If you only knew Michael Shannon from his last half-decade of work — including Boardwalk Empire, Take Shelter and soon, Man of Steel — he’s not the first guy you’d walk up to on the street and give a big hug.
To put it mildly, Shannon can seem a bit intimidating. A rock of a human, his face is impenetrable, stoic, and naturally falls into a glare or smirk; even his smile is tight-lipped. On a less talented man, that might serve as a warning sign; for Shannon, learning to focus his intensity has translated into a 21-year acting career, the most productive years of which have seen him playing the anti-hero, those abusive men, tough cops, and hardened criminals.
The 38-year old Kentucky native will next be seen in The Iceman, a dark drama in which he plays Richard Kuklinski, the real-life Gambino family hitman who claimed to have killed more than 100 people before being busted in 1986. It’s a scarily intense role — which he just recently satirized in a hilarious Funny or Die video where he reads aloud the infamous crazy sorority girl email.
As it turns out, that’s the real Michael Shannon, the same guy who suggests, seemingly out of nowhere, that he could star in a comedy film titled Scrotum.
Shannon is less serious than he is deadpan, drily witty to the point of appearing stoic, a secret goofball in an enforcer’s body. “I would love to do more comedies, and if anyone ever sends me anything I think is funny, I’ll do it,” he says. “Either that or I could write something. Or maybe I should just do stand-up. I’ve had people suggest that sometimes. I did improv in Chicago for a number of years. Too long, actually; I think it may have permanently damaged me.”
His stage work in that era led to small TV roles and film cameos — he is retroactively famous for a diner scene in Groundhog Day — and eventually to supporting parts in movies such Pearl Harbor.
The theater experience also landed him the lead in the film version of the play Bug, in the same role he originated on the Chicago stage 10 years prior. But things really took off for Shannon when he agreed to star in a first film by a baby-faced wannabe director named Jeff Nichols.
A friend of Nichols’ professor at the North Carolina School of the Arts, Shannon had participated in a short film that the aspiring filmmaker watched in class. Dazzled, he wrote a screenplay with the actor in mind, then cold-called him to offer up the part.
“Jeff’s a real smoothie. He’s very charismatic. And he’s very self-assured, which is very sexy on a young person,” Shannon says. “He wasn’t, like, cocky, he wasn’t arrogant, but he wasn’t afraid. And honestly, I think that’s one of the reasons that I was able to bust through this business. So much of what stops people advancing in this business is fear. It’s like, ‘I’m not good enough, why would they pick me, I don’t know what I’m doing…’ If you’re genuinely able to just walk in a room and say, ‘I’m not afraid, I don’t give a fuck what’s going on,’ then you can get a job.’”
Shannon asked Nichols if he at least had any short films that he could show him. Nichols said that he had a few from college but didn’t think they were of the sharing caliber. Charisma compensated for a lack of prior experience; Shannon signed on to star in Shotgun Stories anyway.
A Southern tale about family rivalry, it was a critical hit and won several awards on the festival circuit. It also cemented Shannon and Nichols’ relationship as great friends and future collaborators. He became a hot commodity soon after, with 2009 to 2010 bringing Shannon that Oscar nomination, for his supporting turn in Revolutionary Road, and a lead role on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
“I’m one and done on the TV shows,” he says. “Boardwalk Empire and then I’m never doing television ever again.”
Amid his continued stage work, he teamed up again with Nichols for 2011’s Take Shelter, a stirring portrait of a man in the throes of an emotional breakdown and losing his grip on reality. Playing opposite Jessica Chastain, his haunting, shattered, raging performance earned him an armful of critics and festival awards, while the film scooped up three trophies at Cannes.
Since then, Shannon has been prolific, with eight major roles in three years, including a supporting turn in Nichols’ latest, Mud, which stars Matthew McConaughey. Also — last fall, he was acting in Grace alongside Paul Rudd when an old guy puked from the cheap seats.
For The Iceman, Shannon had to find a way into playing such a cold-blooded killer, something made more difficult by the double life — with a loving wife (played by Winona Ryder) and children he cherished — that Kuklinski lived. The hitman’s abusive childhood — “his parents couldn’t give a flying rat’s ass about him and treated him like crap” — helps explains his damage, but Shannon also is quick to point out that murder is in the eye of the beholder.
“Some people get away with killing. That’s the big thing that nobody brings up,” he says matter-of-factly, like he’s telling a painful truth. “There are people in this world who kill people with impunity, all the time. Not just one, but five. A bunch. There’s a bunch of people that could put a frickin’ plug in your ass and get the hell away with it. So, you know, it’s just a matter of what badge you have and what your motive is, and if you can prove that you’re with the government, you were protecting someone.”
“The way Kuklinski said it, ‘If I didn’t kill these guys, somebody else would,’” Shannon adds, appealing to reason, if not sound legal principles. “Even in the movie, outside the pool hall, he cuts the neck of the guy for speaking ill of his girlfriend, the love of his life — that guy was a frickin’ douchebag.”
Next, Shannon will play General Zod, the big, bad guy who takes on Superman in Man of Steel. But when he’s not staring down cameras, the Brooklyn father of one devotes himself to music. “I can’t write scripts for crap, but I write songs,” Shannon says, almost mocking himself — except for the fact that he does indeed sing and play guitar for the folk rock group Corporal, whose first album came out in 2010. “I’ve got a band, like most actors. Like most actors worth their salt, I have a band.”
Actors want to be rock stars, and rock stars want to be actors, right?
“They all just want to have sex,” he says. The guy knows he’s funny, and he’s letting loose. But it’s been a long road to get to this point.
“I did original comedy in speech team in high school,” Shannon says. “I wrote some little frickin’ routine, you get like, five minutes. I can’t even remember. It wasn’t any good. I never won. Maybe I got funnier since then. Maybe life’s hard lessons have brought out my sense of humor.”
They’ve also made things a bit sweeter.
Upon his Oscar nomination in 2009, the candy company Mars used one of Shannon’s Chicago theater company photos — “I was wearing an ugly orange T-shirt and was half-shaved” — as the model for the tiny portrait printed on every candy in a bag of complimentary, personalized M&Ms made for each nominee. “They’re still in the freezer,” he says. “How the fuck would I eat those?”