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December 1, 2009.
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
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).
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.
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
or Robert Altman's
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. 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. Oh yeah, definitely. It seemed appropriate; it never seemed
ham-handed to me.
did he tell you he wanted, and why did he feel you had those qualities?
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.
Where were you
when 9/11 happened?
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,
If you had to
say something about your character in terms of 9/11 who he was, or how
that resonated what would you think is the truth there? What will
people take away that is that truth?
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.
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
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
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.
you realize that director Noah Buschel made that movie on Neal Cassady?
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.
applied that style to this movie. What was your experience with him
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.
Was that just a
logistical choice, or was that also a choice in helping you?
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.
So when you saw
the movie assembled, did it work in the way you expected it or did it
surprise you in certain ways?
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.
you were the one awarded the Oscar nomination, you were still just a
supporting character in
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
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.
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.
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.
In a funny way,
Kim Fowley, who you are playing in
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?
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,
you much of a rock and roll fan?
Oh yeah. I love
rock and roll; I love music in general. That was a really fun era for
to work with some great first-time directors, you've also worked with
the legends from John Waters (Cecil
and Cameron Crowe (Vanilla
to Sidney Lumet (Before
the Devil Knows You're Dead).
How do you resist wanting to watch all their movies and talk to them
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
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
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.
You worked with
a great ensemble in Werner Herzog's re-think of Abel Ferrera's
Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
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.
Give me a quick
take on working on 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
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
Are you working
on something now beside being in Herzog's
My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and Gela Babluani's 13?
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
And that will
be the Atlantic City boardwalk?
The first episode
is right at the start of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Very gritty.
You don't think
you'll do a superhero someday, like Nic Cage has done?
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.
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MICHAEL SHANNON HAD TO SAY TO US IN 2016!
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