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Michael Shannon

Kneel Before Zod

Michael Shannon
14 November 2011

With acclaimed new film Take Shelter and a starring role in Man Of Steel, Michael Shannon is set to hit the big time. Not, as Tom Ellen discovers, that he’s aware of it.

Carefully dissecting a croissant in the corner of a Mayfair restaurant, Michael Shannon looks troubled. But he isn’t troubled — in fact, following the glowing response to his new film Take Shelter, he’s positively perky.

The fact is, Shannon just has the sort of face that always looks troubled. The permanently arched brow, the prominent chin, the big, doleful eyes that seem reluctant to rest on anything — be it that dissected croissant or a ShortList interviewer. Even his smile is only a twitch away from a grimace.

Put simply: Michael Shannon is intense. And, as critics, fans and Academy Awards committees will attest, he’s put it to good use on screen. He received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 2008 Oscars for his role as the unhinged John Givings in Revolutionary Road, and his turn as self-harming FBI Agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire has revived Hollywood interest.

Shannon’s latest film finds the 37-year-old Kentuckian in typically tortured territory, playing a family man whose dreams of apocalyptic storms result in crippling meteorological paranoia. But it’s his starring role as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s forthcoming Man Of Steel that’s really getting us excited. Now, kneel…

Take Shelter was a huge hit at the Cannes and Sundance film festivals. Were you aware of how much attention it would get when you were making it?

Not really, because we made this movie in a profoundly unglamorous place under profoundly unglamorous conditions. We were literally like a family. Jessica [Chastain], Tova Stewart — who plays our daughter — and I basically lived in the house we filmed in, playing Scrabble in the attic between takes. I think that’s one of the reasons the film’s so compelling: we kept it simple.

You’ve also recently returned for the second season of Boardwalk Empire. Do fans of the show often approach you?

Yeah, when you’re on television it’s a whole new ball game. When you’re in a movie, people watch it and two weeks later they never think about it again. But TV shows… people live with that stuff. I do occasionally get people saying, “I hate you! Well, not you, obviously, but your character’s so mean.” Sometimes I feel bad for Van Alden because I think he’s misunderstood.

Boardwalk’s Michael Pitt told ShortList that Stephen Graham was the most dangerous cast member to go out with in terms of drinking. Is that true?

You know, I love Stephen Graham, but I hardly ever see him. My character doesn’t really congregate with other people. But [Graham] does have quite a constitution. It’s been some years since I got into that level of debauchery. I generally have a couple of pints and go home. One thing I’m not a fan of is seeing the sun rise — I like to get home and know that it’s going to be dark for a long time.

You had a pretty explicit sex scene with Paz de la Huerta in the first series. Was it embarrassing to shoot?

It might have been awkward if there was any attraction, but there’s really not. It’s just a scene like any other. I don’t like being without my clothes in a room full of people, though — that’s not pleasant. I don’t think the other people like it much either.

Porn sets must be pretty gloomy places, then…

Yeah, I guess. Anyway, with the director of that episode, Simon Cellan-Jones, we 
kept going out for cigarettes and he’d say, “Are you OK? This must be terrible 
for you.” I’d be like, “No it’s fine. Stop asking.” [Laughs]

Let’s talk new Superman film Man Of Steel. How did you get involved with the project?

The first thing that happened was I went to Zack Snyder’s house in Pasadena [California]. He sat on his couch and told me the whole story — like he was pitching it to me, as if I were a studio executive or something. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life because I was against this panoramic window, looking out on these beautiful hills, rose bushes and hummingbirds while Zack was saying, “And then, on Krypton, this happens…” By the end, I was kind of confused. I was like, “Is this an offer or not?” We shook hands and he said 
he wanted me [as Zod]. I was thinking, “There’s something wrong here. This is one of the largest films around. I’m not Robert De Niro — I don’t understand why this is being plonked in my lap.”

So you got the part right there?

No, Warner Bros said they needed to see me and Henry [Cavill, who’s playing Superman] together first. They called it a ‘Chemistry Test’. I was like, “What, do Zod and Superman make out? You want to see if any sparks fly?”

Have you been taking inspiration from Terence Stamp’s performance as Zod in the original Superman?

I’ve consciously avoided doing that. His films made quite an impression on me, but I’ve been trying to dislodge them from my head because I want to do something different. I won’t have a British accent, I can tell you that.

Be honest — have you made anyone kneel before you yet?

I haven’t [laughs]. Although, outside the London premiere of Take Shelter, there was a guy who was like, “Could I get my picture taken while I kneel before you?” My friend was like, “No. You’re not going to do that.”

You’ve got a reputation for playing intense, troubled characters. Would you ever star in a goofy comedy?

Goofy comedy? [Laughs] Yeah, sure. Well, that’s life, isn’t it? A goofy comedy.

You were nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2008. Were you too nervous to actually enjoy the ceremony?

It was odd. I was there with my girl, Kate, and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were sat across the aisle and they came and shook our hands like we were all neighbours. But I think everybody gets a bit nervous, no matter how big a star they are. Well, maybe Jack Nicholson’s pretty used to it, but he wasn’t there the year I went. I was kind of bummed out because Philip Seymour Hoffman said the highlight when he went to the Oscars was sitting next to Jack Nicholson. So, when I arrived I was just looking round, like, “Where’s Jack?”

Ready to kick someone out of their seat so you could sit next to him…

Exactly. Actually, you know what’s weird about the Oscars? Here’s a bit of inside dope for you. There are people there whose only job is to sit in empty seats. They’re all properly dressed and they just fill seats. If I got up to go to the bathroom, they would send someone to sit in my seat so it always looked like it was sold out. So if you’re ever watching the Oscars and you think, “I don’t know who the hell that guy is,” he’s probably just a seat-filler.

Take Shelter is at cinemas nationwide from 25 November