The thing about actors known for their brooding screen presence is that, nine times out of ten, they turn out to be puppy dogs in the flesh. That’s definitely not the case with Michael Shannon, who stars in this month’s Midnight Special, a sci-fi road movie with hints of Spielberg. The 41-year-old, who made his name with unnerving turns in Take Shelter, Man of Steel and Boardwalk Empire bristles when I describe his roles as “menacing.” But as he prowls around the hotel room, all 6'3" of him, it’s hard not to feel just a little bit intimidated.
In Midnight Special, you play a father who rescues his son from a cult. You had a challenging childhood yourself after your parents divorce. Did that add a layer of empathy to your performance?
“I think being a parent adds that. But yes, all my life experiences become paints on my palette. The great dirty secret about acting is that however much people say, ‘I have my method to give a great performance,’ a lot of it is subconscious. I just showed up with the script. It all made sense. This guy loves his kid. He’s trying to save him. Simple.”
You’re not known for nice-guy roles. Was it a relief to play a righteous man for a change?
“Well, everyone’s righteous from their own point of view. I love all my characters.”
Sure, but some of these guys have been pretty menacing. Why do you think directors pick you?
“Hmm. I don’t know if I agree with that, so it’s hard to answer. It’d be like me asking you why your favorite color’s blue, when your favorite color’s actually red. That’s what I feel like when I hear that question. I don’t know what’s ‘menacing’ about all the characters I play.”
There is a level of intensity in a lot of your performances.
“I suppose I am capable of being menacing, I don’t know why. It’s not like I grew up a mongrel beast in a pit. I was a very unassuming child, completely unathletic. I’ve never been in a fistfight in my life. So it’s inexplicable to me. I’m really trying to answer, though, because I feel like if I could answer that question, I wouldn’t have to answer it again. Give me an example.”
Well, for a start…
[Cutting in] “It’s the director’s decision. People just don’t call me up and say, ‘I’ve got this amazing script about a florist who goes to a knitting club.’ That doesn’t happen. But who wants to see that movie anyway? I’m sorry, I’m getting a little flummoxed.”
Moving on! You’ve said that Nicolas Cage was on another planet shooting Bad Lieutenant. Do you ever lose yourself in a role like that?
“Cage became that guy. I never get like that. I’m not method. You don’t have to call me by my character’s name. It’s my job to be compelling. But my work doesn’t mess me up. It doesn’t work that way for me.
“But I want to go back to your earlier question because I’m still thinking about it. There’s a largeness to me, as I’m sure you’re experiencing right now. I think it all springs from hypersensitivity. Most people that are any good at acting are hypersensitive. So I think what makes me menacing is sensitivity. I take something in and I amplify it. That’s just the frequency I’m on.”