I first met Michael Shannon 23 years ago, while he was in rehearsals for his debut performance as a professional actor. He was one of the leads in a play about anarchists called Winterset, at a small theater in the south suburbs of Chicago. I was 20 at the time, and only invited to sit in on rehearsals because the director was a friend of my parents. Just days before the show was to open, I was called into the director’s office to discuss Shannon.
“How old do you think that kid is?” he asked. “We think he’s lying about his age.”
I honestly had no idea, but I couldn’t imagine anybody younger than me getting cast in an Equity theater production. So I made a guess. “Twenty six?” I blurted.
Turns out, I was way off. Shannon was only sixteen, but had claimed to be in his 20s. I’m not sure if the director believed me, or felt better knowing that he wasn’t the only one to overestimate Shannon’s age. In either case, the show went on, and the theater wasn’t busted for breaking child labor laws. I don’t want to say that I’m responsible for Shannon’s acting career, but… I’m kinda responsible for his career.
Things have worked out pretty well for Shannon ever since. The Lexington, Kentucky-native has been a mesmerizing presence in everything from mainstream blockbusters (Pearl Harbor, Jonah Hex, Bad Boys II) to critically-lauded indies (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories, The Iceman). He was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar in 2008 for Revolutionary Road, and he’s played some of the most memorable creeps in the movies, TV, and even online—from General Zod in this summer’s Man of Steel to the self-flagellating prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (which returns for a fourth season on September 8th) to a staggering portrayal of a sorority sister losing her mind on the humor website Funny or Die.
He’s so good at playing bad that sometimes even his peers don’t know for sure how much is fiction. Boardwalk Empire‘s creator, Terence Winter, claims he first saw Shannon during a stage production of Bug in New York City (which would later be adapted into a film, also starring Shannon.) “Michael played this paranoid guy, and I remember thinking, ‘That couldn’t be acting,'” Winter says. “I left seriously convinced that they had cast an actual emotionally disturbed individual. He was frightening.”
I met with Shannon in Chicago, after watching him perform in Sam Shepard’s Simpatico at the Red Orchid Theater, a company he co-founded two decades ago. We sat at the bar at a sushi restaurant next door and gorged ourselves on dragon rolls and tasmanian salmon, as well as beer, bourbon and maybe a few too many bottles of hot saki. He remembered me and that first play in the south suburbs. (“You saved my ass,” he said.) He even remembers, word for word, his very first review from that show: “Michael Shannon is a semi-attractive youngster who thinks acting is flapping his arms like a bird and rubbing his eyebrows.” It still bothers him, even all these years later. And as I soon found out, it was by no means the last time a review would get under his skin.
Is it weird having so many eyes on you now? You do a play and people come because you’re the bad guy from the Superman film. They’re not necessarily coming for Sam Shepard.
Yeah, it’s a very delicate thing. On the one hand, I’m excited that the run sold out before we even opened. But on the other hand, we’re never quite sure why people are there. At every performance, there are people in the audience who seem confused. They look at me and they’re like, “Well there he is. I’m not sure why he’s doing this, but he’s real close to me.”
What about the critics? Do they have different expectations of you, now that you’re a local boy made good?
Tony Adler (a critic at the Chicago Reader) just reviewed Simpatico, and he ripped my heart out of my chest. It got nasty.
What did he write?
I don’t want to repeat it. You can go find it if you want. It’s online, I’m pretty sure. He really went after me. And it was sad, because I like Tony and I think he’s really smart.
I heard that you got into acting as a teenager to avoid sports, because you weren’t especially athletic.
Yeah, that’s true.
Is that still the case?
I had to get athletically inclined for Man of Steel.
Was it in your contract?
That’s just (director) Zach Schneider’s thing. He’s really into physical fitness. And it made sense, because I was playing a warrior. I remember going to meet David Mamet for some Kung Fu movie he was making, Redbelt. He saw World Trade Center and really liked it. So I walked into his office and sat down, and he looked at me and said, “Uhhh. Wait a second, you were in World Trade Center, right?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” And he said, “You played the sergeant, right?” I’m like, “Well yeah.” He was like, “This is so weird. Are you athletic? I got the impression from watching the movie that you were very athletic.” I was like, “No, not at all.” And he said, “Have you ever done karate or anything?” I’m like, “No.” He was like, “This was a mistake, I’m sorry.” And he sent me out.
He rejected you because you weren’t as athletic as a character you played in a movie?
Yeah, pretty much.
He does know that movies aren’t real, right? It’s make believe.
Apparently not. And he’s such a lumberjack, that David Mamet. Such a manly man.
You had a brief period of doing big budget action movies. I think you did three Jerry Bruckheimer movies in a row.
Yeah. Bad Boys II and Pearl Harbor and Kangaroo Jack. I’ve tried to avoid those kinda films now. I just don’t want to do them anymore. Which is fine, because I don’t know if people would cast me in them anymore.
Not long after Pearl Harbor, you moved from LA back to Chicago, and ended up living in an attic over the Red Orchid Theater. Why an attic?
It was only because of my nomadic existence. I’m not going to buy a mansion somewhere. I move around too much. I’m always traveling, constantly. It doesn’t really matter to me where I’m living. I don’t need a house on the beach.
But everything about it seemed a little off. You left LA when your career was on a roll, moved into an attic like a homeless person. What was going on in your head?
I was in Hawaii for the Pearl Harbor premiere. I’d just finished shooting Kangaroo Jack or was about to be done shooting it. I was living the life of Riley. At the time Kangaroo Jack was the most money I had ever been paid in my life to act. I was staying in this very glamorous hotel in Hawaii, waiting for this premiere. And I had (director) Dexter Bullard on the phone. They were planning to do (the Tracy Letts’ play) Bug at Red Orchid. The lead was offered to me, but I said no, I can’t do it, I’m too busy.
Too busy making a movie about a kangaroo.
I know, right? It burned my insides. So they were having auditions and looking at other actors. I was talking with Dexter in my hotel room, and I just snapped. It was down to two guys for the play, and he was asking for my advice. And I just told me, “It should be me. It should be fucking me. I’m coming back.” So I went from this kind of glamorous Hollywood lifestyle to sleeping on an attic floor and doing Bug.
But you clearly needed that.
I really did. Everything that was happening to me in Los Angeles, it was overly luxurious. I’m not comfortable with that much luxury. It made me feel…. [long pause] almost like I didn’t exist.
When you’re playing insane characters…
Which I do a lot apparently. [Laughs.]
Is it cathartic? Like that scene last season on Boardwalk Empire, where Van Alden burns a guy’s face with a hot iron. After shooting that, were you like, “Jesus, that was scary” or “Hey, that was kinda fun?”
Neither, actually. I was just proud that we did it so fast. It was scheduled for two days and we shot it in one. That was the only thing in my head.
You don’t take any of it personally? You’ve lived with this character and his demons for three years now.
I have but I haven’t. It’s all an illusion. To shoot a season of Boardwalk Empire is from February to September. That’s a long time. Like eight months. For season three, when that scene you mentioned happened, I worked a total of fifteen days the entire season.
Roughly two weeks. And that’s spread out over half a year. So you don’t really live with these characters at all. For this season, I haven’t been on Boardwalk for three shows in a row. Then out of the blue they’re like, “You’re heavy in the next one.” So I have to fly out on Tuesday.
Is it difficult to switch gears?
Switch gears how?
You’re flying to New York to do more Boardwalk episodes, then back to Chicago for the play.
Yeah, but there’s a lot of down time in between. A lot of time in airports.
But it seems like you inhabit these characters so deeply. You can’t just flip a switch and go from one to another, can you?
That’s sweet of you to say that. Because Tony Adler says I was cartoonish. Which I didn’t appreciate very much.
We’re back on the bad review?
Sorry to keep bringing that up.
You want to call him? I can probably get his number.
No, no, that wouldn’t end well. When I read it, I kinda wanted to go on a rampage. I keep telling myself that it doesn’t matter.
It really doesn’t.
He’s just looking for ways to hurt my feelings.
It’s amazing that somebody who’s accomplished as much as you can be so deeply wounded by a review. They’re just words. It’s somebody’s opinion.
Tony reviewed me when I was a teenager. I’ve known Tony Adler for twenty-two years. I think he’s a good critic. He left the Reader and then came back. I don’t know what happened, I guess his dreams didn’t work out.
That’s mean. But after the things he wrote about me, I think it’s totally fair.
So it’s not hard to go back and forth between characters?
It’s always hard, but not because of that. I always show up at the beginning of a Boardwalk shoot, or pretty much any movie set, thinking I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m scared, I don’t want to be here, I’m not right for this. All the terror that anybody experiences. But then you sit in the makeup chair and they do your hair and you stare in the mirror and think, “Maybe I can pull this off.” You look down at your sides, the little piece of paper with your dialogue, and you think, “Well it isn’t really that many lines. If they give me a few takes, they can find enough good versions to cut together. I’ll be fine.”
Do you feel that same nervousness before a stage show?
Plays are better because I get another chance every night. That makes me feel a lot more comfortable. What scares me about being on camera is knowing that this is it. What I’m doing is permanent. You’re just never going to get to do it again. That’s it. But I’ve gotten a lot tougher over the years. I feel like I’m sounding like a little sissy right now.
I would describe it as vulnerable.
But I’m also very tough.
In what way?
I keep showing up. You can’t deter me. It’s not like I read Tony Adler’s review and said, “I’m not going tonight.” You can say whatever you want, you can say I’m an idiot. A talentless jerkoff. I don’t give a fuck. I keep showing up.
Sometimes actors who play evil or psychotic characters have a hard time letting go after the cameras are turned off. Has that ever-?
No, no. No fucking way.
I’m nothing like that. Ever. Maybe when I was a teenager. I find that gross. What’s the point? Once you’re finished with work, it’s over. You don’t see a plumber walking down the street with a giant wrench, muttering “Please, let me unscrew something.”
Yeah, but a plumber doesn’t have to deal with emotions all day.
You think when a plumber sees a clogged-up fucking toilet, they’re not feeling something?
I’m sure they feel something. But their job doesn’t involving crying for strangers about that clogged-up toilet.
I don’t know. To me, an actor’s job is to tell a story. And honestly, the story is usually a lot less personal than people think. I was reading Meisner’s book today, which I love.
Yeah. He’s like, you just have to find a way. You read these old plays by Chekhov, and this isn’t your life. But if you get cast in The Seagull, you have to figure out some fucking way to make it true. I have absolutely nothing in common with (Boardwalk Empire‘s) Van Alden.
Nothing at all?
Very little. Maybe trace elements here or there. But it’s awkward. The whole process of being him, of inhabiting his skin, is incredibly awkward. It requires being very concentrated and relaxed and aware.
You’re not big on Method acting?
I’m not thinking about feelings. I’m thinking about the story. I’m thinking how do I tell this story the most vividly? It’s not unemotional. But you don’t focus on the emotion. You focus on the story.
Even with something like your dramatic reading of the Delta Gamma sorority letter for Funny or Die?
I don’t understand that. Everybody called it a dramatic interpretation. What part of it was dramatic?
It was pretty intense.
I was being totally goofy when I read that fucking thing.
It didn’t come off as goofy. It came off as scary.
I was fucking around, man. Let me walk you through what happened. I flew to LA, my publicist picked me up at the hotel and handed me the letter.
You hadn’t read it before?
No. She’d emailed it to me, but I don’t read emails. The first time I ever read it out loud was on camera, and the guy who was ostensibly the director was saying things like, “Do you want to talk about this?” I was like “No, just roll the camera.” I was just amusing myself.
It felt like there was some…
No, not personal attachment. The way you said “cunt punt,” it had legitimate menace to it. I really believed that you wanted to punt my cunt.
That’s all just subconscious. It’s a matrix that I can’t take credit for.
It seemed like you had thought about this character.
I’ve been thinking about college girls for years. I’ve been looking at them and thinking about them, wondering what they care about, what’s important to them. These are ongoing fascinations that you get a chance to explore every once in a while. The same way I think about homeless people or people that really like the Bears. You think about things all the time. And every once in a while as an actor, you get a role and you’re like, “Oh, this is a person who’s homeless or likes the Bears. I’ve thought about that.”
Your first acting performance was on your high school speech team, a monologue about a boy who eats his own boogers. Did it have that same Michael Shannon intensity?
Not really. It was kinda cute. It was a Garrison Keillor script. I think it’s ironic that it all started there, considering that everybody thinks I’m nuts. It all started with this cute little speech about a little boy who likes boogers.
Do you really believe everybody thinks you’re nuts, or that you’re just really good at playing people who’re nuts?
I don’t know… [long pause.] I honestly don’t know. Who knows what anybody thinks about anything?
But your gut feeling is that people think you’re crazy?
You know what the problem is? My eyes. My eyes are a problem. And the answer is botox. I just need to get a shitload of botox on my eyes, and then they won’t open that wide, and that problem will be gone forever.
But your eyes are so distinctive.
It’s awful! Nobody likes it. I read a review of Man of Steel, and the guy was like, “I wish somebody would have told Michael Shannon to knock it off with the bug eyes.”
You need to stop reading your reviews, I’m telling you right now.
Why? Tell me why.
Somebody saying or writing something about you doesn’t make it true.
I’ve seen the pictures. A guy from the Tribune came to take pictures of a rehearsal of Simpatico. One of the pictures they used was of me with those big bug eyes. It looks stupid.
It really doesn’t.
I have to get them sewn up or something. Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (Scrunches up his face and mimes poking a needle into his eyes.) A few stitches here, so it’s like…
You want to look like Leatherface?
Sure, why not?
Remember that actress from Dirty Dancing? What was her name?
She got plastic surgery on her nose, and it almost killed her career. There was something less interesting about her with the smaller nose.
I don’t know, man.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an actor?
If I was ever able to escape the curse of acting, I would probably be an activist of some sort.
A celebrity activist?
No, I wouldn’t want to use my celebrity. People hate it when celebrities do that shit. I would just put a bag on my head and be an activist. An anonymous activist. I would tie myself to trees, just make things difficult for industries trying to destroy the environment.
You mentioned the curse of acting. Were you making a joke, or does acting really feel like a curse?
It’s only a curse because it’s really not necessary. We as a culture don’t need to spend as much time as we do watching other people do imaginary shit that isn’t actually happening. We spend way too much time doing that.
That’s kinda true. You don’t hear many actors saying that.
Because we’re culpable. I make my living by contributing to it. Maybe if there were less people at home watching Real Housewives of New Jersey, they’d be out there saying, “You can’t dump shit in Lake Michigan!” I’m part of the problem.
You don’t really think you’re in the same creative genre as Real Housewives of New Jersey?
Maybe not. I try to do things that are thought-provoking and maybe give people a reason to think about something other than comfort or being warm and fuzzy. I hope so anyway.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August/September 2013 issue of Malibu Magazine.)