by: Chesley Turner
photography: Gregg Delman
Location: Nat Sherman Townhouse
Before we got started, Michael Shannon expressed some concern that he might not be very loquacious. “[These interviews are] not always easy. I’m not a very talkative person by nature. I’ll try to give more than one word answers.” So Moves made sure to ask the right questions.
When you think of Michael Shannon, you’ll think of his intensity. His performances in Revolutionary Road and Boardwalk Empire – indeed, in most of his repertoire – are intense. His characters are a cadre of grim-faced, borderline something-or-another dark-sided men. If you want to know what we mean, look up his recording of Deranged Sorority Girl’s viral email, and then tie yourself down to whatever chair you’re sitting in.
In point of fact, however, the first thing you notice when you speak to Shannon is that he’s a nice guy with a sense of humor. “I’m at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. I’ve seen Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones and Gwyneth Paltrow and Paul McCartney. It’s like Mme Tussauds, but they’re actually alive.”
But when we caught up with him, the nation was reeling over the Boston Marathon bombings and gun violence. Shannon’s roles often call on him to step into the shoes of the men behind the madness, but the importance of treating those roles with respect isn’t lost on him. “It just reminds me to take it seriously, you know? There’s a tendency if you’re playing pretend to forget that these acts of violence are actually quite horrible and have huge repercussions. You have to be very vigilant to remind yourself that it’s not fun or cool to do these things. That it’s actually very terrible.” There’s an understanding, a character analysis, necessitated by taking on violent roles in TV and film. “And that’s the reason to tell these stories, I think, because violence does exist in the world. And hopefully telling stories that have violence in them help us understand why violence exists in the first place, and process our own feelings, so to speak.”
As such, gratuitous violence just isn’t his thing. “I try to stay away from projects where I feel like violence isn’t given its appropriate gravity, you know what I mean?” To which we think – Superman? But Shannon reassures us, while perhaps tipping the Man of Steel hand a bit: “There’s a lot of violence in it, and it’s geared toward a younger audience. You think about that in regards to: Am I glorifying this? But the thing I could tell about Man of Steel is that the gravity was there, the sense of consequences. That’s what I love about the Superman myth story in general. There are always consequences.”
Michael Shannon has a young daughter, Sylvia, and like any other parent facing the newspaper headlines every day, he worries about how the world’s violence will affect his child. “It’s something I think about a great deal. It’s the essence of a film I did, Take Shelter – the anxiety of being a father in this day and age, considering everything that’s going on.”
And there’s a lot. The world has changed, perhaps most notably in how we exchange information. “It used to be that you had to get a library card and go look in the – I can’t even remember the name of it – the card catalog, and the Dewey Decimal System. And you’d try to find a book on, you know, like, mosquitoes or something, and it would be a daylong project. Nowadays you just Google ‘mosquitoes’ and everything you need to know is right there.” So the violence is ever-present, even before we roll camera. “Now things are in your face all the time. The news coverage of Boston was pretty – I was about to say ‘bombastic’ but that may be an inappropriate pun. But I do worry about it.”
What you may not know about Shannon? He’s an environmentalist. “I’ve always been concerned about the environment and tried to do my part…. I think it’s the most important issue. ‘Cause I live in Red Hook and seeing first-hand the devastation that Sandy brought, I just can’t believe…. Anyone who’s not thinking about climate change is really pretty clueless in my mind’s eye.”
Shannon is a Brooklynite, by way of Kentucky and Chicago. (His favorite pizza? “It’s just different. Why can’t we all get along?”) When Sandy hit the east coast, Shannon and his partner Kate Arrington were performing in Grace on Broadway. They packed up Sylvia and headed to Kate’s mom’s house in Harlem to wait out the storm. But he’s shocked that, even today, people in his shorefront neighborhood are still struggling. “They’re not back in their homes. It’s unusual, because it’s been a long time.”
Our sensationalist world loves a good story, a good disaster, a good drama. “They have these signs all over New York City that I find very disconcerting. The mayor is suggesting that, you know, everybody has a disaster plan. Posters of little children sitting in front of storm clouds and lightening bolts.” It calls to mind the bomb shelter signs of the ‘50s. “It just seems to be part of our culture. Every decade has it’s own worrisome subject.”
That’s why, even if we use our films to analyze and understand society, we also use them to escape reality a little bit. “Man of Steel is a miraculous film. I’m very proud to be a part of it. Zack Snyder, the director, he’s a real powerhouse and I feel like this is his finest work yet – a culmination of everything he’s been working on. It’s a stunning picture.” Shannon couldn’t share a lot of behind-the-scenes info – “I always get paranoid talking about Man of Steel, that I’m accidently going to say something I’m not supposed to say – it’s like walking through a minefield. You’re supposed to say: ‘Yeah. It’s great. Come check it out. It’s gonna rock your world.” But he did share a little insight into his other current film, The Iceman:
“We were shooting the big scene at the end where they arrest me and finally take me to jail. There were all these period cars – they weren’t driving hybrids back then. It was a huge set-up, you know, because there were like five or six cars coming one way and three or four coming the other way and undercover cars and skidding and sirens and all this. The first time we went to shoot it they said “action” and I’m backing out of my driveway and I’m looking around and I don’t see anything, and then I hear “cut” because all of the cars weren’t working. The cop cars weren’t working ‘cause they were so old and crappy. So we had to wait a couple hours to fix them. I think everyone was trying to fix the cars, even if they didn’t know anything about cars. ‘We’ve got to get this Kuklinski arrested!’”
But let us really introduce you to this issue’s Cover Man by telling you about his favorite haunts. What better way to learn about someone than to learn what they love? “The best restaurant I’ve been to recently is The Good Fork in Red Hook. The chef, Sohui, is Korean so there’s Korean influence but also a variety of other influences. And the food is delicious. It’s a beautiful little restaurant – intimate and warm and cozy. And they have a really good steak and eggs Korean style, with Kimchi rice. It’s really scrumptious.
“And then you could stop by afterward for a cocktail at Fort Defiance.” Apparently, Fort Defiance was a revolutionary war-era fortress in the Brooklyn borough area. “They have wonderful, very inventive cocktails. The proprietor – his name is St. John, but you pronounce it “Sinjin” – he’s been a bartender for years and years. And he’s invented one cocktail called the King Bee that I really like it, with the vodka that’s got the honeycomb in it. Again, it’s a smaller place, but I guess a lot of New York places are kind of small.”
Finally, a little night music. “Music. Oh, I love music. I like to go to the Village Vanguard for jazz in the village, but everyone knows the Village Vanguard. It’s legendary.” What kind of jazz? Like MMW? “I’m not a smooth jazz aficionado. I don’t like anything with drum machines or too many synthesizers in it. I love Medeski Martin and Wood a lot – but I also love the old stuff a lot. My favorite is Thelonious Monk. “ And here he shares something that tells you exactly what kind of man he is: “I like to go to Village Vanguard and think about the fact that Thelonious Monk sat at that piano, once upon a time, even though I wasn’t there to see it. It’s the same room, which is pretty thrilling. Pretty exciting.”
But where is Shannon really going for the best music experience? He doesn’t have to leave his house. “When you have a kid, you don’t go out as much as you used to. So I stay at home and make music with Sylvia. She’s very musical. She likes drums and the piano. She’s got a little pink ukulele she likes to play.”
See? He’s really just a big softie.