'Boardwalk Empire' Star Michael Shannon Talks Character Development And Being Hated


Critics have at times grown weary of the tight-mouthed restraint that pervades the Prohibition-era drama "Boardwalk Empire." The creakily paced scenes set to rag-time ditties, the penchant for lingering on the uber-disturbing (a half-faced Richard Harrow) -- it all seems to scream "evocative!"

But there's little that feels contrived about Nelson Van Alden, the self-flagellating prohibition officer played by Michael Shannon. Nelson’s crusade at policing the corrupt City by the Sea has become -- after a few whiskey shots and murder-by-a-baptism -- tangled in a very sordid web. Nelson’s double life is exposed in the most recent episode, "The Age of Reason," when his devoted, Mary Todd-type wife discovers not only his big-lipped mistress (played by Paz de la Huerta) but her husband’s newborn child.

Here Shannon talks to HuffPost about his troubling character development, those dogged “Sopranos" comparisons and what it’s like having fans say "I hate you."

Are you worried about being typecast as being creepy or crazy?

I don't think Van Alden's crazy, I just think he's complicated ... I don't really look at it as crazy or evil, I find those terms reductive ultimately. His experiences [are] extreme or exaggerated examples of events that most people deal with at some point or another -- being caught in a situation, feeling guilty about something he'd done, I don't think it's that far-fetched.

Do you have any desire to play a lighter character?

I mean, I like comedy. I actually think Van Alden is very funny on occasion. I thought in the first episode [he] was actually very charming. I like to play characters that get to do it all -- to have a bit of comedy here and a bit of pathos here and a bit of suspense here, that's what's fun.

Has Van Alden ever shocked you? Obviously the death-by-baptism scene was pretty stunning to watch, was it upsetting at all to play?

I was actually more shocked by the episode before that. The thing I've found most shocking, working on the character over the last two seasons, [is] when Van Alden drinks ... once he did that, all bets were off, kind of. So, what came after that with Lucy, with Sebso, the river, it seems to all spin off from that initial bad decision.

Were you a fan of 'The Sopranos'?

Oh, jeez, you know, I can't say that I was. Honestly, I don't really watch television. I saw an episode on a plane once that I really liked but where I live in Red Hook we don't even get reception, we don't even get network television.

You live in Red Hook?

Yes. Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Do you have a car?

No. I just take the train and walk. I get off the F train on Carroll Street and walk.

Oh, yeah. I live in Boerum Hill...

Oh, OK. That's where our pediatrician is.

You do a lot of shooting in Brooklyn, right?

The boardwalk is in Brooklyn, it's in Greenpoint. A lot of it's in Brooklyn but we also go to Manhattan, Queens. Sometimes if we have a scene on the ocean, we'll go out to Rockaway. Sometimes we go up to Yonkers. We go all over.

The reason I brought up 'The Sopranos,' is that it's a similar type of sprawling drama -- and with Terence Winter as the writer you get a lot of comparisons. Does it bother you at all?

I guess it's inevitable, ['Boardwalk' has] a lot of the same directors that 'The Sopranos' had, but you know, comparison is kind of a modern day problem for anybody talking about anything cultural ... instead of really trying to break it down and put it in your own words, a lot of times people just compare things to other things.

*SPOILER ALERT* Do you think at the end of this most recent episode, when your character saw his wife after his mistress gave birth, that was his wake-up call?

He's gonna have to do something. He had a plan and his plan has been spoiled and now he has a child with this woman and he has to figure out what to do about it. He's still dealing with consequences of his actions, certainly. He almost got away with it, poor fella -- Rose caught on, just in the nick of time. It's sad because she really wants a kid and I mean, it's kind of a hare-brained scheme he's got but it's really the only alternative.

Do you think he really believes that this child was for her?

Oh, yeah. That's what he was going to do. He's paying Lucy to have this child and then he was basically going to pretend that the child was an orphan and adopt the child, say, 'Rose, honey, this baby was on a doorstep and what do you think?'

Your scenes, for me, are the hardest to watch. Is playing Van Alden ever off-putting to you?

A lot of people say that they appreciate the work I'm doing but they don't like the character, which I find kind of unusual. I don't inherently think that Van Alden is a terrible person, I mean, certainly not any worse than anybody else on that show. But people say that, that they don't like him -- something about him that they don't like. I just see a guy who's kind of pathetic, ultimately. This season, he's very pathetic. He's really floundering.

Are you offended when people say that they don't like your character?

It's just awkward, really. It's usually more awkward for them than it is for me, I mean, they usually say, 'Oh, I hate you.' And then they apologize. It's like I said, as long as you guys keep watching we're winning. I don't really mind because it's not me, I'm not Van Alden, I'm me and I'm fine. I've got my own life and, for me, it's my job and it's what I love to do.

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