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Michael Shannon — like Philip Baker Hall, John Hawkes, Eddie Marsan, Michael Kenneth Williams, and only a select few others — is an actor whose name is only vaguely familiar to the general public, but whose face always rings a bell, and whose consistently strong performances over the course of decades on stage, TV, and film have earned him the reverence of his peers. Unlike those other great “character actors,” though, Shannon, 37, has been given the chance to play the principal role in a movie that will get a pretty wide release, at least in terms of the art-house circuit, and with it a chance to show a larger audience what he is capable of. The film is Jeff Nichols‘s Take Shelter — it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, played at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, and opens in theaters tomorrow — and Shannon doesn’t disappoint.
Shannon, one of our four kids, was raised in Kentucky by his mother after his parents divorced and his father moved to Illinois. Not especially gifted athletically or academically, he was at a loss for things to do after school until, one day during high school, he came across a flyer for the “speech team.” Intrigued, he stopped by a meeting and was given a monologue to study. “I remember it clear as day,” he says. He had never memorized anything in his life, but he practiced it, learned it, and was intrigued. He never rose to higher than an alternate on the team (although he did fill in one day for an absent extemporaneous speaker), but his interest in the dramatic arts was piqued.
After finishing high school, Shannon moved in with his father in Chicago, perhaps the theatrical capital of the country outside of New York, and began pursuing acting. He did his first serious play while still a teenager — he can still recite the review from memory: “Michael Shannon is a semi-attractive youngster who thinks acting is rubbing his eyebrows and flapping his arms like a bird” — and ultimately hooked up with the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company, among others. His reviews soon got better, and he today regards his early experience in the theater as an invaluable resource for his more recent work in films. “Most people probably don’t know as much as they should before they start doing this,” he notes.
His first film opportunity arose when Groundhog Day (1993) began shooting in town. He won the small role of a newlywed who is having marital issues until Bill Murray intervenes, and consequently earned his SAG card. Rather than moving out to Los Angeles, though, he returned to New York, where he was cast as the lead in Tracy Letts‘s off-Broadway play Killer Joe (“which now is a feature film apparently, which I really want to see”). Through that, he met Lee Daniels, who has since become widely known as the director of Precious (2010), and who, at the time, set him up with a few film auditions that panned out and then encouraged him, “Time to go west, young man!”
Shannon reluctantly relocated to L.A. where, for the next three years (1999-2001), during which he “worked pretty much constantly.” Highlights of that era include appearances in three Jerry Bruckheimer movies — Pearl Harbor (2001), Bad Boys II (2003), and Kangaroo Jack (2003) — and Curtis Hanson‘s 8 Mile (2002), among others. He acknowledges that “most of the time, I was, like, third guy on the left or whatever,” but also feels that he “got a lot of experience” and came to appreciate that “it’s your responsibility to learn how to be valuable… you can’t just stand on set and be like, ‘Why aren’t people paying more attention to me?'”
He ultimately returned to New York to appear in Letts’ play Bug. While based there, he also appeared in a few high-profile movies, including Oliver Stone‘s World Trade Center (2004), which ultimately led to an audition for the small but significant part of a mentally disturbed truth-teller in Sam Mendes‘s Revolutionary Road (2008), which he bagged. For his eight unforgettable minutes of screen time opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates, Shannon was rewarded with a best supporting actor Oscar nod, which might well have resulted in a win had his competition not included the late Heath Ledger for his final performance in The Dark Knight (2008).
Shannon, whom I last interviewed shortly after that nomination was announced, remembers it as a crazy time. “It was such an avalanche. The nomination happened and I got Boardwalk [the important role of Agent Nelson Van Alden on Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter‘s hit HBO show Boardwalk Empire] at the same time.” More than anything else he has done, he says, people now recognize him for his work on that show.
Which brings us to Take Shelter. Nichols wrote his first feature, Shotgun Stories (2007), with Shannon in mind for the lead after Nichols’s college professor, who had worked with the actor, showed students a clip of his work. At Nichols’s request, the professor passed along the script to Shannon. The actor was blown away by it and agreed to star in it for virtually nothing (which is about all Nichols could offer him). The film was not seen by many but was well-received by most of those who saw it, so Nichols grew apprehensive about what to do next. Eventually, he asked Shannon to take a look at Take Shelter. “The first time he showed it to me,” Shannon says, “it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, I want you to be in this!’ He said just, like, ‘Here’s my next script. Do you think it’s any good?'”
Shannon ended up loving it and agreeing to be a part of it. Unlike Revolutionary Road or most of the big screen projects of which he’s been a part before — with the big screen adaptation of Bug (2006), Shotgun Stories, and The Missing Person (2009) being notable exceptions — his part calls for him to appear in almost every scene. “When I read the movie, I was like, ‘This is really good, but I feel sorry for whoever plays Curtis because that’s gonna be a drag!”
As he has many times before, Shannon plays a guy who is hard to read — in this case, Curtis, a young husband (of the great Jessica Chastain), father (of an adorable deaf child), and son (of an institutionalized woman). Curtis begins to experience increasingly apocalyptic visions and nightmares that leave him with two great fears for hsi beloved family, one of which has to be true: the first, that he is growing mentally ill, or the second, that what he is prophesizing (like a young Harold Camping) might actually come true. (Spoiler alert: the film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous and leaves that question unanswered.)
Shannon says he took the part because he has fears of his own. “I can identify with Curtis,” he says. “I find the world very threatening. I think it’s really crazy what’s happening right now on so many different levels. It’s not a political thing — I’m not gonna go there — but we live in an incredibly fragile, crazy world. And, to me, this film was an opportunity to express that. It’s a poem about that… it’s not ‘an investigative study of one man’s journey into mental illness’ or something. It’s just about this feeling. I look around and I think, ‘Man, I must not be the only person who feels this way!’ But that’s the thing, is that Curtis thinks maybe he is the only person that feels this way, you know, that something, kind of, bad might happen pretty soon.”
For Shannon, though, it seems that only good things are happening at the moment. He was in Los Angeles for only a whirlwind visit when we spoke, because he was due back in Canada to shoot his next scenes for Zack Snyder‘s greatly anticipated reboot of the Superman franchise, entitled Man of Steel, in which he will play the villainous General Zod. (The film, which also stars Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner, Laurence Fishburne, Christopher Meloni, and Diane Lane, will hit theaters in the summer of 2013 and is expected to be a huge blockbuster.)
Shannon tells me, “I was on the set of Man of Steel a couple of days ago, and I looked around at this huge set, you know, on this soundstage — like, mind-blowingly gorgeous — and I had one of those moments where I looked around and I was like, ‘Holy shit. I’m here. I’m here, and I’m doing this, and all these people seem to want me to be here.’ It was very bizarre. Not anything you anticipate, you know?”
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