'99 Homes' Star Michael Shannon on Being an Awards Dark Horse

Michael Shannon - H 2015
Armando Gallo

The actor, who is the subject of awards chatter for his performance as an amoral real estate agent in Ramin Bahrani's drama, talks how he chooses roles and why he agreed to star in the Seth Rogen comedy 'The Night Before.'

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Michael Shannon first met filmmaker Ramin Bahrani at the Venice Film Festival several years ago, he expressed a desire to work together. But it wasn't until Bahrani's recent home foreclosure drama 99 Homes — which Bahrani wrote with the actor in mind — that it happened. Shannon's performance as fast-talking, amoral real estate agent Rick Carver is garnering the actor plenty of awards chatter and is one of many coups for him this year, along with the Julianne Moore-Ellen Page gay rights drama Freeheld and Seth Rogen holiday comedy The Night Before. There's a sense that Shannon — who has "four or five films" hopefully headed to Sundance in 2016 — only accepts roles he finds deeply compelling in some way. Even his take on General Zod in Man of Steel — which he'll reprise in the impending sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — is imbued with zeal. Here Shannon discusses embodying Carver, finding the right work and why he's looking for a very different sort of award this season.

Once you were cast as Rick Carver, did the character feel like a good fit?

You know, as much as any role. You wind up feeling some ownership just due to the work you're doing. I probably could have grown attached to any character in that story. But that was the one I was playing. It was an exciting challenge for me to play that part because he's very slick and he's very composed. It felt like something different for me.

Do you think Rick has a saving grace?

I honestly think saving graces are kind of hokey. The thing about Rick is that he's a survivor. He's learned how to take a system that is really stacking the deck against people and use it to his advantage. There are a lot of people that sit around and whine and moan and belly-ache about the state of the world, but they don't really do much to change it. Rick takes care of his business. He takes this dreadful situation — which is dreadful for everybody involved — and he makes the best of it.

For you, does the film take a moral or social stance on its subject?

It's not preachy. It's more of a question than anything: What do you do? What are you supposed to do?

Does it answer those questions?

Movies don't answer questions. Have you ever seen a movie that answered your question?

Are you generally looking for roles in films that ask significant questions?

I like to do films that I feel are mediations on real-life scenarios that people deal with. I'm not on a mission to save the world or something. I'm an actor.

At this point, do you ever step back and consider your career trajectory?

It's pretty stunning, honestly. I couldn't have started any lower than I did, acting for free for three people in the audience in a room with some folding chairs. Now I'm here. It's slow and steady, though. I've been doing this for 25 years. I haven't experienced it the other way.

Is there something you're willing to do as an actor now that you might not have done early in your career?

I don't know. I mean, I did that Lip Sync Battle. I don't know if I would have done that! I used to be pretty serious about all that stuff. I'm lightening up, I guess. I had a couple of kids, and that changed things pretty drastically. I'm just trying to enjoy myself. It is a very stressful life sometimes, but I just try to remember how lucky I am and what a blessing it is to be doing what I'm doing.

Is being less serious why you agreed to do The Night Before?

It's funny — all [my films this year] were shot so far apart from one another. They're all coming out so closely, and it's very strange. But The Night Before was something I was able to squeeze in pretty quickly. I only spent about a week on it. I liked the idea of doing it in response to all those people who've asked me countless times, "Are you ever going to do a comedy?" This is said comedy, so the question can be retired.

Have you been paying attention to all the awards chatter?

I hear I'm a dark horse — whatever that means. Apparently I'm not a golden horse. I'm here with my kids trying to put the laundry in, spraying OxiClean on food stains. I would rather get an award for that, I guess: Most Food Stains Eradicated goes to Michael Shannon.