Michael Shannon - Superman's new nemesis slips into the costume

Michael Shannon is evil General Zod in the new Man of Steel. James Mottram meets the actor who wowed critics in Take Shelter

Spare a thought for Michael Shannon. If there was one major oversight during this year's awards season, it was his shut-out for Take Shelter. While Shame star Michael Fassbender might feel aggrieved at missing out on an Oscar nomination, Shannon got overlooked at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the Baftas. There was just a solitary nod at the Independent Spirit Awards – though several of the more discerning US critics organisations saw fit to award him Best Actor. Trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, claimed there was "possibly no more mesmerising American actor" working today.

Not that Shannon is griping when we meet. The past year has been insane for him, work-wise. A series regular on the epic Martin Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire – he plays the increasingly conflicted FBI agent, Nelson Van Alden – he also popped up in Machine Gun Preacher, as Gerard Butler's junkie pal. On the way is thriller Premium Rush, in which Shannon terrorises Joseph Gordon-Levitt's bike-messenger, but it's the role he that has just wrapped that will send him stratospheric: as Superman's nemesis, General Zod, in the forthcoming reboot Man of Steel.

So does he feel like it's his time? "Ah, gee," he says, almost bashfully. "I don't see what more could be happening. Put it that way. Unless I receive a medal from the President! But you're always reluctant to get too proud of your accomplishments in this business. It can all go south in the blink of an eye."

Admittedly, that doesn't seem likely with the 37 year-old Shannon, who has more than paid his dues since he made his feature film debut as a groom in 1993's Groundhog Day (none more so than playing punch-bag to an excitable marsupial in Kangaroo Jack).

In some ways, his position is nigh-on perfect. And as much as he'll hate to hear it, he's a natural-born scene-stealer too – none more so than in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road, in which he played the sage-like neighbour to Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio's warring couple.

While that won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, Shannon was swiftly forgotten in the rush to anoint Heath Ledger with a posthumous award for playing The Joker in The Dark Knight. Rather like after his Take Shelter omission this year, Shannon wasn't bothered. "For me, you're either working or you're not."

He is not above admitting he suffers from anxieties, if not quite as violently as Curtis, his character in Take Shelter, who begins to unravel psychologically as he becomes plagued by visions of the apocalypse. Much of this anxiety, he admits, comes from the economic hardships many are facing. It's one of the key themes in Take Shelter, which sees Curtis's meltdown chime with the global recession.

"It's hard to feel settled nowadays," he says. "My mama has a mortgage like that, one of those crazy mortgages that have been bringing everybody down." In the past, Shannon has told me he has "a very complicated relationship" with his mother, a lawyer named Geraldine Hine. "There's been animosity, tension". She and Shannon's father, Donald, an accounting professor, split when he was young. Perhaps it's no coincidence, then, that he seems destined to play out familial discord on screen.

In his new film, Return, in a story that's almost the reverse of Take Shelter, he plays Mike, husband to Linda Cardellini's US army reservist Kelli, who is failing to readjust to her life in a drab Midwestern town after serving a tour of duty in the Middle East.

"It's an interesting opportunity to get to play both sides of it," says Shannon. "Obviously, what Linda's character is going through is a little different to what Curtis is going through, but they're both coming undone in a way. Then there's Mike and [Curtis's wife] Samantha trying to pick up the pieces." Return differs from the usual "coming home" sagas, in that it's far less hysterical or melodramatic. "I think Return is a highly personal story," he adds. "It manages to tell Kelli's story without indicting the military. I can't imagine that people wouldn't be moved by it."

There's something very loyal about Shannon. He stuck with Return for years while director Liza Johnson got the financing together. And he has just returned for a third outing with Jeff Nichols, who directed him in 2007's Shotgun Stories before they did Take Shelter. Their new film is Mud, a tale of two boys who encounter a fugitive (played by Matthew McConaughey).

"I was only able to do a small cameo, because I'm shooting Man of Steel right now," he says, talking about the Superman movie as if it's a small independent that nobody has ever heard of. Directed by Watchmen's Zack Snyder, with a story devised by Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel is unquestionably the biggest film of Shannon's career, meaning "a whole new set of anxieties", as he puts it. For starters, he's got to measure up to a titanic Terence Stamp, who played the villain in Superman II. "I find that pretty intimidating, honestly. I think he pretty much nailed it. My girlfriend [actress Kate Arrington], had it on. She was watching it out of curiosity. And I saw it and said: 'You've got to turn it off. I can't watch that. I'm not worthy!'"

Shannon knows he must deal with the difficulty of playing such a fan favourite – not easy when, apparently, you're not much of a comic-book aficionado. I ask if he's got a big stack of them by his bedside right now, and he practically blanches. "Oh, no, Jesus!" he yelps. "I can't read comic books. They don't make any sense to me. I find they're very hard to follow. I'm never sure which panel to look at, and then I just get confused."

Then there is the "silly suit" (a motion-capture costume, so his character's clothes can be added digitally). "It's kind of embarrassing," he says. "It's nothing I would wear under normal circumstances!" Despite all this reticence, you can tell he's secretly delighted to be given this chance. "Well, it had to happen eventually, right?" he laughs. "Either that or fade into obscurity! It's good to do something like this. It's good to take on that kind of responsibility, be a grown up, be able to feel that pressure and be OK with it. And, let's face it, it's not neuroscience!" Maybe he's not so angst-ridden after all.

'Take Shelter' is on DVD and Blu-ray from 19 March. 'Return' opens on 6 April

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