A reminder to everyone in town: Michael Shannon has graced us with his towering, square-jawed presence for quite some time.
Sure, his profile has risen exponentially in the last eight years following his Oscar-nominated supporting turn as John Givings, the clinically insane, brusque young man in Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road. But Shannon had already made his mark before that film, with a slew of prolific filmmakers including Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II), Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky), Oliver Stone (World Trade Center), William Friedkin (Bug), and the late Curtis Hanson (8 Mile, Lucky You).
And for a bulk of that early career momentum, Shannon has Lee Daniels to thank. Yes, the director of The Butler and Precious, and the co-creator of Fox’s hit TV series Empire. Before becoming a filmmaker, Daniels was a talent manager, and spotted Shannon’s turn as the inept drug dealer Chris in Tracy Letts’ 1998 play Killer Joe; the actor’s first paid acting gig in NY.
“Lee called me after seeing Killer Joe and said, ‘I can get you work,’” remembers Shannon. “He phoned a casting director, and then told me to go to the audition. ‘I just got you the job,’ Lee said. ‘Just show up.’ The role I read for was Dundun in Jesus’ Son.”
Call him raw, tough, deadpan, down-to-earth, Shannon is known for his array of troubled personas, from a paranoid Gulf War veteran in Friedkin’s Bug to the tragic Givings in Revolutionary Road, a guy who has no problem getting into the face of Leonardo DiCaprio’s flawed husband character Frank. Then there’s Shannon’s religious Fundamentalist Prohibition officer Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s 1920s gangster land drama series Boardwalk Empire, as well as the ruthless suburban real estate shark Rick Carver from last year’s 99 Homes.
This year, in Tom Ford’s sophomore feature Nocturnal Animals, Shannon plays another heavy; a hard-bitten Texan cop named Bobby Andes, who comes to the aid of Jake Gyllenhaal’s devastated out-of-towner Tony Hastings. Tony’s been ambushed by a group of notorious hicks who’ve killed his wife and teenage daughter. Bobby helps Tony exact revenge. Technically, they’re both characters in a novel-within-the-movie written by author Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal again). He sends the book to his ex-wife Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who has ascended in status and is now a wealthy Los Angeles art gallery owner. Morrow dives into the book, reliving Hastings’ tragedy as though it’s possibly one she once experienced with her ex-husband.
Bobby fits Shannon like an old shoe, but at a warmer angle than some of his previous parts.
Says Ford on casting Shannon, “There really was no one else that fit this part so well. Michael is an amazing actor. He is incredibly versatile. He is the Marlboro Man. He is Gary Cooper in High Noon, an archetype that exists in cinema history.”
“He sees through the smoke and mirrors and to the truth,” says Shannon about Bobby. “He’s seen a lot of gruesome stuff in his career, which is wrapping up, and this is one last case he’s determined to see justice on.”
You could argue that, no matter how nefarious or eccentric Shannon’s dramatic personae have been, there’s a grounded humanity to them all. This in large part boils down to Shannon’s approach. Even though his angelic Bobby is a complete 180 from the ruthless Rick of 99 Homes, in the actor’s opinion, the latter isn’t a bad guy. “It’s my job [as an actor] to not be judgmental of people, but to understand them,” Shannon said about that role at an Awardsline screening last year. “Rick just wanted to be a real estate broker. It’s like during the Bubonic plague. He’s like the guy who had to drag all the dead bodies away; this is a responsibility that was thrown in his lap. I don’t think he’s the devil.”
Some actors prefer to keep their bag of tricks closed; Shannon on the other hand, embraces any discussion of his craft, his preferred acting method being “Meisner, because he’s trying to get actors to listen to each other.” Coming up during his 1990s Chicago theater days, Shannon credits Jane Brody, a drama teacher and casting director. “Her big thing was that acting is about relationships, and that is the foundation of acting,” he says.
Shannon would get to the soul of Bobby every morning during production by listening to Hank Williams songs during the 45-minute drive to set. Preparation depends on the role, and in the case of Nocturnal Animals, Shannon flew with his instincts, and decided not to meet with any Texan lawmen before cameras rolled. “Cops are a prevalent part of our consciousness,” says Shannon.
The actor had a different approach on 99 Homes when it came to understanding the complexities of the Florida real estate trade, and met with a salesman with a panache for flipping properties. While Ford sought Shannon out and entrusted the role to him, the actor says that the realization of Bobby occurred when Ford “took the clippers out of the hairdressers’ hands and started cutting my hair. I never had a director do this before. Tom knows exactly [what he wants]; he’s lived the whole movie in his imagination.”
Witnessing Shannon’s process, Ford says, ” Michael has that quality that allows him to completely disappear into a character. He is a totally focused actor and was definitely scary at times because he stays in complete character on set.”
Since landing his first feature role in the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, Shannon has remained a tireless working actor. This past year, IMDb lists Nocturnal Animals as one of 10 titles he starred in. Some of Shannon’s highlights this year include playing the King of Rock n’ Roll in Elvis & Nixon, starring in two movies by his friend and frequent collaborator Jeff Nichols—Midnight Special and Loving—and playing an angry boyfriend in the noir romance Frank & Lola, from film journalist-turned-director Matthew Ross. Another troubled guy? Not at all. We sympathize with Frank’s anguish, because his girlfriend cheated him.
Why would a seasoned actor take a chance with young talent like Ross—and earlier, with Nichols’ 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories? Shannon explains: “It’s exciting to work with a filmmaker at the beginning of their career. I had the pleasure of working with some of the great cinema minds like Martin Scorsese later in their careers, but I often wonder what it would have been like to work with him during Taxi Driver, or with Werner Herzog during Fitzcarraldo.”
“You have to take a chance on people,” adds Shannon with feeling. “Someone took a chance on me.”