Rapid Round: Michael Shannon Talks Playing Elvis Presley, Admiring Jessica Lange's "Sword" (Q&A)

Elvis and Nixon Still 5 - H 2016
Courtesy of Bleecker Street

The constantly working character actor tells THR about his collaborations with Jeff Nichols, the best advice he's ever gotten and why he doesn't care too much about the election: "I just wish Obama could stay in."

In Elvis & Nixon, Michael Shannon, wearing a voluminous black wig, gold aviator shades and ornate chain necklaces, looks in the mirror and says, “They don’t see me. I become a thing." It's an intimate scene that offers a rare glimpse of the King, who is seen more often as his public persona.

Shannon, 41, is no average Elvis impersonator. Having built a career as a character actor — although he's graduated to leading-man status — he's accustomed to burrowing deeply into the roles he plays, getting at the private lives behind the public faces. Shannon has appeared in everything from big-budget superhero flicks and holiday comedies to sci-fi thrillers and intimate dramas. In the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival alone, he’s featured in Bart Freundlich’s drama Wolves, Robert Scott Wildes’ con film Poor Boy and Liza Johnson’s satirical comedy that imagines the real-life meeting between Mr. Presley and Mr. President (Kevin Spacey). And if that’s not enough, Shannon currently stars opposite Jessica Lange in the Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill’s boozy, family drama Long Day's Journey Into Night, and is already gathering buzz for his next collaboration with director Jeff NicholsLoving, which will be unveiled in May at the Cannes Film Festival.

“I’m pretty much always working, so it’s hard to imagine wanting to do something else,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter when asked about a dream role he’s yet to take on. And he doesn’t look back either: “No regrets; just keep moving forward.”

What was your best moment while making Elvis & Nixon?

The Oval Office scenes with Kevin was quite thrilling, but the scene that moved me the most was when Elvis is talking in the mirror. He’s practicing saying hi to the President, and he starts talking about his [stillborn] twin brother, and that’s why he’s got the luck of two people. That was a beautiful speech, and I enjoyed doing that.

What was the toughest moment on this movie?

The first day — having the realization that we were actually starting and I had to actually be Elvis. Just diving into it and getting over the jitters. The first scene was in the Oval Office — we started with the climax of the movie because of Kevin’s schedule. But once I crossed that threshold, I had a pretty good time.

What’s the most fun part about playing Elvis?

I loved my costume: the wig, the belts were incredible. Just showing up to work every day and transforming.

What do you hate most about seeing yourself on the big screen?

I don’t really hate it. I’m very neutral about it. I’m always fascinated by it, really. It doesn’t frighten me. I honestly find it very instructional to see, “Oh, that’s what I was doing.”

What’s been the best moment of your career?

Going to the Oscars was a pinch-me moment. Having Christopher Walken say that he thought I was a good actor in front of all those people at the Oscars was pretty surreal.

Worst moment of your career?

How can you belly ache about a career? I’m so lucky to have a career. I guess I don’t like shooting when I’m cold — when you’re wearing a T-shirt because it’s supposed to be summer, but you’re shooting in the winter. That’s annoying. I did this movie called Complete Unknown, we shot here in New York right after Elvis & Nixon, and we had some nighttime exteriors that were pretty cold.

Is there a dream project you’ve never been able to make?

People ask me that a lot and I feel like I should come up with answer just to have one. I’m pretty much always working, so it’s hard to imagine wanting to do something else.

You’ve worked many times with Jeff Nichols. What’s so great about working with him?

I just feel a deep kinship with Jeff. He feels like family. We started working together at the beginning of his career. He kind of looked up to me and asked me to help him. We kind of communicate telepathically, really.

What profession would you do if not this?

I have a band — I don’t have much time to do it, but I’d definitely do music.

What was the best piece of advice anyone gave you?

I took an acting class when I was in Chicago, back when I was starting out. There was a sign over the class that said, “It does not matter whether you play well or whether you play poorly; it only matters that you play truthfully.”

If you could do something all over again, what would it be?

I don’t think there’s anything in my life I’d want to do over again. I’m always interested to see what’s gonna happen next. No regrets; just keep moving forward.

Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

Oh, boy. I just wish Obama could stay in. I can’t drum up the enthusiasm to answer that question.

Favorite movie?

I have a few. The King of Comedy, Alphaville and The Decalogue — that’s 10 movies, so that’s cheating.

With Long Day’s Journey Into Night on Broadway, what excites you most about being onstage?

With this play, the most exciting element is the quartet. I’m onstage with three incredible actors and we’re creating this together. When all four of us are onstage, it gives me goosebumps. The give-and-take, it’s so beautiful in the way we create the story together.

John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Shannon in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Describe your onstage co-star Jessica Lange in three words.

Sent from heaven.

What’s something you’ve learned about her?

She has an incredible voice. I’m familiar with her as a film actress, and film voice is a very different thing — a lot of times, people are very quiet when shooting films. But she has an incredible, powerful, dynamic voice that she uses like a sword. It’s thrilling just to sit and listen to her, even when I’m not onstage.

What do you love the most about Hollywood?

It’s fun when the people don’t take it too seriously, when people are able to have a little distance and remember the real world. I’ve been fortunate to know and meet a lot of people who don’t take it too seriously.

What do you hate the most about Hollywood?

I don’t like the commodification of art in general. I don’t like it when people sit around and just think about how something is gonna make money, and how to make money off of art. I understand it’s a necessity, but it’s also a tragedy.