As he ratchets up his star meter, actor Michael Shannon is a man of many intensities and skills. From his starring role as the indomitable G-man Nelson Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire to the obsessive Curtis in the critically-favored Take Shelter (which just world-premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2011), this former Kentuckian has made his adopted home, New York, a high-flying base for commanding work in film, theater, and television.
What a presence with his piercing eyes, overwhelming head, and tall blocky body. In films, Shannon almost immediately made an impression even when bigger names prevailed. Witness his paranoiac performance in Bug, the William Friedkin directed film version of the Tracy Letts' play -- Shannon re-imagined his stage performance with electrifying intensity. After that, he did Revolutionary Road which starred Kate Winslet and Leonardo Dicaprio; his few but powerful scenes earned him a 2008 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Then there's his theater work -- he established his rep as solid stage actor doing shows in London and New York. But he's especially made a mark with his nearly one-man tour-de-farce, Mistakes Were Made.
In this production at the Barrow Street Playhouse, B-list Off-Broadway producer Felix Artifex gets in way too deep when he takes on the French Revolution. As his ticket to professional and personal redemption, Artifex tries to seduce or intimidate his famous writer into massively rewriting the actual event in order to land a big star for the lead. At the same time, he attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife, untangle a mess involving sheep in a war-torn country and feed his seemingly hungry fish.
A hilarious, but moving character study of a man inescapably self-destructing, it concludes this weekend. Shannon's portrayal is a not-to-be-missed performance.
MS: Initially I got involved because it's an interesting opportunity to take on another existence or personality, some other person's story. I guess I found my life a little oppressive so it was nice to go and pretend to be somebody else. I didn't really do it for the attention. This whole thing about people become actors because they want attention or something -- I don't really care about that. I like using my imagination -- it's playful.
Q: With your character Felix, you have a quality of driving him with a level of intensity which heightens the experience of who he is. Even as you get crazier and more manic, you make him larger-than-life without really having to do anything. That's one of your great skills -- to make it seem effortless. Sorry if I pay you a compliment here.
MS: You can pay me a compliment. Just as I said, it's not for me to determine that really. It's not something I'm conscious of. I mean I'm not watching what I'm doing. I don't know; I just don't know how to respond to that. I just don't know. My process is very simple and it doesn't have anything to do with intensity.
It just has to do with what's going on and what does the person want and that's it. I can't make things more or less intense. I don't know if I inherently possess some sort of intensity. If I do I don't know why, I don't know where it comes from. I guess I got hit by a meteor or something when I was a child.
Q: You inhabit characters with a plastic quality in your ability to assume characters and give them a life. Do you create a deep back story for them or do you do it sort of very matter-of-factly as if to say you sort of treat all men as an everyman and then you sort of find who they are?
MS: I guess that's kind of the thing about it for me which is why it's always so unusual to me to hear that I'm playing these crazy people or these dark people or these whatevers, because I do approach them as everymen.
The thing that's extreme isn't the person it's just the situations they're in. I always thought that drama was about putting people in extreme situations and seeing how they responded to them. You don't go to see a play or a movie about somebody eating a sandwich. I mean why would you want to do that?
You want to see people struggle and deal with things because we all have to deal with stuff in our lives, and half of us, maybe less than half of us have any idea how to do it. I certainly don't know how to deal with most of the things that happen to me, but you try, you struggle, and try to figure things out. That's why the stuff exists in the first place right? That's why we watch plays and movies; some sort of examination of what the hell's going on here.
Q: What gives you the insight into struggle?
MS: I don't know if I have the insight. I mean honestly, the insight often times comes from the writing, particularly in something like Jeff Nichol's work. The main reason I've worked with Jeff twice is because I think he's a genius. I think he's going to be a major, major voice in American cinema. His writing has very few peers as far as I'm concerned.
Or something like Mistakes Were Made -- I find the inspiration and insight in the writing, not so much from my own experience.
Q: You're far too humble. Though there's no question that the writing is incredible in Mistakes Were Made, you animate it with twists and turns somehow. There is something about the way that is totally an instinctual thing that another actor would do very differently. And there is something about you that makes it work.
MS: I'm not saying that anybody could do what I do or would do it the same way, but I am saying that what you see me doing is inspired by the writing. It's my response; it's my relationship to what's written. If there's not any writing then there's nothing for me to do. I would sit there and stare at you.
Q: In a way you're a part of a certain microcosm that is Boardwalk Empire. You are the counterweight to Steve Buscemi, Michael Pitt and all the gangsters, and that's a huge role to have shoulder. What makes it work is the quality of the community of actors that playing the part ... Again it gets back to the quality of the writing too.
MS: There are a whole slew of reasons for wanting to do that show. There's no reason to not want to do that show really. It's a great cast, great writing, great design and photography. Yeah, it's just a big ol' mountain of greatness.
Q: And a great thing about playing your character is you are, in a way if they're all the amoral, bad guys, the man who's upholding the law.
MS: Trying to, yeah.
Q: it seems like it's a losing battle in a way, but you're still going to push the water apart, and that's something you do so well. Even when it seems like it's an incredibly tough chore, you're continue to fight the loyal fight. Again getting back to my theme about your ability to take on characters like this and inform or inhabit them.
MS: Terrence Winter probably had that in mind when he asked me to do the part. I mean the guy's very outnumbered and he's kind of this lone figure, except for my partner and my boss. He's a very lonely man and he's very in his own world and he's trying to go up against all this evil. I guess that suits me.
Q: Interesting to be there living the character out are you also getting a chance to find out what's next. It must be fun to be in an ongoing thing rather than a film or a play of two hours, even though there's an intensity to the play every night there's this possibility of "gee, what are they going to do next?"
MS: Yeah, it is always a surprise, that's for sure. Every three weeks I get a new surprise.
Q: You play characters who often show inexplicable behavior -- how do you manage that? In Take Shelter your character Curtis erupts with dark feelings and passions and you're always so good at expressing that.
MS: I don't really understand the whole inexplicable behavior thing. It's not really inexplicable. The movie is not a movie about inexplicability. His behavior is explained by the fact that he's having these dreams, dreams that he believes may be very dangerous and he starts to worry that the dreams may be some sort of foreshadowing of something that's actually going to happen, so he tries to prepare for the worst.
It's really parallel to how a lot of people feel probably, living in the modern age here. It always seems like there's something dangerous on the horizon, some event that's going to wipe us all out.
Q: This character does display some of the paranoiac qualities that were in Bug's Peter Evans? He has a dream that he needs to build a shelter because there's going to be a storm. Initially, it makes sense but then these sort of obsessive, paranoiac qualities emerge.
MS: The two guys are pretty different. Peter, the character I played in Bug, is a much more mysterious, enigmatic figure. My character in Take Shelter, Curtis, is actually a very grounded, normal person. He has a job, a family and a house and he's not some drifter like Peter was in Bug. He's just a normal guy.
Now he does have some history in his family. His mother developed schizophrenia later in life and Curtis has always been worried that at some point it might happen to him. But he's not really able to tell whether he's developing schizophrenia or whether something's actually happening. But I don't think Curtis and Peter are very similar really.
Q: Yet even in Revolutionary Road, your character has a prescient nature. Though he look like a normal, ordinary guy, he shows an intensity or passion and also a certain prescience or foreboding. Somehow you give a weight that and this character has that same quality about him.
MS: It seems like what you're saying is much more from an observer's point of view. I mean, I can't prescribe that quality to him. I mean I don't know. I didn't approach it that way. I don't show up on the set every morning and say "Alright, let me bring some weight and intensity to everything." I just kind of show up and say, "What scene are we doing?" and then I do the scene.
Q: Are you surprised to see who you've become after all the films and plays you've done?
MS: I don't know. I guess. I've gotten kind of used to it over the years. It doesn't bother me; I don't get too self conscious about it. Usually the directors and the editors and everything, the film is so much more their ballgame. They know what they want and they put it together. If you're working with good people they put it together in a way that there's nothing to be embarrassed about.
Q: I'm glad that they're making another Tracy Letts play, Killer Joe, into a film with William Friedkin directing it. You did that play as well but not doing the movie. What do you like about Tracy Letts' vision because Bug was intense. Are you fascinated to see what he's going to do to this one?
MS: I didn't do the movie of Killer Joe. I did the play but not the movie. So I can't wait to see it too. I haven't really worked with Tracy in a while. Killer Joe and Bug are two amazing pieces of writing that I think will stand the test of time.
People are still doing them all the time in theaters across the country. It's not hard to understand why I think. They're great stories, a lot of drama, a lot of action. He's a good writer.
For more by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com