“I don’t usually play characters that have best friends” says Michael Shannon, in what may be the understatement of the year. Since breaking out as the disturbed but prophetic fellow in Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (he would have likely won an Oscar for his performance had it not been for some guy named Heath), the Chicago native has built a career on inhabiting the psyches of lonely men on the brink of madness. Whether it’s as Herzog’s unhinged muse in the surreal horror My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? or as the fundamentalist head case Agent Van Alden on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Shannon makes losing his mind look easy.
So it was with great relief when we encountered a subdued Shannon at a recent TIFF Press day. In town to promote Take Shelter and Machine Gun Preacher, the actor greeted us with a “wait, what film are you here for?” We were in fact, there to discuss the latter, the true story of Sam Childers, a drug addict-turned-preacher-turned-mercenary who took it upon himself to save the children of Sudan with a lethal combination of bullets and balls. In it, Shannon plays Donnie, a former junkie and BFF to Gerard Butler’s Sam, in as gentle a performance as we’re likely to see from the theatre vet, especially with Season 2 of Boardwalk just around the corner, and of course, Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot Man of Steel due next summer, in which Shannon plays the dastardly General Zod. But before he tries to destroy the world, Shannon spoke to us about his non-history with drugs, playing a super-villain from outer space, and what’s in store for the craziest cop west of the Hudson.
Do you mind this part of the business—the constant interviews? Depending on where you are. I find this is pretty mellow. I just had a press day in New York and it felt like everybody was in my face or something. This is pretty mellow so far.
Toronto is kind of like New York lite. Yeah, the Canadian vibe.
Were you familiar with the conflict in Sudan before you read the script for Machine Gun Preacher? The specific details I was not familiar with. It seems like there’s been trouble in Africa for such a long time. The last time I really found out about something specifically there was when I went to see Hotel Rwanda, which was another amazing story. But since then, I haven’t really been keeping an eye on it. Like I said earlier, it’s tough when you have so much going on in your day-to-day life to track what’s going on in the rest of the world. And it’s kind of like an American malady. It seems like sometimes you have a tendency to think the world ends at the coast.
How did you channel playing a junkie? Was there a personal history with drugs you tapped into? You did the whole stoner thing pretty well. Well, thank you. I don’t have any judgments about it. I don’t think it’s like an evil thing to do, or whatever. I’ve always been incredibly intimidated by drugs, to be honest. I have enough problems maintaining control of myself as it is. I don’t really need to throw that wrench into the works. You just kind of use your imagination. People give you pointers and they try and describe it to you, and the rest of it you just take with your imagination and run with it. I think there’s certain things that are kind of a given and we all assume anyway that cocaine does this and heroin does, that and there’s no shortage of drug movies, that’s for sure. I’ve seen a ton of those, so I also have that to go on.
What about the idea of being saved by religion? Is that something you think is legit, or just a bunch of bullshit? I don’t think it’s bullshit, necessarily. But I do think, for myself, that at the end of the day people are responsible for themselves, whether you believe in a higher power or not. There are a lot of people that believe in a higher power that don’t take care of themselves or don’t live the right way. It’s not enough simply to believe in that higher power, you have to live in the graces of the example that the higher power is giving you.
It felt like even though he had embraced God, Donnie was teetering on the edge the entire film. Yeah, I think it’s meant to be kind of sketchy. I think Donnie is holding on for dear life, and I think he really needs Sam in order to stay clean and to be a good man, and that’s what ultimately is kind of tragic about it, because I really do think Sam loves Donnie but he can’t put everything he’s doing on hold, just to hold Donnie’s hand through the whole thing. I think people find that in life all the time. I’ve had buddies I’ve been worried about and relationships that go back a long way, but you can’t drop the whole rest of your life just to make sure that person is keeping it together or rush to their aid anytime they need help.
Did you get a chance to speak to Sam about Donnie and what kind of man he was? Well, the impression that I got from Sam is that the character that’s ultimately in the screenplay is kind of an amalgamation of different friends that he had over the years. He did, in fact, have a friend named Donnie and he does have friends that have passed away due to their lifestyle. But he never said, “You’re playing this one specific guy.” It was more like, “These are the guys I hung out with, this is what kind of world it was.”
It’s almost like there were two movies being shot at once. How did you stay connected to what was being shot in Africa? I imagine you were not on set. I didn’t go to Africa. They literally shot the American side of the story first, and then actually I think they took a little bit of time off before they went to Africa. So all those times that I call him in Africa, we shot that before they ever left. My time on the film was fairly brief. By the time they were in Africa, I was working on another film. So I haven’t seen the film yet.
How important is the script to you when you’re choosing a project? Is that what strikes you first and foremost, if the piece is written well or not? Yeah, writing is crucial, and if I believe something is well written, there’s nothing I won’t do to serve the vision. I think of acting as kind of a service, really, to the writer and director’s vision. But in order to really put your heart in it, you have to feel it’s to a good end. But it seemed very authentic to me. I think Jason, the screenwriter, put a lot of time in. He spent a lot of time on the script and it just rang true when I read it. But it’s incredibly awkward being in front of a camera saying something that you just think is silly, because there’s nowhere to hide and I think your true feelings, they come through.
For something like Man of Steel, if that script was mediocre, would you have still done it just because it’s Superman? I would still want the script to be ready to go. One of the main things on that is that Chris Nolan and David Goyer were in there writing the script, and those guys know what they’re doing. It can’t just be because it’s Superman. There’s no promises anybody’s going to automatically love the movie just because it’s Superman. There still has to be quality in all aspects of it. And yeah, I felt very confident making the decision to be involved because of the script, and because of Zach’s work as well.
How do you go from playing someone like Donnie who’s so grounded in reality to someone like General Zod who’s obviously a complete fabrication? Is it the same kind of approach as an actor? Yeah, because it ultimately comes down to the imagination. Even if you’re playing a real person or someone from a walk of life you may be able to identify with, there’s always an aspect that’s left up to the imagination. Like I was saying earlier with a lot of things that Donnie’s done that I’ve never done. I’ve never robbed a crack house, I’ve never even picked up a hitchhiker, and I’ve also never had a conversion experience, or shot up heroin. But even though those things are grounded in Earth reality, it doesn’t mean that I necessarily have all the information without using my imagination.
You performed a one man show in New York last winter. Is it nostalgic going back to the theatre? Is it where you feel most comfortable? I don’t know if it’s a matter of comfort. The way I break it down is, movies is a director’s medium, television is kind of the writer/producer/creator medium, and actors can really test their mettle in the theatre, because it’s like the decathlon for actors. The film can be a decathlon too, but one day you do the javelin, and the next day you do the shot-put. But in the theatre experience, you’re doing that decathlon every night, and it just gets you in shape and just gets your blood pumping. I don’t think this will come as a shock, but I think some of the best dramatic writing is for the theatre. Writers writing for theatre are able to write more basically. A lot of films try to have as little dialogue as possible, because it’s a photographic medium.
What are some of the major differences you find between the New York theatre scene and the Chicago theatre scene? Well, New York’s just tough. It’s really high stakes, you know. Even an off-Broadway production can be incredibly costly and really can screw up some people’s lives if it doesn’t go well. What I come from in Chicago is an ethic of just doing it, because you love it, and if there’s only five people in the audience, it’s not the end of the world and you still do it and you still enjoy doing it.
Reviews don’t really matter? I mean obviously, you do want to have success no matter where you are, and if it wasn’t for some of the success of the work I did in Chicago, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. But I also did a lot of plays that weren’t successful, but I just found fascinating and enjoyed spending time working on, and to me, those experiences are just as valuable as doing a big Hollywood movie.
Finally, what’s Boardwalk been like for you? It’s obviously one of the most well-received shows on television, and I think your character is one of the most fascinating on the show. I didn’t see his fate coming, and I don’t think most people did. Yeah, Season 1 was quite a trip. I was excited when I took the meeting with Terence Winter and Mr. Scorsese because they said, “Oh you’re going to play the law man,” and I would have guessed they wanted me to play a gangster, thug, something like that. But they’re like, “No, you’re going to play the good guy, the guy that really believes in what he’s doing, very righteous,” and that’s what I love about it. If I just went in and arrested a bad guy every week, I’d probably be bored out of my mind by episode six. So it was a shock sometimes just how quickly he fell apart. But it all made sense, and it’s always a surprise which is a great thing about it. I don’t know what happens until I’m shooting the episode.
Are we going to see Van Alden plunge further into darkness in Season 2? It’s complicated. He realizes he’s gotten himself into a pickle, and underneath it all, inherently, I think he’s a very strong man even though he’s succumbed to a lot of weaknesses and made a lot of mistakes. So I think Season 2 for him is really about whether or not he can find redemption and getting back to the values he once held so dear.