Nowhere to hide


He used to be one of the best actors you’ve never heard of, but Michael Shannon is now officially in the mainstream. He talks to DONALD CLARKEabout his knack for landing roles as the existentially troubled outsider

LET US BEGIN with a bit of digital indulgence. If you type the words “the best actor you’ve never heard of” into Google, you will generate about 90,000 results. John C Reilly, Barry Pepper and Terrence Howard are among the performers so honoured. But Michael Shannon has, until recently, been the man to beat in this murky competition. I counted about 150 mentions. Not bad.

Shannon, a square-faced man with an outlaw’s craggy voice, reluctantly acknowledges that the phrase has, from time to time, been dangled before his puzzled eyes. Those days have, however, passed. In 2008, he received an Oscar nomination for his standout supporting performance in Revolutionary Road. He has a major role in Boardwalk Empire. We will soon see him as the villain in Man of Steel, the latest Supermanreinvention. Obscurity must be a faint memory.

“Yeah, yeah. There are expectations now,” he says with some regret. “Particularly now I have this job on that Man of Steelmovie. It’s important to live up to that. But that’s not why I started doing this.

“You don’t want to get caught up in this reputation that’s being built. I don’t wake up every morning and say: I am one of the best actors in the world. I muddle through my day like everyone else.”

No current actor is better at portraying suppressed emotional torment. Handsome after a weather-beaten fashion, Shannon, now 37, has brought his worrying charisma to such films as World Trade Center(slightly mad avenger), Bug(very mad ex-soldier) and, as noted, Revolutionary Road(certifiable truth-speaker). It is hardly surprising that Werner Herzog, the laureate of insanity, cast him in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleansand the undervalued My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. Is anybody better suited to shouldering the mantle of the mourned Klaus Kinski?

Next week, he excels himself in an extraordinary new picture entitled Take Shelter. Jeff Nichols’s unsettling, spooky drama – among the best films of the year – concerns a mid-western construction worker who falls victim to terrifying apocalyptic delusions. Massed birds hover over the cornfields. The clouds form into unreal monoliths. Not surprisingly, his family and his doctor, remembering his mother’s descent into mental illness, assume he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia.

“The character is not really based on that at all,” Shannon says. “The idea that he might be ill and that he might have inherited that illness is a possibility. But it’s certainly not the only possibility. It’s more a movie about anxiety than illness. If anxiety is a mental illness then we are all going straight to the farm I think. Ha ha! But when you are dealing with that level of anxiety it’s usual to wonder if that’s normal.”

It hardly needs to be said that Shannon does not come across as a maniac. But you couldn’t honestly say that an afternoon spent with the actor dispels all memories of the intense characters he plays. A polite man, with a dry sense of humour, he speaks in sombre, winding sentences flavoured with rich southern vowels. Somebody really needs to cast him in a western soon. (The crazy Jonah Hexdoesn’t quite count.) Having already appeared as a different class of lunatic in Nichols’s superb Shotgun Stories, he was, surely, always destined to play Curtis in Take Shelter. One can’t imagine anybody else – not even dear old Kinski – making sense of the role.

“No, Jeff didn’t write it with me in mind,” he says. “He was writing about what he was going through himself at the time. He was getting ready to get married and start a family. He was worried he wouldn’t be able to protect his family. That’s a very common feeling. And I had a lot of empathy with that because I now have a daughter. Then he heard me talking to my daughter on the phone and he saw a whole new side to me.

“Until then he thought I was like the character I played in Shotgun Stories.” Really? So, Jeff felt Shannon had that much in common with the bitter, obsessive scion of a Faulknerian southern family. The mind boggles.

As it happens, Shannon was raised in Kentucky. His parents split up when he was a child and his time was then divided between that state, his mum’s home, and the busier streets of Chicago, where his father taught. “I would go back and forth,” he remembers. “But most of my childhood was spent in Kentucky. My dad was a professor of accounting at DePaul University. Actually, he passed just a year before I made Take Shelterand Curtis’s father’s death is one of the things that starts him on this path. There was a bit of synchronicity there.”

Did he draw on that experience? Some actors regard the notion of mining personal traumas as a key element in the creative process. Others just like to pretend.

“Well, it’s a good way of extracting your deeper feelings,” he says.

“If you don’t think about them or reflect on them then they stay dormant inside you. One of the problems with Curtis is he never really dealt with his mother’s story. He crossed his fingers and hoped for the best.”

Chicago is, of course, second only to New York (and not by much) in its standing as a great theatre town. Companies such as Steppenwolf and Second City helped define the medium in the second half of the last century. Playwrights such as David Mamet have had an immeasurable influence on theatrical language. Michael admits that he wasn’t a great success at school. As successive exams were flunked, he abandoned early ambitions to become an architect and pondered a career in music. Then theatre got its claws into his flesh. His dad was keen for him to study at DePaul – where there is a fine theatre conservatory – but, a difficult youngster, Shannon refused to take that more conventional route.

“Yeah. The conservatory would have been free, because my dad worked there. Dad didn’t really get it,” he says. “But you have to remember that Chicago was such a fertile place for theatre during the 1990s.” Shannon secured roles with Steppenwolf and went on to form A Red Orchid Theatre Company with, among others, the playwright Tracy Letts. That writer’s Bug, a grim piece set in one motel room, brought Shannon to London in 1996 and was eventually made into a fine, too-little-seen 2006 film by William Friedkin. Over that 10-year period, Shannon forged a busy career as a supporting actor. You can see him in 8 Mile. He also turns up in Pearl Harborand Vanilla Sky. The actor was already establishing a reputation for creating dark, existentially troubled outsiders. Among the few, more light-hearted parts he played was the confused hippie in Grand Theft Parsons,an amusing comedy, for Irish director David Caffrey.

“You saw that?” he says with an uncharacteristic sparkle. “Yeah, I love David. People are always saying ‘Why don’t you do a comedy?’ Well, I did do one and nobody went to see it.” He raises an issue that must nag a bit. No actor likes to be typecast.

If there really is a hidden Norman Wisdom within his serious frame then directors have, alas, shown little interest in drawing it out. All his best roles have been deeply troubled souls.

“I don’t know. When I look back it doesn’t feel that way. Put it this way: I have never done anything I didn’t want to do. Nobody’s ever said: ‘Do this movie or we’ll take away your license.’ I look at someone like Curtis as fundamentally a very good person.” Maybe so. But people will inevitably assume that we’re seeing bits of the real Michael in his carnival of depressives and neurotics. Is that fair? “Well, I guess it would be disingenuous to say I am a totally normal person and that this all comes out of thin air. I have had an interesting life. I’ve had my own obstacles along the way. When I started acting I had a lot of steam to blow off. That’s an environment where that is accepted. You do things that, in a social setting, would be seen as inappropriate, but, when you do them on stage, people clap and cheer.”

The Oscar nomination for Revolutionary Roadsurely pushed him into the mainstream. Nobody can now regard him as a proper outsider. He remembers going out for a bucket of gin during the ceremony – “When they were doing those Slumdogmusical numbers” – and returning just in time for co-star Kate Winslet’s win for The Reader. “I leant forward to her and said: ‘You’re the one. You’re the one.’ My girlfriend said: ‘You are aware you’re speaking in a really, really bad English accent? Just stop talking now.’ Then I stood up and Brad and Angelina were crossing the aisle. They came over and shook my hand like it was the most normal thing in the world. ‘Have a nice night,’ they said. ‘Yeah, you too.’ I wanted to pull out my pen and autograph book.”

Get used to it, old fellow. You’re among the best actors we’ve heard of.

Take Shelteropens on November 25