The Take Shelter actor discusses schizophrenia and the paternal instincts that bonded him with his character.
Michael Shannon doesn’t do straight. That serrated demeanour and those big, fierce eyes hardly scream ‘everyman’. Indeed, in the latter half of the last decade it’s Shannon’s now trademark intensity and ability to take himself (and the audience) to a darker place blink-quick that’s seen him line his mantle with numerous awards and plaudits.
Yet while he’s made his name playing men mad on power (The Runaways), revenge (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), and just plain mad (Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done), Shannon isn’t about to let any labels stick, as LWLies found out recently when we spoke to him about reuniting with Shotgun Stories writer/director Jeff Nichols for Take Shelter.
LWLies: How’re things?
Shannon: Good thanks. I’m in Vancouver.
For the festival?
Uh... Oh, there is a film festival starting here, but I’m actually here for Man of Steel. We’re shooting and... we shot about a third of the movie in Illinois, in the rural areas around Chicago and then in Chicago centre itself a little bit. So that was about a third of it, and we just moved to Vancouver last week to do pretty much the remainder, except from a couple of weeks in California.
You’re playing a more patently villainous character, whereas more of your recent characters have been ambiguous. Was that fun, playing someone a bit more clear-cut?
Well, General Zod is actually quite challenging, because he’s not a stereotypical villain; he doesn’t breathe fire or have horns coming out of his skull. He’s a general, that’s what he is. In the same way as General Patton or General Grant were generals, he’s a little more complicated than just a villain, he’s someone who has a lot of affection for Krypton and is a very patriotic person. So the long and short of it is that I’m having a lot of fun playing the characters.
Let’s talk Take Shelter. Going back to before Shotgun Stories, when did you first meet Jeff?
I didn’t actually begin by meeting Jeff, I began, or our relationship began, by me meeting his teacher, a gentleman named Gary Hawkins. Gary and I worked together on the Sundance Filmmakers’ Lab on a project that Gary has been trying to put together. We shot some scenes and then Gary, when he went back to North Carolina School for the Arts, which is where Jeff was studying filmmaking, showed the scenes to his students. So Jeff saw the scenes and apparently he started writing Shotgun Stories with me in mind and when he had finished the screenplay he asked Gary how to get hold of me. Then he called and he was very, what’s the word... he was just getting out of film school and didn’t have a lot of money, so he approached me in a formal but very sincere way.
When was this?
Um, I don’t know. I’d just finished doing Bug Off Broadway, so it was... 2004? That’s not my strong point. Once a year’s over I don’t recollect, at least numerically. I think 2004. So I read it and I thought it was one of the most brilliant screenplays I’d ever read in my life and that I’d do it, no matter what the circumstances. I basically did it for free, well, I got a token once the film did okay, but I didn’t really want it. So that was the beginning, I went down to Arkansas and we were surrounded by a lot of Jeff’s friends and family, who were all helping out. I think me and Natalie Canerday were the only SAG members on set, actually. But it was an amazing experience. And after we finished shooting Jeff took a long time to edit and get it out to the world, it was a very arduous process and I think he was spent by the time anyone got to see it. He really put everything he had into making it. Then he became very anxious as to what his next move would be, so he had to get to work and I think out of that anxiety, along with other anxieties that he was experiencing at the time like being a father and starting a family and basically becoming a man. That was the genesis for Take Shelter.
One thing that’s striking about Curtis is that while on the surface he’s suffering from a mental crisis, it’s actually brought on by a paternal one...
Exactly, it’s kind of almost a spiritual crisis. The thing he’s afraid of is nature and he doesn’t believe in God, so if you don’t believe that anyone’s in charge of nature, that it’s just happening arbitrarily, that can be immensely frightening. I like what you say about paternal because in the film you hear that Curtis’ father passed away not too long ago and although he has an older brother they’re estranged so Curtis has essentially become the patriarch. He doesn’t really have anyone to ask for advice anymore, and a lot of his fear is born out of that.
Did you do much research into schizophrenic behaviour? Only, Curtis has to go to his local library to help him understand what he might be dealing with.
Yeah, I wanted to start from the same place as Curtis, I didn’t want to know more than Curtis knew. I think Curtis at the start of the film, for want of a better phrase, is an everyman; he’s a very normal person. There is the incident with his mother in dealing with her illness and her absence from his life that is something he’s dealt with in his own healthy way, but other than that he’s just a stand up guy who’s punching the clock every day. The thing is, things can lurk in your subconscious, these little seeds of something like what Curtis is experiencing, but they may lay dormant for years or even decades and then all of a sudden they get a little water on them and they start growing. Up until the movie starts Curtis is a very normal person.
What’s the challenge in approaching a character who is normal, as opposed to Bug and My Son, My Son where your characters a bit more detached from the real world to begin with?
I find a lot of that is influenced by the director and what they’re asking for. With Jeff it really doesn’t make sense to start from too extreme a place because it’s just not Jeff’s aesthetic. Jeff writes characters that are kind of quietly wounded, that are pretty close to being convinced that they can handle what ever is wrong with them. That’s his aesthetic and I pick a lot of it up by osmosis, you know. When you’re on set and you’re being directed by Werner Herzog, the director’s energy is very contagious. And I’ve got kind of a zealic approach; whatever environment I’m in and whoever I’m being directed by I tend to transform in order to be appropriate to their film or their story or their milieu. Even just when I’m travelling, if I come to London, say, I find myself speaking with the accent all of a sudden, which is ridiculous.
Yeah I guess. It’s in our DNA.
In Take Shelter did you find that you had to buy into Jeff’s vision even more so than on previous films? A lot of the time you’re reacting to things you can’t actually see, like swarms of birds or storm clouds.
It is and it isn’t. It’s difficult if you try to rationalise it or over intellectualise it. That’s when you can really get into a pickle. I try to be very simple about it, almost in the way a child would behave. Children can do that, you know; if you ask them to act like there’s a bunch of birds flying down towards their head, they’ll just do it. They won’t think twice, they’ll just us their imaginations. Of course by the time we’re all grown up our imagination has been sucked away from us, so as an actor you have to try and get some of it back.
What do you look for in a character?
Well, usually a struggle, a character who’s struggling, really fighting for something. It has to be an epic struggle, nothing too casual; I’m not really comfortable with that. Although I think more than anything I look for a variety, which is probably surprising to hear for some people because I know some folk think I tend to play the same characters a lot of the time. But for me variety is really key. Even if you think all I do is play crazy people, my response would be there’s a lot of different types of crazy. You know, things like Take Shelter I’m drawn to for different reasons than I may be drawn to other things I do. Both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter are about family, and they’re about family in a very moving but unsentimental way, which I find very appealing.
I find Jeff’s movies very moving without being sappy. And you see a correlation between Take Shelter and Bug, it’s not just the schizophrenia, there’s more in it for me about exploring the notion of intimacy and how much people can really share one another’s burden. Even with the people you love it can be hard to share yourself completely. We all keep secrets, even from the people dearest to us, and I think it’s important that we keep some things in our heads. It’s something I often think about and it’s a question that I think will always be relevant.
Did anything in your own life influence you taking on this role?
There was a lot of synchronicity; Jeff was starting a family and I was starting a family – I just recently had my first child with my girlfriend – and Curtis’ father passed away and my father passed away recently. And also, I find Curtis very – this is going to sound dorky – I just find him very lovable. He’s such a good person, and even though he’s struggling with some really bizarre stuff he doesn’t give up. When he says, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to fix this’ he really means it. There’s not a lot of people like that out there these days. To me what makes it an interesting story is that he has a family, a young family, and you want to know whether or not this family can survive what Curtis is going through.
You mentioned being aware of being generalised, would you ever let that inform your choices in roles?
I think that would be unfortunate if that did happen. I guess there’s certain parts that I turn my back on just because they’re not complicated enough, but I don’t think id ever read something that I’d generally enjoyed and not do it because other people might think it was me being repetitive.