Michael Shannon: 'I want to tell stories, not to pursue world domination'

Michael Shannon, 'the best actor you've never heard of', stole the show in a minor part in Revolutionary Road. He talks to James Mottram about his next, leading, role
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When Michael Shannon was nominated at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor last year for Revolutionary Road, most viewers sat at home could have been forgiven for thinking "Who?" For Shannon, Oscar night – in which he inevitably lost out to the late Heath Ledger for his Joker in The Dark Knight – was just a blur. "It's very surreal when you're actually there," he recalls. "The whole season for the Academy Awards is very exhausting.

"There are lots of events and press, so by the time you get to the actual awards, everybody is pretty tired. One of the things I thought I would really look forward to were the parties afterwards. But by the time it was over, I just really wanted to go to sleep. I went to one party and then I went home."

If that's not exactly the behaviour of a Hollywood animal, Shannon, 36, is not your typical actor. With his wild stare, hulking 6ft 3in frame and an almost alien-like aura, he's more shy and retiring than he is bold and outgoing. Not one for red-carpet cartwheels or being the centre of attention, it's why his Oscar nod was "a little strange" in his eyes. "It's not what I'm used to. I didn't really get into it to try and become a star. If anything, I like being anonymous or not recognisable, because I really have a strong theatre background. That's actually what I do mostly."

Still, while it might disturb him, Shannon is in demand more than ever. Over the next month, he can be seen in three new films in the UK – most notably as the lead in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, a thriller directed by Werner Herzog and produced by David Lynch.

Set in San Diego, and loosely inspired by true events, the film stars Shannon as Brad McCullum, a theatre actor in mid rehearsals for a local production of the Greek tragedy Elektra. And what does he do? Kill his mother and take two others hostage, a situation left for Willem Dafoe's homicide detective to ponder.

Described by Herzog as "a horror film without the blood, chainsaws and gore", if you thought his recent Bad Lieutenant remake (in which Shannon took a cameo) was crazy, this study of matricide is just as bizarre. "What's interesting is that I don't even think Brad dislikes his mother necessarily," argues Shannon. "I don't think he does what he does because he's mad at her or he's getting revenge. I really think it's more about playing the part in the play, and getting confused about who he is, and what is meaningful for him to do."

Does he see much of himself in Brad? "Well, it's hard to say," he ventures, cautiously. "I have a very complicated relationship with my mother, for sure. There's been animosity, tension. It would never go to that extreme, because I don't believe that murder is a good way to solve problems! And also, Grace [Zabriskie, who plays Brad's mother] is so different from my own mother, and Brad is so different from me."

Shannon's own mother, Geraldine Hine, is a lawyer, while his father Donald, the son of entomologist Raymond Corbett Shannon, was an accounting professor. While he refuses to elaborate on the source of their animosity, one can reasonably assume it had something to do with Shannon shuttling between his Kentucky birthplace and Chicago to spend time with both parents, who divorced when he was young.

He was still a teenager when he got his first film role, a bit part in the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day, but Shannon was primarily interested in theatre. He helped found A Red Orchid Theatre where he still regularly performs, and later graduated to the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He took a series of unremarkable bit parts on film in the late-Nineties, only to see his fortunes turn in 2000, when he worked with John Waters (Cecil B. DeMented) and Joel Schumacher (Tigerland).

A year later, he upped the ante, throwing himself "into the Hollywood arena" in such blockbusters as Pearl Harbor and the Tom Cruise-vehicle Vanilla Sky, but he wasn't happy. "I worked a lot and I kept busy, but I didn't find a lot of the work I was doing was as satisfying as what I'd been doing in the theatre." Given this included a role in Kangaroo Jack, as the villain opposite a CGI marsupial, it's hardly surprising.

Ironically, it was theatre that truly put Shannon on the film map. Adapted from the play by a fellow Steppenwolf member Tracy Letts, William Friedkin's 2006 drama Bug cast the actor in a role he'd first honed on stage five years earlier. He didn't disappoint, playing a demented war veteran with blistering skill. As his co-star Ashley Judd put it, "I felt like that must have been what it was like to work with Al Pacino on Dog Day Afternoon. There were times when the crew literally erupted into astonished applause. He was remarkable in the role." The same year, Oliver Stone cast him as the heroic marine Dave Karnes in World Trade Center, stalking through the rubble of the Twin Towers like a heat-seeking missile.

With almost 20 years of work behind him, Shannon feels a little aggrieved that many thought him a newcomer to the scene when Sam Mendes cast him as the Holy Fool-like neighbour in his 1950s marital drama Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.

"It has [been] a very gradual thing," he says. "It wasn't like a light switch or something clicking on. I've been getting, steadily over the years, more and more attention or possibilities. And that film was another point on the trajectory."

Which brings us to the present, with Shannon now at a crossroads. Does he pursue more leads or does he remain a supporting player, as he is in new western Jonah Hex? A broad adaptation of the DC Comics series about a scar-faced gunslinger, the film has "the tone of Sin City" according to Shannon, who plays the owner of a travelling show in what he estimates is little more than a cameo.

Yet, in truth, it's often in these smaller roles where Shannon flourishes. Of his three new films, he's arguably the most memorable in The Runaways, which details the 1970s all-girl rock band fronted by Joan Jett (Twilight's Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). He plays the band's foul-mouthed manager Kim Fowley, a "psycho Svengali", as he once called himself, whose brash persona is only matched by his dayglo orange suits. Daunted by his task, Shannon did as much as he could to prepare, from regularly re-watching an interview with Fowley on the US-based Tomorrow Show to spending time with the man himself in a San Fernando Valley diner.

So what was he like? "He's not a very vulnerable person, let's put it that way. You always kind of feel like you're being presented with Kim Fowley as opposed to necessarily getting to know him very well."

Shannon, who has a young daughter, Sylvie, with his actress-partner Kate Arrington, admits he spent most of time on-set working rather than relaxing with the crew. "I guess that makes me kind of boring, but, y'know, you get paid a lot of money to show up and do this stuff, so I figured it should be pretty much all work and no play. I wish maybe I was a little like George Clooney and just cracking jokes and having fun, but I don't know. For me, I was very intimidated by the prospect of playing Kim Fowley and I felt like it deserved my full attention, so I gave it."

Currently filming the role of a dirty cop chasing Joseph Gordon-Levitt's bike messenger in Premium Rush, Shannon has a host of things coming up. He's already finished his work as the referee in the US remake of the European black-and-white thriller 13, in which the likes of Mickey Rourke and Jason Statham all join forces for a deadly game of Russian roulette.

He has a role in Marc Forster's new film Machine Gun Preacher, in which Gerard Butler plays a drug-dealer who finds God. And perhaps most intriguingly, he has a part in the new HBO drama Boardwalk Empire, a 1920s series "set at the beginning of Prohibition", playing Special Agent Van Alden, a Treasury official with the thankless task of keeping all the "nefarious elements" of Atlantic City in check.

With such legendary gangsters as Al Capone and Lucky Luciano making an appearance, what makes the show special is that the pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese, firmly on territory he understands. "The most fascinating thing is getting to meet the man himself, and talk to him and hear stories about other things he's worked on," says Shannon, a little starry-eyed.

Nevertheless, with all this, Shannon is beginning to spoil that moniker of "Best actor you've never heard of". He finds it all a little bewildering. "I don't know where it's going to end," he shrugs. "Really, at the end of the day, the path I'm on is not world domination. I'm much more into telling stories."

'Jonah Hex' opens on 3 September. 'The Runaways' and 'My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done' are released on 10 September