The ‘Boardwalk Empire’ actor talks shop and Superman, which gives him ‘the shivers.’
Michael Shannon made his motion-picture debut alongside Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” but his career really didn’t take off until 2008, when his supporting performance as the mentally unstable acquaintance of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in “Revolutionary Road” was honored with an Academy Award nomination.
The roles have grown in size ever since, from “Jonah Hex” to two films with the legendarily idiosyncratic director Werner Herzog in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” and “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.” The most notable, however, has been his good-guy role as Agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO’s Emmy-winning “Boardwalk Empire.”
Earlier this week, Shannon talked to Gazette about “Boardwalk,” now airing its second season, and the project that threatens to take his star into the stratosphere: the Superman reboot in which he plays the Man of Steel’s Kryptonian nemesis, General Zod.
R&R: “Boardwalk Empire” is really the first time you've worked on a TV series other than a guest shot. Does it feel completely different than being on a movie set or is the level of quality so high that there's no difference?
Shannon: The structure of it's very different. I mean, when you do a movie, you get one script — unless there are going to be sequels or something — but you get the one script and it has a beginning, middle and an end, and you go shoot it and that's that.
But this is ... it's not like you're telling a story. It's like you're creating a whole other world, you know, that moves in every direction. And the story just keeps getting more and more twisted and complicated. I walk away from the end of the season and I have absolutely no idea what to expect. It's very mysterious.
R&R: This is sort of your time right now. I mean, “Boardwalk” is airing, “Take Shelter” is out, “13” is finally coming out on DVD. It's like Michael Shannon week! Did you ever think you would be at this point? I mean, you've worked a long time, but it's only since “Revolutionary Road” that the industry as a whole took notice. Shannon: I've always been happy just to be working, you know. It doesn't really matter for me how many people are familiar with my name or my picture or whatever. I enjoyed living in Chicago and doing plays for little or no money. And I never actually thought that I would leave Chicago originally. I wasn't one of these people that had a plan to pack up the van and drive out to Hollywood. I didn't want to. I knew other people that did that and a lot of them wound up kind of unhappy, so it kind of frightened me.
So the fact that I got to ... I guess to get to this point kind of surreptitiously is really incredibly fortunate for me, because I kind of got this without even necessarily chasing after it. I just kept doing work that I believed in and it kind of led me to this place, but I'm always very reticent to buy into any of the hype, because it goes away in the blink of any eye, you know. And you make one wrong move, you can find yourself back in obscurity.
But it's not something I'm really keeping a lot of attention to. I'm not looking at my star meter or something, you know, how many people are talking about me or something. I just keep working on things I like and hope for the best, hope people enjoy them.
R&R: Then are you prepared for the onslaught with “Man of Steel”? The press on that is going to be outrageous.
Shannon: Honestly, no. I'm not prepared for that in any way, shape or form. It gives me shivers. I'll do the best I can, but ... it's funny because it used to just be that you do the work and the work just spoke for itself. R&R: Right.
Shannon: But when you get on a project like that, obviously, it's almost like half the job is being a cheerleader for the team. You got to go around, stirring up the pot, as it were. But it's hard to do that when they tell you, "Oh, and by the way, you can't say anything about it. And the only thing you should say is, “It's really great. It's really great. I'm having such a great time and everybody's great.” That gets a little frustrating after a while.
I find it kind of funny actually, because if I didn't tell you anything about Superman, but I asked you, “Tell me what happens in Superman,” I bet you could probably tell me the whole story. I mean, it's kind of like saying, “I'm not supposed to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance.” It's kind of silly.
R&R: Has Agent Nelson Van Alden become a favorite character of yours because you've worked with him so long or do you have another that stands out for you more?
Shannon: Well, I get pretty attached to the majority of the characters I play. I mean, I can't help myself, but the thing with Van Alden is, I always look forward to seeing what's going to be next, and that's a very different experience than anything else I've done.
But I do have a lot of sympathy for him. I think Van Alden has a very hard life and I feel for him. And a lot of people will stop me and say, “Oh, I watch ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ I love the show, you're good on it, but I hate your character. He's such as asshole." It’s a little upsetting, so I say, "Why do you think he's a bad guy?" I mean, is it so hard to understand what happened to him or is he too opaque or something?
Because when I look at him, he makes me really sad. He tried really hard to do the right thing and he failed, and then he kind of went off the tracks. But, yes, the character seems to illicit some really negative feelings from people, which makes me a little defensive sometimes.
R&R: What’s next for you?
Shannon: Let's see, I've got the two films out right now, “Take Shelter” and “Machine Gun Preacher,” and “Take Shelter,” I'm really excited about people seeing that, because I think it's pretty good. “Machine Gun Preacher” is all right, too.
Let's see, I did a movie called “Premium Rush” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which I think is coming out next summer. But right now, I'm just shooting “Man of Steel” all the way up until February, and then (season three of) “Boardwalk Empire” starts in February, so there's not a lot of downtime there. —Rod Lott
OKG7 things to do Gazette staff
Fresh off an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, the French-language middle-school dramedy Monsieur Lazharmoves
to the head of the class at Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch, for
five screenings between Friday and Sunday. Bring a hankie. Tickets are
$5-$8. Call 236- 3100 or visit okcmoa.com.