Michael Shannon on acting: 'I just want to say what's written and go home'
And other highlights from his Vulture Festival conversation
Whether he’s dreaming of the apocalypse in Take Shelter, seeking justice as a Texan cop in Nocturnal Animals, or geeking out about WrestleMania in Groundhog Day, Michael Shannon is one of our most formidable actors. Both on stage and on screen, Shannon has a knack for breathing life into extraordinary characters, and on Saturday, Shannon sat down with New York magazine film critic David Edelstein at Vulture Festival for a wide-ranging (and frequently hilarious) conversation about his eclectic career. Here are a few of the highlights.
On film sets
Thanks to his extensive filmography, it may seem like Shannon doesn’t sleep. (Last year alone, he was in Nocturnal Animals, Loving, Elvis & Nixon, Frank & Lola, Midnight Special, Complete Unknown, Wolves, and Salt & Fire.) He does actually find time to sleep, he confirmed — usually in between takes on film sets.
“I go into my trailer, and I turn all the lights out and just lay on the floor like a vampire,” Shannon said. “And then they knock, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’ll go.’ What am I going to do, knit?”
Shannon explained that the hurry-up-and-wait nature of film sets is a stark contrast to working in a theater, where you can rehearse an entire play multiple times in one day. “Film sets can be treacherous, where you have to keep your wits about you,” he said. “It can be a petri dish for boredom and silliness.”
“I just want to say what’s written and go home,” he added.
The Lexington, Ky.-born actor, who got his start in the Chicago theater scene, said that no matter what kind of project he’s working on, he always starts from a place of understanding his character’s place in a story. He said he’s less interested in exploring emotions than he is in understanding how a person might react to an extraordinary situation. “There are four emotions: happy, sad, angry, afraid,” he said. “Three of ’em suck, and one of ’em doesn’t. That’s the end.”
Above all, he added, an actor’s job is to serve the main story line, instead of distracting from it. “The actor’s like the aperture between the audience and the story,” he explained.
Over the course of his career, Shannon has worked with some noteworthy directors, and he described each of them as only he could.
Tom Ford? “He’s an angel.” Jeff Nichols? His work is “somehow operatic, while seeming so mundane.” Werner Herzog? “A unique person in the history of civilization. If Werner Herzog called me and said, ‘I want you to play an armadillo in a washing machine,’ I’d be like, ‘Okay!’”
On Kate Winslet and the Oscars
When asked to name some of his favorite actors he’s worked with, Shannon rattled off an impressive list, from Ashley Judd in Bug and Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter to Jake Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals and Joel Edgerton in Midnight Special. “And I was on set with Bill Murray,” he added, laughing. “That was pretty cool.”
But one of his favorite experiences was working on Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road with Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Kathy Bates. As a fan of the original Richard Yates novel, Shannon says he originally read about the film version in a newspaper and actively lobbied for a role in the film. In the end, he won the role of John Givings, which helped cement his film career and earned him his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
He was the only actor nominated for Revolutionary Road, but that same year, Winslet did earn a Best Actress nod for her role in The Reader. Recounting his experience at that Oscars ceremony, Shannon said that after he lost the Best Supporting Actor category early in the night, he headed to the bar. “I lose, and they start doing Slumdog Millionaire, and I’m like, I gotta get outta here,” he said.
So he spent a little time at the bar, drinking “like 20 gin and tonics,” and when he made his way back to his seat, he tapped Winslet on the shoulder and informed her that he knew she was going to win. (He was right.) It was then that his partner, Kate Arrington, tapped him on the shoulder and informed him, “You’re talking with a British accent.”