Michael Shannon - Conversation taken from TTA10 - SS2016
Interview Alessio Perticari
Photography David Schulze
Styling Benjamin Sturgill
Hair Jordan Bree Long
When Miuccia Prada chooses an actor to represent her brand, they are either up-and-coming rebels destined to take Hollywood by storm, or seasoned rebels who’ve spent organic careers as relentless craftsmen of the art of acting. Michael Shannon belongs to the latter group as the face of Prada’s 2015 Fall campaign. Shannon started his career in theatre, and steadily began working with the most iconic figures in the movie business: Bill Murray, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Poitier, Werner Herzog, Oliver Stone, John Waters, Jeff Nichols, and most recently Tom Ford. At 42 years old he has played in over forty movies. Those who have not yet seen him on the screen will have plenty of opportunities in 2016: with twelve movies completed this year, Shannon seems to have gone back to a work ethos common to actors during the silent film era. His impressive industriousness is matched by the quality of his performances, for which he has received both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. For The Travel Almanac he appeared in an editorial impersonating different characters, and during the presentation of his movie Midnight Special at the Berlinale, Shannon found a moment to sit down with us and give a little taste of his deadpan storytelling. During our conversation we spoke about his love for music, his opinion about movies that are clever and cerebral versus those that emotionally engage the viewers, family anecdotes during bad whether, and interviews with criminals.
Have you ever been to Berlin before?
No, I’ve never been in Berlin. I’ve been in airports in Germany, like in Munich, but that’s it.
So this is your first Berlinale! Do you plan on setting some time aside to visit the city?
I had films at the festival before, but I haven’t been able to come because of work. So the fact that I could even find three days to come was a major accomplishment. On my flight I was thinking, “I never would have thought when I was a little boy that I would be crossing off the major cities of Europe in my travels.” I spent time in London, in Paris; I haven’t done Rome yet. I have done Venice and Florence. And now I have Berlin on the list. I have some time this afternoon. I plan on trying to go out and see something, even if it’s just driving down the streets and looking out of the window.
Who did you listen to on your trip here?
Oh Jeez, who have I have been listening to lately? Oh I’m really into this guy, Kurt Vile, I like him a lot. Not Brecht’s friend! This guy is American—you spell it V-I-L-E. He’s really good. Have you ever heard of him?
Of course! He is featured in this issue of the magazine as well.
And thanks to suggestions you gave in other interviews, I’ve been listening to Deerhoof and Thelonious Monk.
Did you go out and buy Deerhoof?
Yeah. I must say, you have really good taste in music.
Thank you! That’s what I love. I love music. I started playing music before I started acting. I still sometimes think, what it would be like to go back to it more.
Do you tour with your band Corporal?
I never had enough time to tour. Whenever we play it’s a one night thing. We are going to play at the end of February, on the 29th, the magical leap year day, which seemed a fitting day for us to play—a rarity.
Are your gigs mainly in Chicago and New York?
We play the majority of our shows in New York. We actually just played at Sundance, which was the furthest west we played besides Las Vegas, but that didn’t go so well . . .
Are you going to have a second album coming out?
That would require a lot of work. We recorded a couple of songs a year and a half ago, but that is just two song. We need more, but I’m too busy right now to pull it off. When I did that album I had enough time, I wasn’t acting as much. For the last couple of years I’ve been going from one job to the other.
How many movies are you starring in that are coming out in 2016?
Well it depends if they all come out. I did lots of small movies that need to get bought and distributed. I had a couple of movies at Sundance. It looks that those are probably coming out in the Fall—Complete Unkown, and Frank & Lola. There’s also Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon. I did this movie with Tom Ford called Noctural Animals
How was it working with him?
I love Tom Ford, I was very surprised by him. I didn’t know much about him, I knew that he was a big name in the fashion industry, but he’s a very down-to-earth kind of guy. The part of the film I’m in is set in Texas, and he’s from that neck of the woods, so he knew what he was doing.
Did you notice a difference in his approach compared to a director trained at a film school?
He was definitely very involved in creating the look of the character. I never had a director be that present during that part of the process. He was there for all the wardrobe stuff, but he even cut my hair . . .
He came in while I was getting a haircut and was just watching. Finally, he said very politely: “do you mind if I just . . . ? I can’t really explain it . . . ” He took the clippers, started cutting, and gave me this amazing haircut.
So you were happy about it.
Yeah, I didn’t mind. But I felt bad because I didn’t know if it was crossing a line, in terms of the unions. Yolanda, the hairdresser, was OK with it, I think.
Well, when it’s the director cutting the hair, it’s a different story.
Yeah, I think the director can do whatever he wants.
I saw Midnight Special yesterday at a screening. I was wondering what you thought about the end, does it suggest the attainability of a better world?
Oh man you’re asking me about the end of the movie! I don’t want to ruin it for people that haven’t seen it yet! It’s a hard movie to talk about. I know how Jeff [Nichols] feels, but I think his preference is that people don’t know much about the film when they see it. But in terms of the question, I think there must be more than just one dimension to the world. There must be. This can’t be all there is…
Because otherwise it would be too bad?
It’s not about good or bad or anything. It’s just about physics. There’s so much that goes unexplained. There’s so much we still don’t understand.
What I like about the movie is the relationship between the two parents and the son. They will accept him and do anything for him no matter what. It doesn’t happen that often in families where children are a bit different.
That’s a good point. Jeff thinks a lot about being a parent. And his writing is about that, being a parent, or not being a parent, or being a kid, in every movie he’s made, Shot Gun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, now this one. He makes movies about children that get taken care of or not taken care of. The ramifications of having children seems to be a central preoccupation.
By the way, congratulations on your Golden Globe nomination for 99 Homes! A New York Times article just came out titled “A booming market for art that imitates life after the financial crisis.” Your movie 99 Homes recently came out, The Big Short came out, some novels on the subject are coming out, one by Jay McInerney. Do you think it’s a new genre or is it a sign that people now feel more comfortable and want to know what caused the crash?
Yeah, that was pretty exciting. In any case, I can’t speak much about the novels. I can tell you what I think of 99 Homes and The Big Short. I think they are two very different movies. I saw The Big Short and I enjoyed it, but other than Steve Carell’s performance, it didn’t seem tremendously emotional—there’s something kind of cold and clever about it. And 99 Homes is not cold and clever; it has a lot of heart in it. Every movie Ramin [Bahrani], the film maker, makes is about something he cares deeply about. He cares deeply about people. I almost feel like Ramin is its own genre . . . I don’t know another film maker like him. He’s very much inspired by social realism. Juliane Moore in an interview about Freeheld used the phrase “politics of the personal”, and that exactly reminded me of Ramin. The Big Short was trying to explain something that is almost unexplainable and incomprehensible. But it was still in the realm of the cerebral, despite the work of the cast to invest into it and imbue it with some character. I feel like Ramin is concerned about the way people treat each other in a very profound way, and is going to continue to explore that.
To debunk the myth that people are intimidated by you because of the roles you have taken on, you briefly mentioned being mugged once but then the TV host interrupted your story . . .
Yeah, I was mugged in Chicago a long time ago. Two guys surprised me from behind. Because I’m so tall, from time to time, if I’m lost in thought, I’ll run into something like a tree branch, and that’s what it felt like. They were behind me, and suddenly they were hitting me on the forehead, and I was like, “Did I just run into a tree branch?” And then the next thing I knew, I was on the ground, and this guy stole my bag. At the time I didn’t have any money—this is back when there wasn’t anybody interviewing me. So they didn’t get much of anything. Fortuitously, some cops pulled up right after. Together we found them, caught them, and went to the police station. At the police station, I was in a room with one of them. Thankfully he was handcuffed to the bench, because he wasn’t happy. I said, “You must feel really stupid now, cause I didn’t have any money, did I?” He was saying fuck your mother and all that. But then it got really weird because the cops started questioning me. They wouldn’t let me go. I think they thought it was a drug deal gone bad.
What did they ask you?
They asked me what I was doing out, if I knew these guys, and why would these guys have a problem with me. All that crap. It was a long time ago, I forgot the details. I guess they were being thorough. But by the time I got out of the police station the sun had come up—the thing gobbled up my entire night.
How was Chicago? Did you start acting directly at the Red Orchid Theatre?
No, when I started in Chicago Red Orchid hadn’t opened yet. The first theatre in Chicago I started in was called the Illinois Theatre Center, which was a really weird place considering it had such a plain name. It was way out in the suburbs, not the city proper. The second place I worked at was called the Next Lab, and that’s where I met Tracy Letts. That’s pretty important, because that’s how it all started. Tracy is an actor; he did a couple of plays at Red Orchid, but the main thing Tracy did was to write two plays that I did that changed the course of my life substantially. He wrote a play called Killer Joe and another one called Bug.
You were also in the film version of Bug.
Yes, but Killer Joe was what got me out of Chicago in the first place. That was the first time I went to Europe during that show—the Edinburgh Festival and then London. So the next thing I knew, I was going from working in these small theatres in Chicago not bigger than this room, to the West End in London, and all because of Killer Joe. Then I did it in New York, and that’s when I started getting movie work.
Did you follow the Sean Penn and El Chapo story?
Yeah, he went to interview him in Mexico. Has there been an aftermath? I think he’s still alive, right? No one has killed him yet.
No, I think El Chapo was happy to give the interview and get the attention, but Sean Penn has been investigated by the government on the affair.
I thought it was interesting only because, I’ve heard—and neither do I have any proof on this nor would I like to be thought of as an expert in any shape or form—but I’ve heard that from time to time, just through the grape vine, Mr. Penn sometimes enjoys the use of a narcotic now and then or has historically at some point in his life. So I thought it was interesting that he was interviewing this guy and saying, “Don’t you think you are part of the problem?” while El Chapo was sitting there saying, “Well, if it wasn’t me it would be somebody else. The demand is there, and as long as the demand is there, somebody is going to do what I’m doing.” Am I crazy to say that? Have you heard this as well?
Maybe in the 90s when Penn was with Madonna. There were a few alleged stories. I don’t know if it’s the case now.
I would assume not. He seems really focused on humanitarian work now, between his work in Haiti and other things. More power to him!
Would you have done the interview? You have some experience working for Interview Magazine. Which criminal would you have chosen if a magazine had asked you to do something similar?
Honestly, the person I would have most liked to talk to is dead, and that’s only because I was doing a movie about him, The Iceman. It would have been fascinating to actually talk to Kuklinski. I probably would have been terrified. I heard that it was hard to be in the same room with him without being scared out of your mind. There was this energy about him that was terrifying—I saw it by watching his interviews. I did meet some of his children that were very kind to me. I was moved by that. They came and saw the movie. It’s got to be hard for them. But they seemed to appreciate the effort I made and that meant a lot to me.
Apropos intense characters and movies, you just did another movie with Werner Herzog.
I wonder if that’s going to come out this year, maybe they are trying to show it at Cannes. Werner has always lots of things going on . . . he’s writing books, he’s making documentaries, teaching classes, traveling. He doesn’t have a deadline for anything.
The movie is about the story of an ecological disaster in South America, so you must have spent some time there. How was it?
Basically there were two locations. One was a hacienda that someone said was the oldest hacienda in South America, built in the 1500s, and in the movie that’s my character’s house. It was just outside of Sucre. The other location was the salt lands. We stayed in a hotel made out of salt. It was so beautiful there. I brought my little brother down there and he really enjoyed it. He came with me. He was kind of down in the dumps, he still lives in Kentucky, which is where I’m from, and he needed to get out of there for a while so I brought him down to Bolivia. It was a cool trip.
I’ve heard that Arizona is a special place for you.
Arizona was a very special place for my father. It meant a lot to him. Once he took me there, and the two of us drove around the state. He took me to see a bunch of places I hadn’t seen before: the Grand Canyon, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, and went to a lot of Indian Reservations. My father had a house in Tucson, but he also had some land way south, by the Mexican border. He dreamed of building a house down there. It’s really isolated, in the middle of nowhere. Actually, while I was coming to Berlin, his widow went down there, because that’s where we scattered his ashes. She goes down there every year to remember him.
You and your family live on the waterfront in New York. How was Hurricane Sandy for you?
Our building is five stories high, and the ground floor is a grocery store. The owner lives on the top floor, so he’s always there and working on it. When the storm hit, he had the building functioning smoothly after a week. The grocery store was ruined though, they had to throw everything out. The place had been a vibrant bustling grocery store and became a giant empty room with absolutely nothing in it. It was very creepy. We live at the very edge of the water and at the end of Van Brunt, the main street that cuts through the neighborhood of Red Hook, and I walked up and down that street literally thousands of times over the last eight years, but after the storm it made me feel guilty, because we were fine, but the smaller houses were destroyed. People didn’t know exactly what to do next. You’d just see water pumps everywhere just pumping out dirty water onto the streets, basements filled with water or mold. There’s a little school in the neighborhood that had a lot of work done and eventually a grocery store moved back into our building, so now you wouldn’t know anything had happened. In fact, the neighborhood is more popular than ever. It’s got more business, more people. It’s a real destination, Red Hook. People come on the weekend. We also get these international cruise liners that dock here. So the neighborhood is flooded by people from all over the world walking up and down Van Brunt . . .
[Michael´s publicist comes in to gently remind us that the time is up]
You feel like you’ve got a story?
Yeah, I think so.
You can always make stuff up, like, “Shannon threw his beer across the room and said, ‘How dare you talk to me like that!’”
Maybe . . . that’s an inspiring start.