The consummate character actor made an impression both on-screen and off

By Nicole Sperling
Updated September 13, 2016 at 11:17 PM EDT
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly
  • Movie

Let’s give Michael Shannon a prize: The Toronto International Film Festival’s first annual MVP. First for his magnetic, irresistible performance as detective Bobby Andes in Tom Ford’s bonkers new film Nocturnal Animals; second, for lightening the load of Jeff Nichols’ beautiful drama Loving with his brief flyby as LIFE magazine photographer Grey Villet; and third for this spectacular get up (pictured above) that he wore to the annual EW Must List Party. For all the wild intensity this 42-year old actor brings to any role, when he’s not on a film set he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“It was a party,” he said when asked about his outfit. “I hope you guys got a picture.”

Shannon’s picture is about to be everywhere. His long history of surprising audiences with unpredictable performances comes to a head this fall with these two films, and it would be a major upset if he didn’t walk away from the Toronto International Film Festival as one of the frontrunners for best supporting actor for Nocturnal Animals.

Apparently, Ford is also a fan of the actor’s work. Shannon read the Ford script and then met the renowned fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker at his fancy suite at the Carlisle Hotel to pick from a variety of parts in the movie. “It’s always surprising to hear someone say, ‘You know I’ve been following your career and I think you’re just wonderful,’’ says Shannon. “It always makes me feel like a little boy. Like I’m sitting there with my hands across my lap, saying ‘Yes sir, Thank you sir.'”

Ford’s film, based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, is a dual narrative that focuses on a dissatisfied art dealer (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) about a family (Gyllenhaal again, Isla Fisher, and Ellie Bamber) terrorized by a group of ne’er-do-wells (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on the West Texas highway. Shannon plays a detective in that portion of the narrative, at once the film’s straight man while also carrying his own anguish-filled backstory.

“He’s estranged from his family, he’s lonely. He’s not a happy person,” says Shannon. “But he is a straight shooter.”

Shannon’s career is filled with happenstance. He spent years searching for work, applying his very specific look — the prominent bone structure, intense stare and considerable height — to a variety of nebulously-intentioned characters that never turn out to be as they initially appear. Shuffled between Kentucky and Chicago, Shannon took to the stage as a kid, first as a distraction, then as a method to avoid adulthood.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to grow up and be an adult in any way, shape or form,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a professional anything.”

In fact, Shannon even remembers his first review, when local theater critic Richard Christensen called him, “A semi-attractive youngster who thinks acting means waving his arms around like a bird and rubbing his eyebrows.”

No one says that anymore. Even Christensen softened his stance on Shannon over the years. Today the actor is no longer looking for validation but rather a bit more balance so he can spend more time at home in New York with his two young daughters. But he still finds it difficult to decline parts.

“It’s hard to say no to people. It goes against an actor’s instincts. For years and years and years you hope and pray that someone will give you an opportunity. Then you get in this position where people do want you to do things and you’re like ‘Wow, finally. Isn’t this fantastic?” says Shannon. “And then there’s this third phase. It’s weird, I can’t do everything everybody wants me to do. But it goes against the mindset of please give me a job.”

As he works through all that, any talk of Oscars gets him a little squeamish. He’s played the game before with Sam Mendes Revolutionary Road, and he isn’t too sure about a repeat performance.

“I’ve been down that road. People say you need to do this, go here, talk to that person and it hasn’t really panned out. I don’t let it tease me,” he says with a sigh before adding that he isn’t necessarily averse to the idea either.

“Fortunately, these are two movies that I really love and I’m very proud of but I’m still pretty skeptical about being in that group.”

Loving is out Nov. 4; Nocturnal Animals is in theaters Nov. 18. Watch Shannon discuss Ford’s film below.

Nocturnal Animals

  • Movie
  • R
  • 116 minutes
  • Tom Ford