With a film currently in theaters, Mud, and another movie, The Iceman, coming out on May 3rd…not to mention a superhero blockbuster being released in June, Man of Steel, things are going pretty well for Michael Shannon in the career department. And to think that his path to success all started with being fired from his first acting job! From storefront theaters in Chicago to the Cort Theater on Broadway and from “Day Player Parts” to an Academy Award nomination, Michael Shannon has had quite the journey going from the small stage to the big screen!
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
MS: I started working in the theater in high school, like a lot of kids do. Then when I got out of high school, I was living in Chicago and started doing little plays there. Then very slowly I made my way up the ladder, like they say.
You started out in the Chicago theater scene. How did you book your first job and how did it come about?
There was a newspaper for the theatrical community in Chicago called, Perform Inc. They had auditions listed in the back of the newspaper and I found a copy of it in a coffee shop one day. They were looking for a young man my age (I was sixteen at the time) for a version of Romeo and Juliette called West Bank Story. I went in and auditioned; it was literally a little storefront theater with maybe twenty folding chairs and some clamp lights. But they wanted me to play the part and I went to rehearsal for a couple weeks, I was really excited, then about halfway through the process they fired me. They said that while I was talented, I didn’t have the experience I needed to be in the show. So, I found that very upsetting and worked some odd jobs to try to get my confidence back. Eventually, I got the paper again and auditioned for another play and didn’t get fired from that one.
When you moved to London did you notice differences with the approach to putting up a show?
Well, I never moved to London, per say. What happened was, I was in a play in Chicago called Killer Joe and we went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. While we were there, there was a man from a theater in London. (He ran the Bush Theater in Shepherd’s Bush. His name was Dominic.) He invited us to come to his theater. So we did that and while we were at the Bush Theater a producer from the West End named Michael Codron invited us to his theater on the West End (the Vaudeville Theater.) So, it was really that play that brought me from a little black box theater in Chicago to the West End. But, I never actually moved there. I just would go and do shows then come back.
In terms of there being a difference, I think it’s more surprising, honestly, how similar it is. I was never in London doing Shakespeare or anything like that. I was always doing contemporary American plays, or once I did an old German play. But, it could have been here or there or anywhere really. It didn’t really matter.
While in London you originated the role of Peter Evans in Bug. What drew you to the piece?
Tracy Letts wrote Killer Joe and Bug was his second play. Basically what happened was, another theater in London, the Gate Theater, came and saw Killer Joe. They got a hold of Tracy and asked if he had any other plays and Tracy said, “Yeah, I do. I’ve been working on another one.”
And the woman who ran the Gate Theater, whose name was Rose, asked if there were parts for the some of the actors that were in Killer Joe and he said, “Yeah. I wrote it with some of those people in mind.” So, that’s how we ended up doing Bug in London.
I just wanted to work with Tracy. I would have done the play, whatever it was. It could have been a play about aliens or school bus drivers or whatever. I just love working on Tracy’s writing because I think it’s exciting.
What’s it like to reprise a role so many times?
I love it. I love going back and doing things another time because you never really feel like you’re finished with anything. Inevitably, every time a play closes you come up with new ideas, new questions, new possibilities, and you wish you had another crack at it. I also never really get bored of doing a part. Sometimes I think it’s hard in terms of endurance, or stamina, to do a long run of a play. But, I think if you’ve got good writing and the characters are rich enough they merit a lot of attention and thought.
How did you take the character from stage to screen? Did you have to make any adjustments?
Well, it’s different acting on stage than in a movie, obviously, mostly because when you do a play you do it straight through without stopping and that’s a really great feeling. But, when you do a movie, they keep stopping all the time and that kind of drives you crazy.
The theaters I did Bug in were all very small. In some instances you probably felt closer to the action than you did in the movie. It’s not like I had to change my actual performance very much because I was used to doing the play in a very small space. But, it was different doing it with a bunch of people who’d never done it before. I was used to doing a play with people that I knew very well and when I showed up to do the movie, I was working with people I didn’t know very well. Also, I was the only one who’d done the play before so it took a little while to get used to that.
How did you end up making the transition to film and TV?
I don’t really know; it happened very slowly. I started in Chicago just getting little parts in whatever TV shows or movies they were making there, like I had a little tiny part in Groundhog Day or little tiny parts on Early Edition or Turks. Just like a lot of the stage actors in Chicago, you try to get what they call “Day Player Parts” and try and build a resume. And basically what happened was, because of the plays I was doing, particularly the ones that Tracy wrote like, Killer Joe and Bug, I started to leave Chicago and go other places like London or New York and I started to meet more and more high ranking people. I got a better agent, and things like that because of the exposure I was getting from those plays.
You have done so much in your career! What roles are your favorites and which ones do you think have helped define your career?
Everything I have done with Tracy, Killer Joe and Bug. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done with Jeff Nichols, the two films I’ve done with him: Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. We also have a film coming out this spring.
But I’ve really been fortunate to work with a lot of fascinating directors and some fairly legendary ones over the years. I was very touched to be in Sidney Lumet’s last picture, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. That’s a pretty honorable piece of trivia, I think, to be in his last picture. He was a wonderful man and great director. I also enjoyed working with Werner Herzog, Curtis Hanson, and Scorsese. It’s all been pretty remarkable, honestly.
What was the most interesting part about playing John Givings, the part you were nominated for an Academy Award? Looking back do you think you put something into that performance that you hadn’t in your other roles?
I don’t know if I put anything extra into that. It was a very high stakes room to be in, you know? You’ve got two of the biggest movie stars on planet earth, and then you’ve got the great Kathy Bates. It was the three of them from Titanic; it’s so weird to be in a room with the three stars from one of the most successful motion pictures of all time, and the great character actor Richard Easton playing my father. So, when you walked into the room to work, it was a real charge, a lot of electricity in the air.
I think we were all bonded by our love and devotion for the book and we were all really big fans of the writing. I really used the book as a map for what I did. I didn’t really feel a need to look beyond the book. Every thought, every glance, is so richly described. It felt like anyone who read the book would be able to do some version of John Givings quite well.
I put as much as I can into everything that I do. I don’t really ever take my foot off the petal.
You returned to the stage last fall/winter in Grace. Is it hard to jump back and forth?
No, not really. I mean that was an interesting experience because I had never been on Broadway and Broadway is a different animal. Like I said, a lot of the theater I’ve done over the years has been in very intimate venue and the Cort Theater is gigantic, it’s over a thousand seats, two balconies, a really big and beautiful old theater. It was very exciting to be there and go there everyday. But, it was also very demanding to essentially take not a huge spectacle of a play and make it work in that large space. I feel like the director and the designers really made that possible with the staging.
Do you prefer one medium over the other?
I prefer stage, honestly. I feel less anxious on stage and freer. Camera work is very exact and very technical; you’re really trying to capture very delicate moments in a very technical way sometimes. It makes me tense, honestly, most of the time. Sometimes I loosen up and have a little fun with it, but I think that a lot of the tension that people see in my work is just a lot of just me being tense.
Do you go about preparing for a role in a play differently from a movie?
No, not really. The biggest difference is that when you’re doing a play you get to rehearse a lot and when you’re doing a movie you don’t. With film everything needs to happen a little faster. You just really have to think on your feet because a lot of times you’re a little rushed.
In your next film, The Iceman, that’s being released in May, you play Richard Kuklinski a contract killer. How do approach playing someone who actually existed?
I just studied him. Anybody who wants to can watch interviews with him, they put them on HBO and you can find them on the Internet. So, I would just watch these interviews that he did while he was in prison. I got some unedited versions of the interviews (of course when HBO showed the interviews that edited it down to like an hour or hour and a half segment, but there are actually hours and hours of interviews.) I would watch them whenever I could and try to imagine what was going on inside of his head.
It was hard because a lot of the time he wouldn’t really tell you everything; he’s very secretive, understandably. But there are moments where you can really see what’s going on inside of him. And we put some of [the interviews] inside the film. Notably when he breaks down and shows some remorse for what he did.
When you’re playing such intense roles how do you separate reality from work?
Well, that’s not very difficult to do. I don’t really tend to have that problem. When I’m done shooting for the day I’m quite happy to go eat dinner and relax and play a game; I don’t torture myself. The work’s hard enough as it is, so you should enjoy your time off.
Would you ever like to do more comedic work?
I’ve done comedic work, historically. I actually did improv in Chicago and I’ve done things that are funny on film but I don’t think people see them as much or they’re not what I’m known for. But, it’s not like I don’t do them, it’s just not what people pay as much attention to.
What’s next for you in the theater world?
I’m doing a play this summer in Chicago at a little theater that I’ve been a part of for twenty years now called Red Orchid Theater. The play is called Simpatico by Sam Shepard. I’m really looking forward to it. I’m doing it with the guy who started the theater who’s an old dear friend of mine and we haven’t acted together in a long time.
What advice do you have for aspiring actors who hope to have the same kind of success you have achieved?
None. I have no advice for anyone. I’m not ever comfortable with giving people advice. It’s very difficult and I honestly can’t believe it ever happened to me to begin with… I can’t even tell you how it happened. Like I said, I met other people that had a huge impact on my life; it wasn’t all about me. Just keep an eye out for good writers, that’s what it boils down to. You can be the greatest actor but if you don’t have a good script, you’re screwed. I found some really good scripts and they changed my life. ♦