Michael Shannon looking to lighten his load
Toronto – Michael Shannon looks like he just woke up from a nap.
The actor, known for his simmering on-screen intensity in projects such as “Take Shelter,” “Revolutionary Road” and TV’s “Boardwalk Empire,” enters a Toronto hotel suite looking groggy. It’s September and the Toronto International Film Festival is in full swing, and while most actors showed up to talk to the media looking photo-shoot ready, Shannon is beyond casual in a gray T-shirt, cutoff black shorts, striped socks pulled up to his calves and Swiss running shoes on his feet.
Shannon has three films at the fest: “Loving,” which teams him with his “Take Shelter” and “Midnight Special” director Jeff Nichols; “Salt and Fire,” a kidnapping thriller with ecological undercurrents from director Werner Herzog; and Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” which opens this week, in which he plays an off-kilter lawman in the film’s narrative-within-a-narrative.
The three films are indicative of Shannon’s breakneck work pace. Scan his IMDB page and there are multiple entries for every year: 11 films in 2016 alone, and 80 screen credits to date. The site lists him with six projects currently in post-production, all of which has taken its toll on the 42-year-old.
“I feel like I worked maybe a little too much the last couple of years,” says Shannon, running his hand through his head of unkempt hair. “I’m just a soft touch. People call and they’re like, ‘it would be so great if you did this!’ I’m like, ‘yeah, I’m kinda … I don’t know.’ Then a week goes by, and they’re like, ‘come on, please!’ And I crumble.”
He’s aiming to do that less.
“I’m trying to be super selective about what I do, and really only work with people that I feel like are going to challenge me,” says Shannon, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Revolutionary Road.” “It has to be worthwhile. There comes a point where even something that you think might have some potential, you just have to be like, I need to see my kids.”
Shannon’s children are 8 and 2, and he lives with them and his wife, actress Kate Arrington, in Brooklyn. He had some time off during the summer, and they packed up and went on a beach vacation in North Carolina. Shannon looks to spend more time with his family and less on movie sets as he goes forward.
That said, during the festival he was filming a movie, “The Shape of Water,” with director Guillermo del Toro.
“He’s a delightful director,” Shannon says.
He enjoys the collaborative process, working with directors he admires, “people that impress me with their ability to do what they do.” It’s part of what drives him as an actor.
“I guess I do it out of curiosity,” says Shannon, who was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to a professor father and lawyer mother, who divorced soon after. “The great thing about what I do is it teaches me a lot about the world. I learn about people and places that I may never have encountered.”
Shannon began acting as a teenager and performed in his first professional play at 16. His debut film was “Groundhog Day” — look for him, he plays a groom in a wedding scene who gets WrestleMania tickets from Bill Murray’s character — but it was a run in the play “Killer Joe,” first in Chicago and later the United Kingdom and New York, where things started happening for him.
His breakthrough film role came in “8 Mile,” where he played Eminem’s mom’s abusive husband, Greg. “It was a big deal for me to be in that movie. It certainly made me notorious, that’s for sure,” Shannon says.
He remembers walking around downtown Detroit during filming and not seeing a single person on the street.
“I’d never seen anything like it, it was like a fairytale or something,” says Shannon, who also filmed 2011’s “Machine Gun Preacher” in Detroit. He says he still gets recognized for “8 Mile.”
“I can always tell when they’re showing it on TV, because there will be a little ebb, and people will tell me, ‘I just watched 8 Mile again.’ For a period of time, that was the biggest gig I’d had.”
He went on to appear in films like “Bug,” “World Trade Center” and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” before “Revolutionary Road” catapulted him to the next rung in his career.
He’s since specialized in playing a particular brand of unglued weirdo, including a hitman (“The Iceman”), a sage weed dealer (“The Night Before”), a menacing real estate broker (“99 Homes”), Elvis Presley (“Elvis and Nixon”) and General Zod (“Man of Steel”).
His goal has been to make films that stand out, which sometimes works out better than others (he recently said he fell asleep watching this year’s “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” in which he had a small role).
“I feel like films repeat themselves a lot. There’s been a lot of movies made already and it’s hard to find something that is unique, so I pursue that,” says Shannon, who also plays in a politically active indie rock band, Corporal, with several friends in New York. “Otherwise, I don’t really see much point in it. There’s plenty of content out there, and a lot of people honestly prefer to watch television or whatever. So for me it’s really about seeing where the surprises are.”
The filmmaking process “is thrilling,” he says. “It can be maddening, it can be frustrating, it can be disparaging. But when it all kind of clicks, you know that you captured something alive.”
As a storyteller, he prefers remaining in front of the camera and finds the idea of directing “pretty daunting,” though he’d pursue it if he found something worth delving into.
Mostly, he’s just a guy who enjoys telling stories who’s looking to strike a balance between work and home life.
“I have no grand design to any of this, nor some sort of overarching ambition. I’m just a gun for hire,” says Shannon.
He looks around the room at nothing in particular and leans back into the couch.
“I just like to show up and do my part and then get out of there.”
Rated R: for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language
Running time: 117 minutes