It’s a warm and sunny summer afternoon in New York, free from the goddamned humidity that spoils most of the season in this city. Outside the Breslin Bar at the too-hip Ace Hotel, shorts-clad, sunglass-masked guys and girls walk by slowly, as if worried that picking up the pace might cause unsightly perspiration and ruin the whole effect. Inside, Michael Shannon is talking about snapping bones.
"None of those guys are ripped, per se, but you know that they could break your arm if they wanted to,” he says. “That’s the kind of strong I want to be. I don’t want to be ripped. It’s not like muscle beach. I just want to have that inner strength that they have.”
"The “they” in question are U.S. military generals, the ones you see on TV answer-ing questions posed by Senate committees and David Gregory. They’re on Shannon’s mind because he just arrived this afternoon from Chicago, where he met with his director and castmates for the upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel. The actor will play the General Zod, the catchphrase-spouting villain originated by Terrance Stamp in 1978’s Superman and its ingeniously titled 1980 sequel, Superman II. Shannon is preparing for the part—not by bellowing constantly for folks to kneel before him, but by dropping the carbs. At lunch, he sets aside his burger bun and offers up his fries for the taking. He seems a little sad about the fries.
“This is what they like to say in the office is a game changer,” Shannon says of the film. “But that’s not why I took it. I took it because I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
Fun isn’t the word most associated with Shannon. For starters, there’s the look. He’s 6 foot 4, with arms the size of an NBA power forward’s and a gaze that could make a grown man think twice about whatever he was doing. Even now, looking at him in his airplane-comfy outfit of an orange T-shirt, khaki shorts, and rainbow-colored sneakers, it’s easy to see that director Zack Snyder didn’t hire him to be Zod because of his sense of amus- ment. Then there’s his voice. Born in Lexington, Kentucky to parents who divorced when he was young, Shannon moved to Chicago with his father when he was in his teens. (He lives now in Brooklyn with the Steppenwolf Theatre Company actress Kate Arrington and their daughter.) His casual speaking voice is a sort of mutant strain of Chicago accent, more refined, but with a bit of growl in it. It’s a gorgeous voice, and not one you would dare ignore.
But most of all, there are the roles he’s played. In Revolutionary Road, for which he was Oscar-nominated, Shannon was a mental patient too intelligent to keep from shouting the truth to Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. On the acclaimed HBO series Boardwalk Empire, he plays a prohibition agent whose by-the-book façade hides a man capable of self- flagellation, adultery, and murder. Hell, even Zod is traditionally written as a megalomaniac and fascist. Shannon will next appear in Take Shelter, his second collaboration with writer- director Jeff Nichols. The actor plays a mild-tempered family man plagued by apocalyptic visions.
Are you sensing a trend yet? Almost everyone who has written about Shannon has latched onto the same meme: he’s creepy. He’s scary. He likes playing crazy people. Throughout lunch, Shannon is watchful for any questions that might lead him into yet an- other writer’s trap and reinforce the notion of him as someone sucked towards the dark and disturbing like light into a black hole.
"I like to goof off as much as anybody,” Shannon says—and there’s a shred of ur- gency there when he says it. “I’ve done a lot of silly stuff. Do a movie like Let’s Go to Prison [the Bob Odenkirk-directed comedy about, well, going to prison]. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to teach people a great lesson with this.'"
True, nobody likely ever learned anything from Let’s Go to Prison. But since the beginning, Shannon’s career has been defined by challenging roles in powerful pieces. In his first professional gig in Chicago at age 16, he shared the stage with actor Tracy Letts, who went on to become Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. Shannon would be cast in Letts’ first two plays, Killer Joe and Bug—and by his own admission owes much of his career to those works. He says that he and Letts, known for his darkly comic sensibilities, recognized a similar approach in each other.
"Some people look at it as a chance to escape from life, going to a play, going to a movie,” Shannon says. “It’s escapism. Maybe some people look at it as inspirational. To me, I find relief in it when it’s more extreme than everyday life. It’s kind of like going to a deep tissue massage. It’s cathartic. You’re releasing toxins—psychic, spiritual toxins. Unless you’re the freaking Dalai Lama or something, everybody’s carrying that stuff around. The Dalai Lama’s probably carrying it around.”
There’s the darkness again. But is it really a problem that Shannon is identified with a particular type of character? Aren’t most great actors identified with a certain type of character, even when they spend half their time playing parts that defy that type? (Think of Kevin Spacey. Hell, think of Cary Grant.) Shannon’s most memorable characters tend to be men who, confronted with the horror of reality, find themselves consumed by that horror. And it just so happens that those characters fit nicely with an artistic philosophy that Shannon articulates better than most actors.
"At the end of the day, when I really feel like I’m getting to work, is with some- thing that has resonance,” he says. Then he motions out the window of the bar. Outside, the shorts-and-sunglasses set strolls by. The occasional less-glamorous New Yorker—pants-clad, sweat-soaked—interrupts the flesh parade. “You see, out there, everything get smooshed down. People get numb. There’s lots of big problems. People are always talking about how people get desensitized. Well, you should do something that will sensitize them.”
If Shannon has a type, that’s what it is—the sensitizer.