Michael Shannon Breaks Down His Career, from 'Boardwalk Empire' to 'Man of Steel'
Released on 06/02/2023
Even the fact that we're even having this conversation.
Here's all the movies you've done.
It, like, doesn't seem real to me.
It's like, I did? I did all that?
It doesn't seem real.
Hi, I'm Michael Shannon
and this is the timeline of my career.
Brad, how was the wedding?
Well, I just wanted to thank you
for making Debbie go through with it and everything.
All I did was fan the flame of her passion for you, Fred.
You are the best!
I started out in Chicago doing non-equity theater,
which is non-union, you know,
I didn't even get paid or nothing, just scraping by.
But there was a casting director in town named Jane Brody
and she had a scene study class.
One day she said, Hey Mike, I want you to come in
and meet Harold Ramis.
I said, Really? You're kidding.
She's like, No, he's gonna make a movie here.
Super nervous going in to meet Mr. Ramis,
but he was just as sweet as could be.
You know, there wasn't much to it, the scene.
It's basically me shouting, WrestleMania,
but I guess he was charmed by what I did
and I got the part.
WrestleMania! No way, no way!
The funnest thing about that job was really just getting
to watch Bill Murray do his thing and improvise.
And since I was in the restaurant,
I just got a real tutorial getting
to watch him do his thing.
The biggest thing I learned watching Bill Murray
was that it's important to have fun.
He was just so relaxed, he was just having so much fun.
It's easy to forget that, sometimes.
He just had a a real ease about him.
He was so comfortable in his own skin, you know?
You hear about my father?
He died, this past weekend.
I made this film Shotgun Stories, which was the beginning
of my long partnership with Jeff Nichols.
I was doing something called the Sundance Filmmakers Lab
and a fellow named Gary Hawkins,
he had a script called Downtime.
But Gary taught at the North Carolina School for the Arts.
He was very proud of what he had done at the lab
and he showed it to his students,
and one of his students came up to him
after seeing this and said,
Mr. Hawkins, do you know how to get ahold
of Michael Shannon?
The kid said, Well, I wrote this script
and I really want him to read it.
And Gary kind of looked at him like,
You gotta be kidding me.
Next thing I know, in the mail,
I got the script for Shotgun Stories.
I read it and I thought it was
the most incredible screenplay I had ever read in my life.
I called this kid up and I said, Man, you're deep.
Like, this is really cool.
He said, Look, I don't have any money at all.
Like, I wanna shoot on film and any money I do have
is gonna go to buying the film.
He said, I'll take good care of you
and my mom will cook dinner for us every night.
I was like, You know, what the heck?
You only live once.
And I just had the most amazing experience
making that movie.
Probably the hardest scene in Shotgun Stories
was when I go to the hospital and I hear that Kid's dead.
That was a hard scene just because there's a thaw
that happens and that's, you know,
for this guy that you've watched the whole time
kind of not really showing his hand very much,
for him to suddenly receive this incredibly emotional news
and actually have a fairly genuine reaction to it.
That was probably the trickiest part.
Now, I don't need to be told that a man who goes
after his mother with a coffee table's putting himself
in a weak position legally, that's obvious.
My recollection of my audition for Revolutionary Road
is that I actually went into the office.
I went in and I read with the casting director.
I was doing the scene and, yeah, she felt like I upset her,
I guess particularly when I said the line,
Why don't you do us all a favor?
Why don't you shut up?
I think that really got to her.
How about doing everybody a favor? How about shutting up?
Once I did my audition, then I went in to meet Sam.
I remember driving from San Diego
to Los Angeles to meet him.
And the whole time driving up there, I was like,
God, I hope I can do this again.
And then I walked into the office and Sam was there
and he said, Oh no, you don't have to do it again.
No, I just wanted to meet you.
I was like, Oh, whew, thank God.
Playing a guy who says what he thinks and believes
at all times is liberating, I guess.
But, I mean, the thing you have to remember
was the company I was in, so I'm trying to do this
in a room with the, you know, Leonardo DiCaprio
and Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates and Richard Easton.
I'm kinda the bottom of that totem pole
and yet I'm trying to, like, take over the situation.
Have you any champagne, whiskey, perhaps?
We do, sir.
It's all right, dear.
I got a call from my manager and he said,
Did you watch The Sopranos?
I was like, Why?
And he's like, Well, the fellow made that,
Terence Winter, he's making another show
called Boardwalk Empire and he wants to meet
with you about it.
I'm like, Oh wow, okay.
It'll be him and Martin Scorsese.
I said, Can you repeat that?
It was on a day that I was shooting up in Hudson
and they were like, Look, just as soon
as you're done shooting, get in a car.
and get to the hotel as quick as you can
'cause they're waiting for you.
The day of the meeting, we go overtime.
Finally, We're like, okay, we got it. That's a wrap.
And I, like, bowl outta that chair.
I'm like, Get me in that car.
Get on the road to go into Manhattan,
bumper to bumper traffic, like a fricking parking lot.
Without a doubt, the longest car ride of my entire life.
I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown.
I finally get to the freaking hotel,
thank God they're still there.
And I'm so fried from being so stressed out
about getting there and Scorsese just starts,
So the show's about this and that and
[mumbles] and yeah, it's set in the prohibition.
Do you know much about this period in time because?
And Terence Winter's just sitting there,
nodding his head and I'm like, it's just all going like--
[imitates airplane engine]
I'm like, Uh-huh, uh-huh.
And then Terence Winter's like,
We don't want you to play a gangster
or a mobster or something.
We want you to play, you're like the Elliot Ness guy.
So I'm the good guy?
They're like, Yeah, yeah.
Everybody stay seated.
I think a lot of people imagine
that when you get to be on a show for a long time, you know,
you really get to dig into, you know, something.
But Boardwalk had a really kind of odd rhythm to it
for the actors, I think.
Like, let's say it took, you know, I don't know,
five months to do a season of Boardwalk
or something like that.
Over that period of time, you might only work, like,
20 days, couple of scenes in every episode.
But you're just not, like, going,
punching the clock every day.
You don't necessarily wind up feeling,
like, entrenched in it so much.
It more feels like you're like a spy or something
and you get the call, you know, Meet here Monday
at 8:00 AM, and you're like, Okay,
and you know what to do.
What I thought was gonna happen
is that you were gonna see Van Alden fall
from grace and then you were gonna see him,
like a phoenix, rise from the ashes.
It was interesting that that didn't really happen.
What actually wound up being the storyline
is he just kept sinking further and further
into abject despair and humiliation.
I'm not gonna lie, I would've preferred
the first storyline maybe, but, you know,
people seem to be really entertained
by watching poor Nelson's struggle.
So who am I to say different?
I've been having these dreams
I guess they're more like nightmares.
The first time Jeff gave me Take Shelter,
it was not to play Curtis, it was to play his friend.
And I read the script and I said,
Jeff it's just even more staggering than Shotgun Stories.
We gotta make this.
And so there was someone he had in mind.
Eventually, it just didn't come to pass.
So Jeff was like, God, well,
who am I gonna get to play Curtis?
And finally he was like, Well, I don't know.
Mike, you wanna do it?
I'm like, If the money's right, yeah, I guess.
That's a joke 'cause there wasn't any money on that, either.
Yeah, I said, Yeah, yeah, I wanna play Curtis.
Yeah, in terms of, like, scenes from Take Shelter,
everybody is always like the fish fry and they're, like,
you know the scene where I flip over the table
and that's the scene, you know?
And I guess people met, they were like,
How do you do that?
And frankly it was, that scene came and went fairly quickly.
We didn't do it a lot of times,
we didn't really need to do it a lot of times.
The scene to me, in Take Shelter, that still,
to this day, gets me emotional even thinking about it,
the scene where she's trying to get 'em to open the door
and go back outside.
She says, It's okay honey.
Open the door, it'll be okay.
And he's like, I can't, I can't.
That scene right there is one of the,
I don't know, that scene just kills me.
What do you got for us?
Well they don't have the dates for the 28th, you know?
We can't take the blame if you change it last minute.
Hey, that's fuckin' bullshit.
Oh, Ray, those eyes just,
I never see anything like Ray Liotta's eyes.
Our characters don't have the best relationship
in that movie.
We never got, like, super friendly.
I mean, we didn't antagonize each other, but I just,
I was freaking out on that movie a lot
'cause I was playing Richard Kuklinski
and I had my hands full.
I didn't really talk much between takes.
Ray's one of those people that had the capacity,
the ability, to shock and intimidate me,
which is pretty hard to do.
But he could do it.
I will find him, Lara.
I will find him!
Zack Snyder wants to meet you.
He's making a Superman movie, Man of Steel.
He wants you to play General Zod.
I'm like, Really? Terence Stamp?
And I remembered, like, seeing those movies
when I was a kid and being, like,
That man is the most badass man I've ever seen in my life.
He's scared the crap out me.
Your father stole the registry's codex and stored it
in the capsule that brought you here.
For what purpose?
So that Krypton can live again.
I would argue that Man of Steel is, in a way,
this significant story, like, culturally,
not just an entertainment thing.
Because at the end of the day, what it was about,
it was about a civilization, right,
that ruins their own planet.
I've never heard of that before.
And then decides, well the solution to that
is to go to another planet and take it
and then we'll just go live there.
And I thought, Yeah, yeah, this story's important.
It was a totally different take on Zod.
Terence Stamp was just mean,
he was just being mean to everybody.
And Zod was like, Look, I just,
my job is to protect my civilization.
Like, that speech that he has, And now I have no people.
Like, I thought that was, like,
beautiful and heartbreaking and.
But I also just like Zack so much.
I really, really like Zack Snyder a lot.
After everything that you put this family through
for the last 10 years that any of us are gonna support you,
that any of us are gonna give you,
like Dad liked to say, A single red dime, you're nuts!
Rian Johnson is just so much fun to work for.
We didn't have a talk about improvising, necessarily.
I mean the script as is was beautiful.
That's why we were all there was because of the script,
because it was just we hadn't read anything
like that in such a long time.
Nobody had even seen anything like that in a long time.
I just couldn't help it.
Like I just wandered off into Walt Land
and it just came out.
If you do it, it is not like he says,
Could you not do that?
He's like, Oh wow, that was cool!
I mean, the thing about that movie
is that we all were having, it goes back
to the thing I said about Bill Murray.
Like, this was the perfect instance.
It was like, just go in and have fun,
like, amuse yourself and if you amuse yourself,
odds are you might amuse a small amount of other people.
It was, without a doubt, the most fun I've ever had
with a group of actors on a movie set.
The house was up on a hill and if you walked down the hill
through the little forest, there's a big parking lot
and it was filled with all these movie star trailers.
Nobody ever went to their trailer.
They would just sit there empty all day
because in the house there was a basement
and they'd just put cast chairs in there
and we'd just sit around in the basement all day.
Jamie Lee Curtis would hang out in the kitchen
of the house upstairs with the, like, owners of the house
and they would cook.
It was surreal.
That's the least stressed out I've ever been at work.
The most stressful part of that job
was doing my scene with Christopher Plummer,
A, because I was acting with Christopher Plummer,
may he rest in peace, two,
because Rian said, I wanna do it in one setup,
which just always gives me the hives
'cause there's nothing to cut to.
It was a hoot.
Hey, Tammy, you know this one?
[lilting country music]
Oh, I know all your songs, Mr. Jones.
Oh no, my daddy was Mr. Jones. You call me Baby.
♪ Tell me why, baby, tell me why, baby ♪
George and Tammy was just totally, like,
get in the submarine and go deep.
That journey that those two people go through,
it's hard to quantify it.
It's just so enormous and goes
in so many different directions.
I guess I'd like to be able to say that we had, like,
formulated some sort of game plan.
We never really did.
We just understood it separately from each other,
just because of the amount of research we had done.
We'd watched all the interviews we could watch,
we'd talk to all the people
that would make themselves available to us.
And you know, Jessica had had such a long time
with this material, it just kinda made sense to us.
We didn't really have to say, Okay, so in this scene,
should it be like this or that?
It just, it was a very organic thing.
This world must die.
So The Flash comes around.
As I recall, at the end of Man of Steel,
Superman breaks my neck and kills me,
which was the cause of much consternation among some fans
because Superman's not supposed to kill people.
But I say to Superman, It's either me or you,
so he has to do it.
So then I get this call, I'm like,
They saw Man of Steel, right?
And my manager's like, Yeah, they saw Man of Steel,
but it's different.
I'm like, What is it?
It's a multiverse.
I'm like, I don't know what that means.
I was very upset by what happened to Zack
in the Justice League and all that.
Didn't feel right to me.
Now I know I probably don't know all the sides to this story
and I should probably just keep my mouth shut,
but like I said, I really, really, really love Zack
and really appreciated that opportunity.
But then I talked to Andy, who's also a lovely guy
and very, very creative and fun and, you know,
I said, Hey, you know, I would really feel awkward
about doing it without Zack's blessing.
So until I get that, you're just gonna have to wait.
So I reached out to Zack and he gave me his blessing
and said, It's okay. You can do it.
And I appreciated that and then I said yes.
But it was a very different thing because, like,
Man of Steel, it was like a year of my life
between the training, we did a whole summer
of physical training leading up to the shooting
and the shoot was, like, six months long or something.
I was in and out of Flash in like, like a flash,
like two or three weeks.
The Flash isn't my story, you know, I'm there
as a adversary, a threat, a problem to be dealt with.
The Flash is really The Flash's story.
Actors are the aperture between the audience and the story
and you should not be seen.
The more transparent you are,
then the more the audience gets to receive the story.
You have to care about the story
more than your own performance.
You're serving a writer and a director
and you're delivering their intent to the audience.
Do everything that you can possibly think of
to deliver that to them.
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