At 6' 3" the tall, lumbering Michael Shannon doesn't look like a leading man with his rumpled character-actor looks. Sometimes, Shannon's so quiet and reserved in person you wonder how he made the leap to stage acting. Yet when unleashed by a role, his presentation can be so overpowering that it often overwhelms other performances. Such was the case with his characterization of John Givings in Revolutionary Road, which won him a 2009 Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his dark philosophizing on the state of the world in 1950s America.
Aligning with his arch, pained performance in Sam Mendes' film, Shannon is now to be seen in The Missing Person, in which he plays private eye John Rosow, who's hired to tail a man on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. The former NYC cop had been self-medicating the loss of his wife -- who was working in the World Trade Center's North Tower on 9/11-- through drink for years. Rosow gradually discovers that the man was one of the thousands presumed dead after the 9/11 attack. Persuaded by a large reward, Rosow is charged with bringing him back to his wife in New York, a journey that compels him to finally address his own trauma, making the film something more than just a cinematic homage.
Debuting in the States at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, this neo-noir film, co- starring Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, is directed by director Noah Buschel who also directed the intriguing Neal Cassady (a film about the late Jack Kerouac's traveling buddy and inspiration).
The Lexington, Kentucky-born Shannon first came to wide critical attention through his uncanny, twisted performance in 2004, appearing Off-Broadway in Bug at New York's Barrow Street Theater; it later became a film directed by William Friedkin starring Ashley Judd and Shannon. He had established his role initially in Chicago, where he did it at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre and got nominated for a 2002 Joseph Jefferson Award for Actor in a Principal Role in a Play for Bug. Shannon discusses finding himself through his characters in this exclusive interview.
Q: You play a detective, one of those prime roles that every actor looks to do. Had you read a lot before? Had you seen all those movies like John Huston's The Maltese Falcon or Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye?
MS: The movies I've seen hardly any of at all. I consciously didn't want to look at them going into shooting the film because I didn't want to feel like I was imitating somebody else the whole time.
In terms of the books, I've read a lot of Jim Thompson books, I've read a bit of Raymond Chandler, but I took all my clues basically from the script and the director. He was clear about what he wanted and I just went with that.
Q: It was a good opportunity for you, taking that detective character and updating it into a contemporary context. I think that must have been interesting to you as well.
MS: Oh yeah, definitely. It seemed appropriate; it never seemed ham-handed to me.
Q: What did he tell you he wanted, and why did he feel you had those qualities?
MS: I did a reading of the screenplay, which I guess wound up being an audition. I applied my natural sense of things to the reading, and he was pretty happy with that.
Actually, he was much more interested not so much in the detective aspect of it or the classic noir aspect of it, but in the fact that [this] man was severely traumatized by 9/11 -- pretty much incapacitated by it. The film was really about seeing if this person could come back into the realm of the living. That was more the journey that we were exploring, I think.
Q: Where were you when 9/11 happened?
MS: I was in Chicago. I was doing a play called Bug, which later became a film. Apart from it being a devastating experience, it was also an incredibly bizarre experience, because I was playing that character at the time. He was very skeptical of things to begin with, and so to have that kind of event happen in the middle of telling that kind of story was really, really intense.
MS: I think the truth in this film is a deeply personal one. In the other two instances you mentioned, it's much more directed at society or the world at large. But this is very personal. I think at the beginning of the film, John is pretty delusional and not in touch with the truth of what's actually happening around him. The journey of his character in the film is towards a truth. It may not be a truth that involves anyone other than himself, but it's important nonetheless.
Q: Obviously, you have some ability to play traumatized characters. Yes, you have a look, but also an understanding as well. Does coming from Kentucky do that to you?
MS: It's tough to figure. I was telling somebody, inevitably when you watch somebody in a movie, no matter how much craft or acting is happening -- however much or little of that is happening -- you're essentially drawn to who the person is innately, because you can't escape the fact that you are who you are. I think that comes through. That's why people are fans of certain actors.
That's why some people say, "I really love Christopher Walken." I mean, as great an actor as Christopher Walken is, you love him because he's Christopher Walken. When you go to a movie you go to see him, even if he has funny glasses on or a mustache or something. You know that that's him and you know that you like him, regardless of what character he's playing.
I think who I innately am, for whatever reason, translates into the things I do and makes it so that you can buy me as a certain type of person. Whatever my life experiences are that allow me to give off that sense of understanding, that's private.
Q: Did you realize that director Noah Buschel made that movie on Neal Cassady?
MS: I saw [Neal Cassady]. That was the first time I met him, actually. I was having coffee with Amy Ryan, and she said, "I have to go see this film that I'm in because the director wants me to give my input." And she said, "You could probably tag along if you wanted."
So next thing I know I'm sitting in a little editing suite with Amy and Noah, who are watching Neal Cassady. I loved that movie; I thought it was so fantastic. It really baffles me that more people haven't seen it. I thought it was beautiful.
But Noah has a very eccentric style to what he does. He has a very unique style, and it's something that leaves some people scratching their heads.
Q: He certainly applied that style to this movie. What was your experience with him like?
MS: We shot the film in about four weeks, so it's all kind of a blur. It was a very intense schedule, we had to work very quickly. We shot two weeks in New York and two weeks in LA. And we shot all this super heavy stuff in New York first, and then we went to LA and did the more whimsical part. It was an interesting order of sequence.
Q: Was that just a logistical choice, or was that also a choice in helping you?
MS: It was purely logistical; it was very low budget. We couldn't start in New York and go out to LA and then come back to New York; we couldn't keep going back and forth. We basically shot the beginning and the ending of the film first, and then went out and shot the middle in LA, just because that's the way it had to be. That didn't wind up really bothering me. I enjoyed that order, it made shooting in LA a lot of fun.
Q: So when you saw the movie assembled, did it work in the way you expected it or did it surprise you in certain ways?
MS: I was real tickled with it. I had seen a variety of different cuts, actually. I was a little bit worried to see the final cut, because I know that Noah had been under pressure to maybe make some choices that he wasn't entirely convinced were right. He had been getting notes from a lot of different sources. At one point, after almost starting to lose interest a little bit--it was just too difficult to make everybody happy--he kind of sucked it up and got to the end of it. I was really proud of both the film and him for surviving that process.
Editing a film can be very arduous, particularly if there are a lot of people with opinions looking over your shoulder. I think in the end he was able to find a way to make everybody happy, but still hold on to his vision of things, which is quite an accomplishment.
Q: Though you were the one awarded the Oscar nomination, you were still just a supporting character in Revolutionary Road. In Bug, you're really the driving force, but you weren't thought of as the lead. But here you're really the lead; it's a movie about reaction to you, and you reacting.
MS: It's an opportunity for me. I'm not shaping these stories really, I'm just getting the opportunity to show up and participate. At the end of the day, at least from my perspective and my experience of things, the actor in a film is not a real power position.
What the audience ultimately winds up watching is a lot more about the vision of the director and of the other artists involved--the cinematographer, editor. Film is a very technical medium, and the actor gets this opportunity to contribute their portion of it, but it's not like it's my vision.
Q: As an interpreter of the director's vision, you are the truth teller. In Revolutionary Road your character was a truth teller. In Bug, as crazy as he was, he was a truth teller as well.
MS: Maybe there's something about me. It's hard to be aware of yourself to that degree. I'm not even necessarily sure that I look at what I do as an act of self-expression, really. It's more about trying to serve the story. I guess I express myself basically in what I decide to get involved in. But once I'm there, it's like [I'm] a servant of the story and director.
Q: In a funny way, Kim Fowley, who you are playing in The Runaways -- the upcoming bio-pic of the legendary girl rockers -- is the ultimate manipulator, truth teller or truth hider. He too fits into the set of characters that you should play. That must have been interesting; what was that like?
MS: That was very daunting, very intimidating. I met him. [He and I ], Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart [who plays Jett in the film] had dinner one night at a Denny's. He told me that he hoped I did a good job in the movie, because when he died that was how he was going to be remembered, was by my performance. I said, "Well, thanks for the pressure, I really appreciate that."
He was very sweet, actually. He really is a character. I watched as much footage as I could. I don't think I pulled off a spot-on impersonation of Kim Fowley, but that's never been my forte to begin with. I never claimed to be able to do that. But I certainly think what I did will honor his legacy and his memory. Hopefully, when he sees it, he'll agree.
Q: Were you much of a rock and roll fan?
MS: Oh yeah. I love rock and roll; I love music in general. That was a really fun era for music.
Q: Besides getting to work with some great first-time directors, you've also worked with the legends -- from John Waters (Cecil B. DeMented) and Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky) to Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). How do you resist wanting to watch all their movies and talk to them about it?
MS: Well, fortunately, most of the time you're just there to work, you don't have too much time. If I'm working with someone for awhile, we make an opportunity to have dinner or something, and that's when you get to hear all the stories.
But when you're at work, it's all about the work. I'm not a Chatty Cathy on the set anyway. I generally tend to not talk unless I'm saying one of my lines, because I'm trying to concentrate and conserve my energy.
Q: You were initially a theater actor, and because you're a tall person with an imposing quality you can really have a power on a stage. In film, you pull it back or you control it differently. How is that contrast for you?
MS: I don't know, I don't see them as being as different. I think that's largely because a lot of the theaters I have worked in have been very small, very intimate. I think the difference was larger maybe back in the old days when you would do a play in an 800 seat theater and then go do a movie with Hitchcock or something; that was a bigger discrepancy.
But nowadays, a lot of the theaters are very intimate. Even some of the larger theaters, they've found a way to make them incredibly intimate. It's not as big a discrepancy as it used to be.
Q: You worked with a great ensemble in Werner Herzog's re-think of Abel Ferrera's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
MS: That was a lot of fun. I got to do two scenes with Nic Cage, one of the biggest movies stars in the world--also a very inventive actor to work with. My scenes were just with Nic. Both the days I was working with him, I think he was feeling particularly inspired.
It's an older kind of Nic Cage performance, not so much the leading man roles where he has to rein it in or something. He gets to let loose and have fun.
He does such an incredible job. When he gets an opportunity to do what he's good at, he really knocks it out of the park.
Q: Give me a quick take on working Jonah Hex -- based on the Marvel Comics character. Even though you're not Hex, it must be fun to work in a comic book film where these characters are a little larger than life.
MS: I had a lot of fun on Jonah Hex. I was only there a couple of days; my character's just in a couple of scenes. But they tell me that if there's a sequel, I would be back in a larger capacity--which would be fun, because it's a really fun character. I had never heard of the comic series before, but when I was there and looking at the artwork, [I thought] it's really strong.
Q: Are you working on something now--beside being in Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and Gela Babluani's 13?
MS: I'm working on a TV show right now called Boardwalk Empire, which is going to be on HBO. We shot the pilot this summer, and now we're shooting the series.
Q: And that will be the Atlantic City boardwalk?
MS: The first episode is right at the start of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Very gritty.
Q: You don't think you'll do a superhero someday like Nic Cage has done
MS: I'd play a superhero if there was good writing. I'd play Oscar the Grouch if it was good writing. I like good writing, and a lot of times the writing is more complicated and interesting when you're dealing with characters that are [somewhat] damaged. That's just the way it is.
For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to: filmfestivaltraveler.com