After years earning accolades for playing brow-bulging psychos and homicidal maniacs, Michael Shannon finally gets credit for what he really is: a great American actor
Author Chris Norris Photography Kurt Iswarienko
In the streetside window of a small Brooklyn restaurant, Michael Shannon appears some paces up the block: buffalo head bowed, auburn hair tousled, eyes squinting in December afternoon sun. A rangy six-foot-three, he wears a weathered leather jacket and a pair of no-nonsense navy Levi’s, his slight limp like the much imitated gait of 1950s rockabilly star Gene Vincent. “As long as I’ve known him, he’s walked like that,” says director Jeff Nichols, whose collaborations with Shannon run from 2007’s Shotgun Stories to this month’s Midnight Special. “He walks like that as the character in Shotgun Stories,” adds Nichols. “But he doesn’t walk like that as other characters. Mike’s a very good friend of mine, and I’ve no idea what’s going on.”
Whether it’s an old injury or the burdens of excess cool, the hitch in the stride does suit Shannon’s general affect: a certain dry and congenial discomfort. He takes a seat, grimace-smiles, and extends a handshake and an apology. “Sorry I had to reschedule,” he says, in a raspy voice New York magazine nailed as “a coffee grinder packed with gravel and paving tar.” “I got back from Chicago yesterday. And my daughter informed me she’d signed me up to chaperone a field trip.”
So: Monday night he’s in Chicago, having just finished a run of Pilgrim’s Progress at A Red Orchid Theatre, which he co-founded in 1993; Wednesday morning he’s on a school bus full of second graders bound for a Staten Island museum. “It wasn’t bad,” Shannon says of the latter. “It was a very well-behaved class.”
Yes, well, given a chaperone best known for playing homicidal maniacs, what kid wouldn’t be well-behaved?
Shannon gives this a courtesy chuckle, but the joke’s clearly past its sell-by date. It’s been seven years since the lantern-jawed actor was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as a mentally ill outpatient opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, and six years since he really broke through with the role of Agent Nelson Van Alden, a repressed-puritan powder keg of a g-man, in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
“I think what changed everything was being on TV,” Shannon says of the Prohibition-era role. “Movies kind of flicker in and out of people’s minds, but once you’re on a TV show, people follow it.”
Van Alden treated those followers to a picaresque descent whose greatest hits include the drowning murder of his partner at a local congregation’s baptism, from which Shannon wades out of the river, arms spread in a Christ pose, a badge in one hand and a gun in the other.
But in the time since Boardwalk Empire’s bloody 2014 finale, Shannon’s stature as an actor has only grown more ominous. Last year, he nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for his ruthless real-estate profiteer in the unflinching housing-crisis drama 99 Homes, and this month he reprises his vein-popping villain General Zod in the blockbuster Batman v Superman while also infusing deeply-felt humanity into the sci-fi thriller Midnight Special. Next month, Shannon takes on one of the most complex relationships in American history, when he portrays a late-era Elvis Presley opposite Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon in Elvis & Nixon. This, plus the historic figures, local oddballs, and workaday dudes he plays in a dozen-odd films already wrapped for 2016.
If a few of this year’s movies don’t have Shannon in their cast, it isn’t for lack of industry interest. “I can’t imagine anyone who’s doing what Michael Shannon’s doing,” 99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani told Indiewire recently. “It’s just a next-level kind of performance.” The most respected Hollywood actor most Americans don’t know by name may be on the verge of cementing a suitably outsize legacy on the big screen.
After ordering a glass of Nebbiolo, Shannon sits back, rubs his chin, turns his head to the window, glances slit-eyed down the block, and, all at once, looks epic: a John Ford cowboy scanning the horizon for a smoke trail. He’s a great American actor, but a misfit for belonging to a previous film era. “To me, he’s like Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda,” says Nichols.
“Stewart, Fonda, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart—yeah, Mike’s definitely up there.” Smoldering in a series of black-and-white photos of Prada’s fall/winter 2015 campaign, Shannon seems to have stepped from that same leading-man Mount Rushmore. Though in life, he did anything but.
Born in Kentucky, Shannon spent an unhappy adolescence migrating between his social-worker mom in Lexington and his accounting professor dad in Winnetka, Illinois, their early divorce baking into him a general South Heartland flintiness. At 17, he dropped out of high school to do theater full time in Chicago and quickly began astounding fellow actors and stage audiences, while taking fleeting roles in films like Groundhog Day, Jesus’ Son, Vanilla Sky, and 8 Mile.
Today, he remains a uniquely multi-platformed cultural presence. Online, his ophthalmic brood has been a years-running Internet meme. On TV and movie screens, amid a buffed, toned, homogenized version of humanity, he gives off sparks just entering the frame. Onstage, he’s just a beast: devouring a 45-minute Ionesco monologue for breakfast and giving a run of Olympian performances in 2010’s one-man comedy Mistakes Were Made, in which his downtrodden Broadway producer’s new project unravels over 95 breathtaking minutes, with Shannon switching between handheld and headset devices to cajole, threaten, and paint rococo hokum to agents and actors on nine different lines.
“One night, I was talking to somebody on one phone,” Shannon recalls. “And I heard a titter in the audience, at a place where people don’t normally laugh.” As it continued and spread, Shannon realized he wasn’t wearing a headset or holding a telephone. “I was literally talking to thin air,” he says, and so, in that moment, was just crazy. “Yeah,” he sighs. “That was a rough night.”
The phone is still no friend to Shannon, whose hatred for iPhones and their digital cousins is so well-documented, few profiles fail to mention the Neolithic flip-phone that he sets down upon the table when I ask him what’s in his pockets. Beside it he drops a parachute silk–hewn wallet, a U.S. passport, and a janitor-size set of keys. But today, he’s not quite the anti-Apple holdout advertised.
“You’re really gonna bust me,” he says, reaching into his slim-fitting leather jacket and, from some clown-car of an inner pocket, retrieving a 12-inch iPad Pro already glowing.
“But see, this is what I use it for,” he says, holding up the shiny touchscreen: It’s filled with the wide margins and typewriter font of page 7 in a screenplay, one of a hundred-odd scripts that are filling the virtual bookshelves in his iBooks app, one hint of how sought-after his services are, if not how much he’s able to deliver.
Consider Elvis & Nixon, based on a real-life White House meeting between the King and President. Shannon is the sole human who could just as convincingly play either one. For one thing, there’s that face, which belongs on a Victorian war-room mantle. It’s made for big characters, with some dark historical epoch engraved in its features. Then there are the watchworks running inside that size-eight gourd of his.
Shannon, who moonlights as the guitarist-singer in indie-rock band Corporal, immersed himself in the music, places, and people of Elvis’s life, spending days with one of the icon’s closest friends, author Jerry Schilling, and mastering Presley’s mannerisms and psychology by studying press conferences from the era. “There’s one he gave at the Houston Astrodome that’s closest to the time the event takes place. I watched that one probably 500 times,” he says, clearly with no exaggeration.
The intensity Shannon brings to his roles surpasses the standard actor’s skillset. “His intelligence is simply operating on another level,” says Nichols. “Storing information comes so easily that he’s truly free to be in the moment.” This makes him any filmmaker’s secret weapon: “There are very few actors who you can just sit on,” Nichols adds. “You write a scene with no dialogue that’s supposed to emote something, and you know Mike will imbue it with meaning on his face.”
Last year, Shannon gave his most significant performance yet, in 99 Homes, and delivered one of film’s great American capitalist monologues, sketching a stark big picture for his reluctant protégé (Andrew Garfield): “America doesn’t bail out the losers,” he spits. “America was built by bailing out winners.” And unlike in Wall Street or Glengarry Glenn Ross, these tough words come from someone who sounds and looks like he has been both.
In recent Q&As and interviews, he’s been compelled to defend his less savory characters from critics who either forget that they are characters or that no one sees himself as villain. Even in a literally two-dimensional role, comic-book villain General Zod, Shannon pours such pathos into his rage that it wasn’t always clear which exiled Kryptonian in Man of Steel was the good guy—and even less so in this month’s sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
With Midnight Special—the third Nichols-Shannon indie epic dealing with fathers in extremis—Shannon brings just as profound an emotional center to a critical situation that veers into the fantastic. In the film (co-starring Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton), a son’s supernatural abilities trigger a nationwide manhunt by sinister agencies, which the father (played by Shannon) evades in a race toward some mysterious destination, where he’ll face an even greater challenge. “Midnight Special is about the notion that even though you have a child, that child is other than you,” Shannon says. “And as much as you love it, you can’t keep it forever. So what is the line between … catch and release?” In the film’s emotional climax, Shannon wordlessly registers the anguish of a father facing that line.
Shannon first played a dad onstage in the play Lady, and he reprised the role after his first child was born. “Looking back at the first time, I could see I didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how good of an actor you are or how vivid your imagination. There’s something you don’t understand about life until you have a kid.”
“Everybody always jokes about how big Mike is and how intimidating he is, and I just don’t see him that way at all,” says Nichols. “I see him as real delicate actually. I see him as this exposed nerve that’s walking around in the world, where things affect him more than others. It’s almost like the light’s too bright sometimes.”
Asked what qualities he seeks in a role, Shannon visibly grapples with the question. “I like telling stories,” he begins, eyes averted. “Where there may be … some bridge between … what I’m doing and what people are experiencing in their own life.” He takes a breath.
“I mean, I want to make an impact, you know?” he says. “Not the kind of impact where people are impressed by me, but the kind of impact where people are affected by the entirety of what they’re seeing.”
No one lucky enough to catch Shannon in this spring’s hotly anticipated Broadway production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night—alongside Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and John Gallagher Jr.—will leave unaffected. He’ll play the alcoholic older brother in a family tragedy so real that Eugene O’Neill prevented its publication until years after his death. Oddly, it’s a role that Shannon was drawn to by his own family. “My dad would always tell me about going to see Jason Robards do Eugene O’Neill on Broadway,” he says. “Which was just a way of him trying to relate to what I was doing,” since no other Shannon had ever acted. “So I thought, ‘It would really blow my dad’s mind if he could see this.’”
Shannon, though, says his finest performances take place in a waterfront Brooklyn kitchen for an audience of two: his daughters Sylvie, 7, and Marion, 2, with his partner, the stage actress Kate Arrington. “I’m as proud of being able to make them dinner as I am of any acting I’ve ever done,” Shannon claims.
Which is really just a bit much. An Oscar nomination. One of the 20th-century’s finest plays. One of the most socially significant films of the decade. All this, plus everything else Shannon’s got coming down the pipeline, simply pales beside his efforts in the kitchen?
“Yeah,” he says, stirring a forkful of pasta puttanesca. “I mean, it’s hard to make dinner.” He takes a bite, chews. “And I’m not very good at it.”
Does he have any go-to dishes?
“Nah, it’s all just out of desperation. A meat. And a vegetable.” The rest he goes at unrehearsed.
“I keep it basic,” Shannon says, either gravely or in deadpan—it’s impossible to tell. He takes a sip of wine, glances out the window, and gives one last sage nod. “I keep it very, very basic.”