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Michael Shannon
Photograph: Caroline Voagen NelsonMichael Shannon

The Killer’s Michael Shannon interview: ‘The trippier it is, the better’

The intimidating stage and film star champions a lesser-known absurdist classic with Theatre for a New Audience


Michael Shannon likes to trip onstage. Not in the physical-comedy sense—although there’s some clowning in his current play, Ionesco’s absurdist epic The Killer. And he’s not tripping in the LSD sense, either, though that’s closer to the mark. He means that by never leaving the stage for a play’s duration, as in the 2010 solo Mistakes Were Made, and in The Killer, he has a shot at reaching his ideal acting state.

“If you spend a long enough time onstage, you get past all the petty bullshit in your head,” says Shannon, a tall Kentuckian with a rep for unhinged, often murderous characters in films (The Iceman, Bug), TV (Boardwalk Empire), even viral videos (his stirring Funny or Die rendition of the Delta Gamma Sorority "cunt punt" e-mail). “When a performance starts, you walk out onstage and you’re like, 'Gee, I hope everybody has a nice time this evening.’ But if you’re out onstage for, like, three hours, you’re like, ‘I don’t even care what you people think anymore; I’m in this, it’s happening to me.’ I like getting lost in something; it’s the whole reason I started doing this. It’s like tripping. And the trippier it is, the better.”

Appropriately, this new production of Ionesco’s 1958 play-about a beautiful neighborhood in unnamed city bedeviled by the senseless assassin of the title-originated with a kind of acid flashback. It was not long after Hurricane Sandy had wrecked his Red Hook neighborhood, and Shannon was touring Theatre for a New Audience’s half-constructed new home in Fort Greene. TFANA’s artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz, may have hoped that the actor would consider a Shakespeare part (“People keep saying I should do Macbeth,” Shannon says, clearly a little weary of the idea of playing another notorious butcher). But when Shannon looked at the space, he thought of Brooklyn’s precarious ascendance and suggested The Killer, which he’d previously done with his Chicago troupe, A Red Orchid Theatre. Horowitz got behind it, enlisting director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) and soliciting a new translation from Michael Feingold.

“Ionesco is my favorite playwright," says Shannon. “People talk about his writing like it’s very intellectual, and it’s true, there are a lot of ideas in it. But to me, the engine of The Killer is the heart of this man: his desire for certain things to be true.”

The man he’s referring to is Berenger, the play’s moody, needy Everyman, who is, pointedly, not the murderer of the title (“When I tell people it’s called The Killer, they look at me like, ‘Oh, here he goes again,’” Shannon says, a touch ruefully). Instead, Berenger spends the play trying to figure out why people are dying in an otherwise lovely town. Shannon, whose walk to the nearest subway goes through Red Hook and Carroll Gardens, faced a similar quandary in the months after Sandy.

“I walk up and down Van Brunt Street, the main drag of Red Hook, every day. Walking down that street after Sandy, for weeks and weeks I saw people pumping out their buildings, trying to salvage their lives.” The neighborhood has rebounded since. “It’s thriving. In a lot of ways, Red Hook is even stronger than it was before Sandy. New businesses have opened up. But another storm like Sandy could wipe it all out again. What can we expect? What should we expect?"

Warming to this sobering theme, the actor adds, “You walk around and you see these posters at bus stops with New York City saying, ‘Have a plan for when disaster strikes.’ And I think: 'Do I have a plan? What’s my plan? Am I gonna put my kids on my shoulders and try and walk out of here?’” Shannon seems comfortable with a certain amount of indeterminacy-indeed, it’s one of the things that attracts him to Ionesco.

“I love Beckett, he’s a genius, but he’s a real tight-ass, you know? ‘Say this, walk two inches downstage, then you blow your nose.’ Ionesco will write stage directions like, ‘I don't know...maybe you could do this or do that.’” A good performance trip, in other words, doesn’t require precise directions.

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