If you’re an adventurer like Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland in The Shape of Water, trek to the Panama Canal and swim eight miles west. You’ll land on Barro Colorado Island where almost a century ago, Shannon’s grandfather Raymond Corbett Shannon christened Shannon’s Cove. Raymond, a renowned entomologist, was there to study mosquitos, a passion that took him from Panama to Peru to Patagonia to Brazil. “This business of wading around for gambiae larvae gets into your blood,” wrote the elder Shannon to a fellow researcher. Alas, his words were too true. While studying the spread of malaria, he caught dengue fever and died.
“One of the damned things bit him,” says Shannon-the-younger on a sunshiny afternoon in Los Angeles, far away from the swamps. He never got to meet him—his own dad had only been 9 years old when the Entomological Society of Washington called his grandfather, “a martyr to the hazards of medical entomology.”
Yet, Raymond Corbett Shannon left an impression. “My dad was fond of showing me a letter that his father had written that listed 100 things that he wanted my father, Donald, to do or to be,” says Shannon. “It was like, ‘Well, ideally, you’d be a doctor and a lawyer and a Nobel-winning scientist and a race car driver and an astronaut.’ It was insane. But I guess that’s in our DNA.”
Shannon’s dad became an accounting professor. As an actor, Shannon has already lived over 82 fantasy careers. He’s played sheriffs and chefs and photographers and cowboys and mobsters and record producers and evil alien generals, and next year, the brilliant inventor George Westinghouse. But in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, set in 1962 Baltimore, he’s playing someone with a job similar to his grandfather’s: an explorer who flew to the Amazon river to drag back a 6’4” water-beast (Doug Jones). The difference is, his Colonel Strickland isn’t trying to save lives. He’s just thinking about himself.
“He wants to do a good job, he wants to be promoted, he wants his bosses to like him, and he wants to have a nice house and a nice car and a nice family,” says Shannon. This vicious, neck-frilled, muscular fish-man with an 18-pack threatens to ruin all his plans. Describe the plot like that and Colonel Strickland would be the hero, the brave doctor in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon rescuing his girlfriend from some monster with gills.
Not to del Toro. From the minute Shannon stalks onscreen in a heavy black overcoat and hat, toting an electric cattle prod, he’s hiss-ably cruel. Jawline to haircut to tie clip, every bit of Strickland is hard and square. At work at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, he’s dismissive of his underlings, who include janitors Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and fellow scientists Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Fleming (David Hewlett). And at home, where he slips out of his stern suits for cozy yellow polo shirts—“like Mr. Rogers with the sweater”—his nuclear family revolves around him like electrons.
Colonel Strickland isn’t just the villain. He’s the patriarchy. If you want to Make America Great Again, you’re probably picturing his life. “I don’t know what Make America Great Again means,” says Shannon. “But that’s the thing with Strickland—It’s all based on a notion.” He shudders. “I don’t even like the insinuation that a character I played would vote for Trump.”
Shannon calls Strickland, “the crystallization of the American psyche in the Cold War period, fighting Communists, fighting the unknown, but ultimately, without any idea why he’s doing any of that or what it’s going to accomplish.” He hates babysitting the beast. To an ex-soldier like him, “it’s like sending a brain surgeon to put a Band-Aid on.” But the film needs him. Without Strickland barking orders in the halls, the romance between Elisa and the creature wouldn’t have its panicked, emotional thrust. “I guess you could watch them get married, grow old together. But who wants that?”
Shannon empathizes with Strickland—to a point. “That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” he jokes. He saw through Strickland’s flinty exterior and macho childishness to find the anxiety within. Strickland’s spent his whole life playing a game he doesn’t understand. He follows the rules, even the strange ones like his insistence that real men only wash their hands before they pee, which sounds like a thing an impressionable boy picked up on a playground and carried around his whole life without questioning the point.
“There’s a certainty there that’s based on nothing,” says Shannon. “What is he trying to accomplish?” In his office, Strickland reads The Power of Positive Thinking. Yet when asked if Strickland says anything positive to anyone in the film, Shannon spends 20 seconds muttering, “I do… I do… I do…” while he struggles to think of an example. “Don’t I tell Fleming he did a good job once?”
Strickland’s dilemma is that he’s too small-minded to see he’s just another brute in a cage, but he’s too smart—almost—to buy into what the culture is selling. Shannon allows us to see the suspicion in his face when he thinks that Hawkins’ mute maid isn’t giving him enough respect. He’s hopeful, but wary even in casual transactions, like when a Cadillac salesman assures him that he’s “the man of the future”—an ironic joke given that in 2017, Strickland seems like a retrograde man of the past. Shrugs Shannon, “That’s just some horses—t somebody tells you to sell you a car.” His character’s pride hinges on objects, from his insistence that his Cadillac is teal, not green, to the cheap lime candies he gobbles to prove that he’s still a humble guy. “I ate a lot of those f—king things,” he says.
Underneath it all, however, audiences sense Strickland’s need to prove a distinction humans are forever trying to draw: What separates man from animal? “Some people say that an octopus is smarter than us,” notes Shannon. “That can be very threatening.” How, then, can Strickland feel superior to this strong, intelligent fish-man, unless, says Shannon, “that person has to be on their knees in front of me and I get to hit them with a stick.”
Another Strickland line packs the film’s biggest emotional wallop. After 90 minutes loathing this sexist, racist creep who can’t get through a single conversation without an insult, the audience finally hears him get vulnerable. He’s made the boss—the man who can take away his new Cadillac and nice house—furious, and after a lifetime of obeying alpha gobbledygook, Strickland sighs, “When is a man done, sir, proving himself?”
“F*ck if I know,” answers Shannon. “That’s the magic of cinema. Every once in a while you ask a very legitimate question.” He ponders it some more. “I guess it depends on what you want. I guess you’re done proving yourself when you’re done thinking that you have to prove yourself.”
His grandfather was an “incredibly driven human being,” Shannon says. “And now people are labeling me as a workaholic.” True. This year, Shannon starred in four films, which would be a lot for most actors. But the year before, he starred in 10. What drives him to act, to explore other lives, to say yes to projects until he finally checks off a hundred fictional jobs, and will probably inspire him to say yes to a hundred more after that? “Curiosity? Restlessness?” he wagers. “I mean, that is the point, right? If you’re alive, you should do as much as possible before you’re not alive.”