Michael Shannon, MEN’S FASHION Cover Story: One of Hollywood’s most startling actors, moves into the big time with three new movies

MEN’S FASHION COVER STORY: Michael Shannon, one of Hollywood’s most startling actors, moves into the big time with three new movies
Photographed by Seiji Fujimori
MEN’S FASHION COVER STORY: Michael Shannon, one of Hollywood’s most startling actors, moves into the big time with three new movies
Photographed by Seiji Fujimori

Acts of devotion: Michael Shannon is seriously dedicated to the art of acting.
By Jason Anderson | Photographed by Seiji Fujimori

There’s something in Michael Shannon’s eyes that puts people on edge. Klaus Kinski had it. Christopher Walken has it, too. There’s a wildness there, a quality we’re quick to associate with madness. But that association is limiting, even if it’s true that these actors excel at playing men who’ve come unhinged, like the troubled neighbour in Revolutionary Road, a role that earned Shannon his first Oscar nomination, or Nelson Van Alden, the principled but ever more compromised lawman he plays on HBO’s Prohibition-era mob drama Boardwalk Empire.

The look is suggestive of deep-seated emotion that cannot be controlled or concealed, no matter how hard we try to keep it from the surface. If the eyes are really any kind of window to the soul, this is the force that threatens to shatter the glass. Yet that force has served the 38-year-old actor well, becoming a feature as distinguishing as his six-foot-three frame, his youthful face and a voice that would’ve suited a fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher.

That force has also made Shannon one of American cinema’s most startling actors. While maintaining his close connection to the theatre scenes in New York and Chicago—where the Lexington, Kentucky, native began his stage career in the early 1990s—he has continued to gain prominence in his screen roles, shifting from the periphery to the centre of the action in Hollywood and indie features alike.

Shannon returns to TV in the third season of Boardwalk Empire this September, and stars in three upcoming films, including Man of Steel, the Superman movie that marks his first foray into the realm of the FX-heavy superhero spectacular. Before that arrives next summer, he’ll be seen as real-life mob hitman Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman and in a supporting role in Mud, the new film by Jeff Nichols, who directed him to wide acclaim in last year’s Take Shelter.

Shannon’s long been a performer who makes a big impression, even in a small part. Though Boardwalk Empire has certainly increased his recognition factor, he admits that he’s more likely to be recognized for some of the less prestigious roles on his resumé, like the scuzzy boyfriend of Eminem’s mother in 8 Mile or an unfortunate criminal opposite Will Smith in Bad Boys II. “You never know what someone’s going to throw your way,” says Shannon, who’s more affable than some of his roles would suggest. “Of all the things I’ve done in my life, Bad Boys II is what I’m most recognized from.”

More often than not, he’s been the most arresting presence in movies that didn’t deserve him, like his ex-Marine on a mission from God in Oliver Stone’s stodgy 9/11 drama World Trade Center. His livewire vitality as impresario Kim Fowley energized Floria Sigismondi’s biopic The Runaways.

But it’s in the meatier roles that Shannon has really shown what he can do. In William Friedkin’s Bug, for instance, Shannon and co-star Ashley Judd drove each other to extremes of freakiness as their characters succumbed to a state of paranoia. In Take Shelter, he gave a heart-wrenching performance as a family man tormented by visions of impending apocalypse. His eyes filling with pain, fear and bewilderment, it was the starkest demonstration of what happens when Shannon directs his intensity inward. Given the kinds of characters Nichols has provided for him (Shannon also starred in the director’s first feature, Shotgun Stories), it’s no wonder the actor is fiercely loyal to him. “I just think the world of Jeff,” says Shannon. “If he asked me to do a Doritos commercial, I would do it.”

Shannon’s next two major films couldn’t be any more different in scale and nature. In The Iceman, he plays Kuklinski, the hitman who claimed to have whacked more than 100 victims during his four-decade-long career. Though Kuklinski may have been many people’s idea of a monster, Shannon was more interested in portraying him as a human being rather than “some kind of cold-blooded robot assassin.”

While The Iceman is a gritty indie movie looking to get some heat on the fall festival circuit, including TIFF, Shannon’s next movie is built for multiplexes. In Man of Steel—a reboot of the Superman franchise by director Zack Snyder and executive producer Christopher Nolan—Shannon faces off against the ultimate comic-book icon while wearing the uniform of General Zod, an old adversary from the planet Krypton. His casting here would seem to mark a shift from the serious nature of his stage work (he spent the summer doing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in New York), indie films and Boardwalk Empire toward more popcorn-friendly fare. But even in his new Hollywood outings, Shannon says he was able to find the “thematic resonances” that excite him as an actor. In that regard, Snyder’s decision to cast Shannon as his villain—a piece of good fortune that the actor says “came out of the clear blue sky”—is not unlike Nolan’s choice of Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight. The hope is that Shannon will bring the same kind of raw and unpredictable energy to Zod that Ledger gave to the Joker.

Shannon believes the superhero movie has become fertile territory for actors. “A lot of people I really respect as actors are doing these movies,” he says. “So it’s not like you feel like a sellout or something. And most of these movies are really good, too—it’s nothing to be ashamed of by any stretch of the imagination.”

Whatever becomes of Shannon’s entry into the DC universe, he’s certain to keep plumbing the furthest depths of the characters he plays. Yet he can also convey a surprising softness. That’s true even when the character is as stiff as Van Alden, whose sins include drowning his partner (albeit in a heated moment of what Shannon calls “temporary insanity”) but who’s looking to rebuild his existence and identity after his many challenges and mistakes in Boardwalk Empire’s first two seasons.

As someone struggling with his beliefs, Van Alden is the kind of man Shannon prefers to portray. “Those are the most interesting characters to play—people who believe they’ve figured something out but whose beliefs are challenged,” he says. “The world is simply not allowing them to follow their own rules. That’s a very helpful story to tell, because the majority of people on Earth deal with that at some point or another. I would never claim to be able to give anybody advice about anything, but maybe these stories are
a little more instructive somehow.”

With a schedule that includes Boardwalk Empire, an intensifying movie career and yet more stage work (he’s slated to star in Sam Shepard’s Simpatico in Chicago next summer), Shannon’s commitment to telling these stories seems all-consuming. He claims to have little downtime in between acting gigs and caring for his young daughter with longtime girlfriend Kate Arrington, a stage actress. He does, however, occasionally make music with his band, Corporal, in which he sings and plays guitar. (It’s easy to hear his affection for indie-rock misfits like Pavement on Corporal’s self-titled 2010 album.)

Mostly, though, he’s eager to apply his energies to yet more portrayals of driven, tormented men for as long as there are opportunities. “I had no expectations when I got into this,” says Shannon. “I spent years doing it for free, actually. I was not overly ambitious. When I look back at my childhood, growing up in Lexington, living this very meagre existence, I never in a million years would have imagined that I’d be where I am right now.

“But I also feel like I work really hard and I take it really seriously—I always have. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I take it very seriously. I like to think that maybe this is all part of the reward for my…” He pauses before finding the right word. “I don’t know… devotion.”