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Michael Shannon on 99 Homes and why he'll never have a mortgage

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If you’re a middle-class American with a mortgage and children, 99 Homes is a horror film, scarier than Halloween and Saw combined. The movie, which debuted in Venice and is looking for distribution at this week’s Toronto Film Festival, stars Andrew Garfield as Nash, a Florida construction worker circa 2006. Out of work and underwater on his mortgage during the housing meltdown, he’s evicted from his family home—along with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). It’s the nightmare scenario: Police knock on the front door and give them two minutes to pack their essentials before a gaggle of vultures sweep in and drag their possessions to the curb. You don’t live here anymore.

It is a traumatic scene, one that will be revisited throughout the film because Carver (Michael Shannon), the savvy operator supervising the mayhem, is preying on the most vulnerable for his own selfish schemes. But that’s not the most chilling scene in the movie, because director Ramin Bahrani turns the American Dream and Nash’s best intentions against each other. What would you do to get your home back? What would you do to provide for your child? Anything? Everything? Would you go work for the corrupt man who put your family on the street? Would you sell your soul and screw over your neighbors to save yourself?

Shannon’s Carver is practically the devil incarnate, and the Oscar-nominated actor spoke to EW about his performance and why he refuses to take out a mortgage.

EW: You’ve played some tough and unlikable characters before, but Rick Carver might be one of the most frightening. Was it a role you hunted down or did it fall into your lap?

MICHAEL SHANNON: I met Ramin at the Venice Film Festival [in 2009]. I was there with a Werner Herzog film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, and Ramin was the judge. He also had a short film there called Plastic Bag, that Werner was the voice of, so we met through Werner Herzog, I guess. I had seen Goodbye Solo, and I really loved that, and I knew I wanted to work with him somehow. He showed me this script, at first with no particular part in mind, and I loved it. I knew I wanted to be involved. I really would’ve played any part in it. I was surprised that he asked me to play Carver. He’s a little more dashing than I guess people normally think of me.

That crossed my mind, but only for the first scene or so. I wondered how it would be a completely different film if you and Andrew had swapped roles. When you first read the script, was it clear which character you were drawn to.

I’m just attracted to the story, you know. I think, in a lot of ways, Frank Green [a supporting character whose home is also in foreclosure] is as interesting a character as anybody else. Or Laura [Dern’s] character. All the points of view are interesting to me. Even the little boy. It’s really a compelling story, because, in a way, all these people are very united. They seem to be at odds with one another because they’ll all being manipulated by a force that they can’t see and they’re all scrambling around trying to make the best of it.

It’s impossible to walk out of 99 Homes and not have some pretty strong feelings. What do you think it says about the current state of America and what it means to be successful in 2014?

I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a pedantic film. But I think the film all boils down to, “Well, what’s [Nash] going to do?” I think more than anything, what Ramin wants people to take away from the film is that these people aren’t statistics. They’re not just numbers. I think it’s easy when you get the story in the newspaper to be kind of overwhelmed by the enormity of it all and all the technical jargon and all the numbers and percentages and whatnot. I think this film is refreshingly free of that, mostly. It’s very much about the relationships. I know Ramin thinks it’s important that people identify with these characters. He doesn’t want them to feel like they’re somewhere else. These people are us. This is what we’re living right now, some version of this. Some version of compromise, and just to be aware of that.

For most people, the American Dream is home ownership and this movie just turns it into the ultimate nightmare.

Yeah. I mean, it’s a line in the movie: “Don’t get emotional about real estate.” I think that’s a very interesting line, because we do. We do get emotional about it. Which is odd because when you watch a building being built, it’s not a very emotional process. It’s kind of starkly unemotional. And yet, once people move into it, and put their pictures everywhere, all of a sudden, it becomes this warm, sheltered place. We’re a culture of attachment; we get attached to things. That’s a big part of being a consumer culture, being attached to the things that you have. We kind of create our identity through our attachments. It’s not just that Dennis Nash is broke or lost his house. It’s that he doesn’t know who is anymore. That’s what you really find out through the course of the movie: he forgets his own identity, which is kind of the creepiest thing of all.

And Carver has this amazing speech—it reminded me of Alec Baldwin’s in Glengarry Glen Ross—that really lays out the stakes for everyone and explains his M.O: “American doesn’t bail out the losers…” I think that’s sort of the centerpiece of the film.

I think Ramin always knew that that speech was going to be very significant to the film. He worked on it a lot. Ramin is kind of a relentless writer, relentless with himself. He’s never satisfied. He wants it to be perfect, so that speech would change. I’d get the script, and then a week later, he’d be like, “Oh, I got a new version of that speech.” Then, a couple of weeks later, “Oh, I think I got another version.” Pretty soon, there were, like, 20 versions of the speech, and finally, I was like, “We’re shooting this tomorrow. I think we should settle on this.”

Do you have to learn to like a character like Carver or can you get by with just understanding him?

Well, I can’t say I really dislike him. Honestly, I think because I’m so far away from this world, the world of real estate, he would never be a colleague of mine or someone I would run into. He would never really do me any harm, because I wouldn’t sign a mortgage if you put a gun to my head. It’s much more of, like, he’s an alien to me.

You don’t have a mortgage?

No, I don’t. I’ve always been suspicious of all this. Since way before the quote-unquote crisis. It always seemed like a scam to me. So I wasn’t shocked when it actually turned out to be scam.

Is that suspicion based on some personal experience?

Nah, just the way I was raised, you know. My mom, my grandma, they always said, “Use the credit unions.” They were real old school: “Don’t use air conditioning, “Don’t take aspirin,” that kind of stuff. The thing is, we set ourselves up for these kind of situations as a culture. We allow so much of our personal responsibility to take care of ourself to be consumed by corporate interests and large conglomerates of rich people. Whereas in the old days, you’d go in the forest and you’d cut down a bunch of trees and you’d build yourself a little cabin and that would be your house. Well, people don’t do that anymore. So instead, these companies and these banks and these people, right, they do it. And you get complacent. You think, “Of course, it would be absurd for me to try and do this myself.” And so we trust these people and lo and behold, at some point, they take advantage of that.

It’s beyond complacency, because even after this complete financial meltdown, from what I’ve read, we haven’t even fixed the problem. In fact, we’ve strengthened the entities that caused the problems in the first place. That’s negligence.

Which is why it’s the perfect time for this movie to come out. Some people say, “Oh, aren’t we past this? Isn’t this a little bit dated?” And I say, “Uh, no. Not really.” As a matter of fact, it’s probably the perfect time for people to sit and watch it. Just so they don’t forget what happens.