EARLIER this year, Michael Shannon had a surreal experience in a grocery store. He was with his family, minding his own business, when his phone rang. “The caller ID was blocked, so I answered it,” he says. “It was Zack saying I was going to be General Zod.”

For those not au fait with Hollywood’s upcoming slate of comic book movies, “Zack” is Zack Snyder, the director of Watchmen and the new Christopher Nolan-produced Superman film Man of Steel. General Zod is, of course, the iconic super-villain with whom new Superman Henry Cavill will go head-to-head.

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Considering the film is set to be the biggest movie of 2013 – and thus the 37-year-old Shannon’s biggest role to date – it was a huge piece of news to be receiving during something as mundane as the weekly shop.

“It certainly came out of left-field,” says Shannon, who first appeared on Snyder’s radar after Watchmen star Billy Crudup (with whom Shannon appeared in Jesus’ Son) told the director to check out some of Shannon’s films. “I guess I owe Billy for the original recommendation. I didn’t see it coming and I was shocked when I got the part.”

It probably shouldn’t come as too much of shock to anyone who has been paying attention to Shannon’s career that he’s suddenly topping Hollywood casting lists. At an imposing 6ft 4in and with that prominent, overhanging brow (an interviewer once likened him to a cross between Richard Kiel and Leonardo DiCaprio), he’s a distinctive screen presence who has, over the past decade, built up a diverse CV full of scene-stealing supporting turns in everything from dramas (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) through blockbusters (Vanilla Sky) to music biopics (8 Mile), as well the odd – sometimes very odd – leading role in films such as Bug and Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Since his Oscar-nominated breakthrough as a cruelly perceptive shock therapy patient in 2008’s Revolutionary Road, however, it’s his unique star quality to which film-makers seem to have been responding. In addition to Man of Steel, he’s become part of the principal cast of HBO’s prestigious prohibition saga Boardwalk Empire, playing the semi-tragic Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden. Then there’s his latest film, Take Shelter, a Sundance hit that’s currently picking up serious awards buzz. Re-teaming with film-maker Jeff Nichols (who directed Shannon in the brilliant Shotgun Stories), he plays Curtis, an ordinary family man tormented by apocalyptic visions and the subsequent dilemmas that come from trying to figure out how best to protect his wife and young daughter while seeking a way to determine if the visions are real or if he’s losing his mind.

“That’s what attracted me to Curtis,” says Shannon. “He’s not just throwing his hands up in the air and saying, ‘I can’t deal with this.’ He goes back and forth, wondering if what he’s going through is internal or external.”

The film was born out of Nichols’s personal anxieties (see interview, right) about taking care of his own family in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse, when maintaining even a basic standard of living became a precarious thing. It’s something to which Shannon could relate.

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“I have a little brother who works full time at a very physically demanding job and doesn’t even make enough money where he can have his own place to live. He still lives with my mom. There’s something wrong with that.” That Shannon is able to make a good living doing what he does is clearly something he doesn’t take lightly. Born in Lexington, Kentucky, he got into acting because he wasn’t much of an athlete and wanted something to do after school. After moving to Chicago, where his father was a university professor, he started performing semi-professionally at age 16, doing a lot of theatre and collaborating early on with future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts.

Indeed, it was while performing in Letts’ controversial Killer Joe that a career began to seem feasible when, after an eight-month run in Chicago, the play took him abroad for the first time – to the 1994 Edinburgh Festival.

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What was his time like in Edinburgh? “Oh, it was lovely,” he says, wistfully. “Yeah, it was sort of magical. It felt like I was in a fairytale with that castle. I kept rubbing my eyes; it felt like I was dreaming. There were so many shows too, and so many festivals. In fact, the year I was there I went to see Orson Welles’s unfinished Don Quixote, which was the main presentation at the Film Festival. It was a great time.”

It was a useful time, too. After doing well in Edinburgh, the play went to the Bush Theatre in London, then transferred to the West End and eventually ended up back in the US, where it began an acclaimed run in New York off-Broadway. “That kind of led to all the film work, so it was really based all on this play.”

After such a long journey, has it been strange, then, to feel the Hollywood machine kicking into gear behind him since the Oscar nod?

“It’s all very subtle. Nobody treats you any differently and just because I got that nomination doesn’t mean I’m finished [pushing myself]. You’re only as good as your last job. There’s always the potential to embarrass yourself.”

• Take Shelter is in cinemas from Friday 25 November.