by Grace McCaffrey
photography by Michael Lavine
The light that Michael Shannon brings to the screen, big or small, is undeniable. His performances are raw and often coarse in presentation, making his rendering of any character authentic. And authenticity is not typically found leaking from the soul of Tinseltown. So it’s no surprise that Shannon currently resides in New York City. His rough around the edges, no-frills approach to acting has gained him serious notoriety among critics and audiences alike, and he’s been compared to some of the greats, including Christopher Walken, for his strength of presence and eccentric performances, often verging on downright bizarre. In a good way… In a very good way. Pair these theatrical capacities with a flair for not only comedy but music as well, and you have a damn well-rounded performer.
Shannon, currently starring in HBO’s critically acclaimed Boardwalk Empire, introduces an uncanny character to the lineup. His personification of over-zealous federal agent and religious extremist Nelson Van Alden is alarmingly convincing. But he doesn’t think Nelson is completely at fault. “I think everything that Nelson does – it’s unfortunate because he has good intentions. He’s very frustrated. He feels very guilty all the time and he’s very lonely. He’s a very lonely person I think. He doesn’t really have anyone to talk to. You know, he tries to talk to people, he tells Margaret how he really feels. And the one time he opens himself up to somebody, she basically tells him he’s crazy and to get out of the house.”
Shannon is quick to sympathize with his controversial Empire character despite not holding personal religious convictions himself. “Am I religious? I’m not religious. I’m not Christian anyway.” Later, when prompted about the influence of Catholicism in today’s society, he adds, “I think the Catholic Church is a huge organization. I mean it’s hard to make a generalization about it. It’s kinda like saying, ‘what do you think the influence of humanity is?’” In fact, Shannon dances around any true divulgence of religious or political preference, stating in cliché form: “I don’t like to get involved in people’s personal lives. I’m not a politician; I’m just an actor.” However, his take on a hypothetical present-day prohibition proves to be resolute. “I have a hard time believing it would stop anybody from drinking. It would probably be pretty much like back then. People would just circumvent the law somehow. It’s similar to this whole thing going on with marijuana. Because whether it’s legal or not, it’s here, ya know. The fact that it’s illegal has not stopped anybody from doing it. I personally don’t do it and I don’t care for it and I wouldn’t want it, so it’s not like if it was legal I would buy it or start doing it. But it’s there, and if there are certain people there that wanna do it, just let ‘em frickin’ do it!”
Shannon’s wit and lucidity make the direction of his escalating acting career quite obvious. He speaks with reverence of working with directors Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone, comparing them to one another and admiring that “they just seem to know everything.” Despite often taking on roles that force him into a contentious persona, Shannon remains true to the arts and to his instincts, choosing parts that spark his interest and allow him to display his acting chops. And the chops are good. His current HBO role is possibly his biggest gig yet, next to his Academy Award nomination-worthy performance in Revolutionary Road. But it’s not his only project at the moment. He is currently wrapping up the lead role in Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theater. He plays a producer trying to merge intelligence and underlying importance of topic with comedy and droll representation to create a smash hit play. Shannon also speaks highly of movies he shot this past summer, including Take Shelter, a film of psychological proportions that’s made its way into both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, as well as Machine Gun Preacher in which he acted alongside Gerard Butler.
If Michael Shannon weren’t acting today, his career would undoubtedly be in music. He almost seems more passionate about music as a profession. Without hesitation, he says on the subject, “Sometimes I think I’d be better off. I really like music. And I know it’s hard – it’s probably harder – to be successful as a musician. But I just really love music a lot.” Shannon’s fervor for music dates back even before his early high school acting experiences and still remains intact today. He started playing piano, bass, and guitar in his youth and still plays the guitar and has surprisingly strong vocals in his alternative rock band, Corporal.
Originally from Kentucky, then spending time in Chicago, Shannon has now lived in New York for years. But he seems to doubt the toughness and grit that New York stereotypically claims. Reflecting on old New York, “You had to be tough. You had to be tough to live here. And it doesn’t seem like that… Yeah, it just seems a little gentler nowadays.” But Shannon is also apt to defend the current leadership of New York. “I wouldn’t want to be the Mayor of New York; that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t even understand how you’d be able to address all of the issues. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s enough time in the day.” With a slight pause, Shannon says, “I think Bloomberg is doing a hell of a job.” He remains stoic in his individual revelations but offers a chuckle that seems to contradict his indifference.
Shooting for seven months all over New York City, the 2nd season of Empire will take up a hefty portion of Michael Shannon’s time for now. But the intensity and ardor with which he approaches the stage, mixed with his knack for an oddball character and an array of artistic talents to boot, ensure that the light will be shining on Shannon for quite a while.