A successful and immensely talented actor with a beautiful young daughter, Michael Shannon has every reason to be happy, which is why it's so startling that he looks perpetually tormented, or even pissed off. Then again, his inherently intense mug is a big reason why he is so in demand these days.
Known for playing villains (Bad Boys II, Let's Go To Prison) and men dealing with mental illness and anguish (Bug, Revolutionary Road, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), 37-year-old Shannon is currently doing some of his finest, most grim-faced work on Boardwalk Empire, HBO's Atlantic City-set Prohibition era crime drama. As stern FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden, a tightly wound, teetotaling company man and Christian zealot who breaks a couple major commandments in Season One, he steals the show from a cast that is superb across the board-walk.
This Friday, another of his taut, troubled performances can be seen in Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols' psychological drama about a midwester sand miner (Shannon) whose happy life with his wife and six-year-old daughter begins to unravel when he starts having disturbing nightly visions of a coming apocalypse. Unsure if he's going insane or foreseeing real danger, he risks destroying relationships with his family, friends, and colleagues to construct a shelter in the backyard. Like the dark storm clouds that his character dreams of, Shannon is a powerful and ominous presence threatening to explode in the surprising final act.
Complex recently caught up with Shannon at his home base in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for the October/November issue's "My Complex" feature. I talked to him about his steely visage as well as the end of days, how he's approaching playing General Zod in Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, Man Of Steel, and why he likes to get inside the minds of murderers. Forget the face—dude has things on his mind.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Complex: In Take Shelter, your character becomes increasingly troubled and destabilized by visions of a coming apocalypse, which may or may not just be in his mind. He has a family history of mental illness, after all. Do you personally subscribe to any end-of-world theories?
Michael Shannon: Well…it’s hard not to be nervous nowadays; there’s so much going on in the world. I don't think about the end of the world all the time but, I mean, even just walking around the neighborhood, you pass a bus stop and there is a big advertisement on the side from New York City saying, “Be prepared for a disaster.” I’ve been noticing a lot of them lately and it’s kind of a little unsettling.
But people have always thought that the world was gonna end, from the time it started. You still see those signs up from the [May 21, 2011]; those poor people put their all life savings into buying these billboards and subways adds [warning of the Rapture] and every time I see one of them nowadays, it’s kinda embarrassing. I wonder when they’re gonna take them down.
Your face is very intense. What makes you smile?
[Laughs.] My daughter. She makes me smile, and my family. I think a lot of times what makes you smile is unexpected, it catches you off guard, surprises you; something may make you smile one day and it may not necessarily make you smile the next. It’s a mystery what makes any of us happy and [happiness is] usually fleeting.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you see the same intensity and conflict that the rest of the world seems to?
Well, there seems to be something inherently intense about my face—I guess my bone structure. Even if I’m just sitting in a totally neutral state, not thinking about anything in particular, that [intensity] is projected on my face. I have wondered over the years why that is. A friend of mine once said it looks like I have psychic baggage, which I guess is true to a certain extent—although I have a hard time imagining anybody who doesn't. I guess it just comes through maybe more clearly on my face than other people’s faces. I don't know.
You've played a number of dark, villainous characters or people struggling with serious mental issues. Did those kind of roles always appeal to you, or is it just that you look perfect for them?
I don't think I set out to play villains necessarily. I try not to look at any character I play as being a villain or a hero, just more what their circumstances are, what they are trying to deal with. I mean, every character can be seen in a different light and people, in general, do some things that are considered good and some things that are considered not so good. I think we all wrestle with how we feel about ourselves and whether we are happy with what we do in our lives, and I try and look at most characters from that point of view.
Do you aspire to play more light-hearted roles?
I think it would be hard to do, to have that predetermination regarding selecting roles. I mostly just look for good writing, interesting characters that have the most depth or the most mystery or the most challenge to play, not necessarily how they are perceived.
Is there a role that would make you uncomfortable?
Yeah, there are roles I’ve played that have made me uncomfortable—well, different roles for different reasons. When I played the fella I played in the World Trade Center, Marine Sgt. Dave Karnes, that was intimidating and it made me uncomfortable because he was someone who was very, very brave and very, very strong and I felt like maybe I didn't have that inside of me. I couldn't imagine myself in his shoes and doing what he did [rescuing two police officers trapped under the rubble], and at first that was very frightening. It took a lot of time studying him and watching interviews with him and finally just accepting the fact that, you know, somebody has to play the part, so it might as well be me.
In terms of being uncomfortable because of something the character did, a murder or something like that, it’s certainly scary to contemplate how the mind of someone who would do something like that works. But I feel like it’s important to try and understand why people do these things. I’m not condoning [murder] in any way shape or form, and I’m not even talking about forgiveness, but I think it’s important to try and understand how human beings are capable of these things, otherwise how can we ever hope to stop it from happening or rehabilitate people?