Interview: Michael Shannon Talks His New Movie "Take Shelter", The Apocalypse, And Playing Murderers

We got face to intense face with the actor, who also stars in Boardwalk Empire.

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Complex Original

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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?


Speaking of playing murderers, you’re portraying notorious contract killer and family man Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski in a biopic about him.
That story, to me, is a really good example of…. I don't condone what he did or how he lived—I think it's horrible—but at the same time I think it's interesting to try and explore how a person could live such a divided life between the love and devotion he had for his family and these horrible things that he did to make a living. People, they get wired, you know. I don't think anybody is born evil; you come into this world and things happen and you get put in situations and you have to find a way to deal. But that cruelty or that numbness that he had came from somewhere, and that’s what I’m interested in.

You’ve done big-budget blockbusters like Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II as well as a lot of low-budget movies like Bug and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. What appeals to you about each type of filmmaking?
Well, working on a big-budget film is very luxurious. You have everything you need and everybody in every position across the board is at the top of the craft, in terms of experience and being the best at what they do. But it also can have a rhythm that’s a little slow, stop-and-start. Everything takes a really long time there is a lot of waiting around.

With a low-budget film, usually you are working with people who are building their craft, who have a lot of inherent talent. It’s very exciting to be working with somebody who is “on the rise,” who is just coming into their own. I’ve been able to work with a lot of big-name directors later in their career and I always wonder when I work with them what it would have been like to work with them on their first movie or their second movie. So that’s what excited me about doing some of the low-budget films or working with somebody like [Take Shelter director] Jeff Nichols. Twenty years from now I may be able to say, “I worked with Jeff Nichols,” and he maybe looked at they way Scorsese is looked at now, so that’s exciting.

With all your small and big screen success, you also remain very active in theater. What does stage work provide you as an actor?
When you’re doing a play you really get an opportunity to examine a character in a very rigorous way; you spend a lot more time with the piece and with the character. There is a lot of repetition and you can go back every night and try to improve what you did the night before, find another layer to the performance.

With screen, you get your shot that day and then you gotta surrender and walk away and hope that it all cuts together well. You really gotta be on your toes ’cause there’s that period of waiting around and all of a sudden it happens very quickly—the actual shooting of the scene can happen very quickly and then you’re kinda left trying to remember what just happened.

As a lifelong Brooklynite myself, I have to ask: What appeals to you about living in Red Hook?
I find Red Hook very peaceful and quiet. I like being next to the river, and the neighborhood has a very small town feel to it. Everybody knows everybody and people are nice and you know it's a neighborhood. I feel that keeps getting better right now but its not getting so popular that its gonna get too crowded because it's kind of remote; no matter how nice it is here, it’s still kind of hard to get here.

When I first came to New York, I loved staying in Manhattan. I still love going to Manhattan for the energy of it but I’m a little older now and I don't stay out real late at night or like to go out and raise hell. When I first started coming to New York, the night life was exciting but that’s kind of old news now, so it's every once in a while you go into the city, go hang out with some friends and get it out of your system, then come back to quiet old Red Hook.

You seem very grounded. Does being a celebrity, being viewed differently and having to do press, ever bother you?
It’s strange; it’s not anything I ever imagined happening to me. Maybe some people planned for it and it’s like their ambition to be famous but I just always enjoyed working. I enjoy the work more than I enjoy any of the other aspects of it, but I also get a kick out of knowing that when I do work people see it and they appreciate it. I spent a lot of years doing plays and you'd be lucky if there were five people in the audience—no matter how much you’re enjoying the work at a certain point you wonder what the point is. I take pride in like Boardwalk Empire and the success it seems to be having. It feels good to be a part of something like that. I think I’m more proud of the projects than I am of like my own celebrity. I’m just more proud to be associated with the projects.

Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)

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