Stage Role Call: Michael Shannon on the theater parts that shaped his career
Michael Shannon is currently on Broadway as the alcoholic Jamie Tyrone — the eldest son of an actor father (Gabriel Byrne) and a morphine addicted mother (Jessica Lange) — in Eugene O’Neill nearly four-hour masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The Oscar-nominated actor, 41, chatted with EW about this current production (playing at American Airlines Theatre through June 26) and seven others plays that have shaped him over the years.
Fun and Nobody (1991)
“Well that was the genesis of everything for me. That was written by Howard Korder, who would ironically go on to be one of the main writers of Boardwalk Empire. The first act, called ‘Fun,’ was about a teenage kid cutting school and goofing off. That’s who I played. And the second act, ‘Nobody,’ was about this same kid’s dad losing his job and going off the deep end. And the guy who played my dad was Tracy Letts, who obviously has had a profound impact on my life. But at the time I didn’t know any of that was going to happen. I just was fascinated by Tracy’s acting. When I was doing that play with him, he was widely considered the greatest actor in Chicago, and I agreed wholeheartedly. He was my greatest mentor.”
Killer Joe (1993)
“The original production was in the same theater as Fun and Nobody. It was called the Next Lab and it was an old classroom in a cultural center that had been literally painted black, including the windows. The proverbial black box theater. And there were very few seats in it. When they built the set for Killer Joe, it was this huge trailer and there was only room for about 35 seats. So the play was a hit and we ran for eight months in order to accommodate all the people that wanted to see it.”
Shoppers Carried by Escalators into the Flames (2002)
“All I know is that a very sweet older woman named Betty Miller played my grandma and I just adored her. We had these scenes together where her character would be telling me stories, so I had very few lines and she had big speeches. And she really couldn’t remember any of her lines and I couldn’t really cue her. So some nights those scenes got pretty abstract, to say the least. But I didn’t care because honestly it was probably more interesting to watch a great actress like her get through it than anything else.”
“Bug and Killer Joe, both by Tracy Letts, those were pretty significant. Tracy has obviously had a profound impact on my life, both as an actor and a playwright. And to this day I still have people coming up to me and saying how they’ll never forget those plays. I’ve known Tracy for 25 years and he’s one of my oldest friends. Oddly enough, we don’t really talk very often. We’re both very busy and he lives in Chicago and I’ve been kinda living here in New York. But he’s always been that way. He doesn’t like to sit and chat on the phone. He’s a warm person but I think he likes his solitude.”
Uncle Vanya (2012)
“This was very intimate production. It was adapted by Annie Baker and we did it at Soho Rep. The idea was that the audience was in the house with us. The walls of the living room accordion’d out, so it was like you were sitting on the wall. A fly on the wall, I guess you could say. I’ve done a lot more those intimate shows than the big, Grand Ole Opera House productions.”
Our Town (2010)
“That one was performed in the round. It’s some of the most profound writing I’ve ever read in my life. It’s a lot of responsibility. It’s hard to feel wise enough to play the Stage Manager. I felt like a mere human being shouldn’t be allowed to say all this. But Thornton Wilder was just a human being, so I guess its OK. But it’s frustrating because you want the lessons of that play to stay with you forever, and then you close the show and a couple of weeks later you’re walking around bitching about stuff, going, ‘Damnit, I gotta remember what they say in Our Town.'”
“I did that at the Gate Theatre in London and it was directed by Sarah Kane, the playwright. [Kane, the writer of Blasted and 4.48 Psychosis, died by suicide in 1999 at age 28.] She was a wonderful director. She had a very almost child-like approach to directing, which was that you should experience the things your character does in the play. There was a scene with a doctor who was giving me an exam, so we’d have a day of rehearsal where she would set up a little examination room and find as many doctors tools as she could, and she’d just say, ‘Alight, I’m gonna leave you guys alone for awhile.’ My character was always trying to get money for food, so one day I came to rehearsal and she said, ‘Just go out and walk the streets and get people to give you money for food.’ And so I did.
“The production was in the round and it was basically one row of seats around the stage. I don’t think we ever got more than 30 people in there. And the set was a wooden floor and the planks would come and by the end I’d ripped all the planks out of the floor and the hole became the pond, which is central to the play. That was intense. That was an intense show.
“The whole time we were working together Sarah was struggling with suicidal thoughts. She was basically a very sensitive person, which is what most children are until they get it throttled out of them. She was a lovely person and I really miss her.”
Long Day’s Journey into Night (2016)
“I don’t have a problem with the length of the play. I have tremendous admiration for what Eugene O’Neill did, the fact that he excavated through the wreckage of his family. I’ve seen some plays lately about families that don’t seem very personal. But for me, that’s what I’m drawn to. Theater is not just a machination. I want to feel that someone’s heart is in it.
“I mean, I’m not Jamie Tyrone but I can certainly identify with a lot of things he says. I think that’s why people keep doing the play. If the Tyrones seemed like a bunch of freaks that no one could relate to, then they’d probably have a hard time selling tickets to it. It’s also one of the best selling plays in the English language. Over a million copies sold.
“I am able to go in an out of character. At this point if I didn’t posses that capacity I would be in some serious trouble, I would think. What’s great about a playwright’s really personal work is that it makes you think about yourself. And you realize that the characters in this play really do love each other.
“I feel bad for my brother, honestly. Poor Edmund, man. He’s got to do all that coughing. And my mom, I mean, she’s not fun. But I say it’s not fun and yet I have to say how very lucky I feel to be doing this play. I never knew if I would have the chance. My dad was a huge Eugene O’Neil fan and a huge Jason Robards fan. He used to see these plays in their original runs on Broadway. And my dad has passed away, which is a shame because this would have really blown his mind. I don’t think when he was sitting there watching Jason Robards in Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway, I don’t think he could ever in his wildest imagination, sitting there in the audience, think, ‘Well, one day I’m going to have a son and he’s going to play that part on Broadway.'”