Michael Shannon Playboy Interview


The Playboy Interview With Michael Shannon

You’re not likely to find a better example of the real Michael Shannon than the story of how he spent this year’s Academy Awards night. Although he wasn’t nominated, The Shape of Water—the interspecies romance in which he co-stars as a sadistic government agent—was up for several categories, including best picture. When it took the top prize, Shannon didn’t join his director and castmates onstage; instead, he watched it all from the Old Town Ale House, a Chicago fixture where the jukebox never gets turned off and a painting of a naked Sarah Palin with a machine gun hangs on a wall. Shannon was sitting alone at the bar in a puffy jacket, nursing a beer beneath the tiny TV. If any other A-list actor had done this, it would have felt like a bad PR stunt. But when Shannon skips the red carpet to slum it at a dive bar, it feels exactly right—the perfect expression of his mercurial spirit.

If Shannon has a master plan for his career, it’s difficult to pinpoint; then again, the same could be said of his entire life. From an early age, he was a natural vagabond: Born in Lexington, Kentucky, he bounced between living with his mother, a social worker in Lexington, and his father, an accounting professor in Chicago. After dropping out of high school, he co-founded A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago, then broke into movies, first as a bit player in Groundhog Day, before deciding he wanted to do theater instead. He fled back to Chicago to do plays including Tracy Letts’s Bug and Killer Joe, both of which went on to critical acclaim in New York and London, which led to bigger roles in such blockbusters as Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys II, which led to filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has cast Shannon three times to date, calling him “arguably the most important [actor] of his generation.”

Shannon manages to appear in at least one prestigious art-house movie every year, two of which—Nocturnal Animals and Revolutionary Road—have earned him Oscar nominations. But beyond that, his choices are all over the map. He has played a lot of bad guys, from an abusive boyfriend in 8 Mile to a contract killer in The Iceman to a corrupt Prohibition agent in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, but he bristles at any suggestion of typecasting. Whether it’s a book-burning zealot in Fahrenheit 451 or a pissed-off sorority girl in a Funny or Die video, he can be simultaneously ferocious and achingly vulnerable.

In his new movie, What They Had, about a woman with Alzheimer’s and the family struggling to protect her, Shannon ventures into new territory as the funniest character in an otherwise heart-wrenching drama. When he tells his sister, played by Hilary Swank, how their confused mother tried to seduce him, it’s a welcome moment of comedic relief. “I just kept calling her Mom,” he explains. “Thanks, Mom. It’s nice to see you too, Mom. I’m really glad you birthed me, Mom.” His character calls his sister “Dingleberry,” makes jokes about pants-shitting and responds to news that their grandmother drank the holy water in church with “At least she’s hydrated.”

Playing the laugh lines may seem to be a stretch for the 44-year-old Shannon—who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, actress Kate Arrington, and their two daughters, Sylvie and Marion—but it’s business as usual for an actor accustomed to defying expectations. In just the past five years, his roles have ranged from Elvis Presley to Superman’s archnemesis. We sent Contributing Editor Eric Spitznagel to meet with Shannon in New York City. He reports: “I’ve known Shannon since the early 1990s, when he was still a teenager. He acted in a few plays that I co-wrote and directed in Chicago, at a theater in a crime-ridden neighborhood where an audience of three was considered a packed house. For this interview, we huddled in the corner of a restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel and drank several glasses of wine. Later, we went to the Late Night With Seth Meyers studio, where he was a guest, and after the show we drank another bottle of wine in his dressing room while talking jazz and theater with Common. Shannon is an imposing presence, six-three with gangly limbs, a bushy mustache (he grew it for a role, his first authentic facial hair in a movie) and a hardboiled detective’s jawline. Regardless of what he’s saying, there’s an intensity to him—he orders food like he’s trying to get a confession out of the waitress—and he has a super-dry sense of humor that’s easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. But if Shannon has a tendency to stare at you until you think his retinas are going to burn into your brain, it’s only because, unlike a lot of actors, he seems more interested in listening than hearing the sound of his own voice.

“Just moments after we found our table, Shannon glanced at the menu and noticed a dish called Charred Suckling Pig Hearts. ‘Are you kidding me?’ he said. ‘I want that. I want that so much.’ It was not how I envisioned our interview beginning, but it also seemed weirdly perfect—like, if I randomly walked into a bar and sat down next to Shannon, this is exactly how it would go.”

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