Michael Shannon has made an impressive mark on Hollywood over the past several years. The noted character actor picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his small-but-crucial role in Revolutionary Road. A bigger showcase for Shannon’s talents is Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, (out this week on DVD) an unconventional police procedural that examines the mind of a man who slowly goes mad. As Brad in My Son, My Son, Shannon convincingly embodies a deeply disturbed man whose life was changed during a rafting trip in Peru. Upon his return to the States, he becomes consumed by religious fervor and his role in a community theater adaptation of Elektra— and the result isn’t pretty. (Shannon also has a key role in the Martin Scorsese-exec-produced HBO series Boardwalk Empire, which premieres late this month.)
In an interview with RT, Shannon shared his favorite movies and discussed what it’s like to work with Werner Herzog, what he does to get into character, and why he tends to play obsessive, disturbed types.
I like The King of Comedy by Scorsese. I like that one. It makes me laugh a lot. I think it’s very funny. I mean, I like the combination, the trio of Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard; that’s just one of my favorite trios in a movie. The three of them had a pretty amazing chemistry, I thought. I’ve heard that Scorsese was reluctant to make it, that it was on the shelf for a while; I guess that makes me appreciate it even more.
And you’re working with him pretty soon, too — or you have.
I worked with him on the pilot for Boardwalk Empire; that was last summer. September 19 that’s premiering. It’s very lavish and lush and beautiful to look at: the costumes, the cars, the sets, the props; a remarkable ornate universe. It’s a really exciting cast, I think. Everyone in it was someone I was excited to work with
Well I guess this is cheating because it’s 10 movies, but I like [Krzysztof Kieślowski’s] Decalogue a lot. That’s one director I was sad when he passed away, because I would have loved to have worked with him — although he never really worked with American actors. I love all of his films but Decalogue is very satisfying. When I watched it for the first time I saw them all in two days, as this little cinema in London. I watched five the first day and the second five the next day.
It’s a documentary, but I remember liking Crumb a whole lot. When Crumb came out I would go and see it like three times a week; I would be bringing different people to see it. I’d seen a couple of documentaries before, from Errol Morris or whatever, but that, I mean that one took it to a whole other level as far as I was concerned. I just thought it was the most interesting family I’d ever seen in a movie, really.
Next: Michael Shannon discusses working with Werner Herzog on My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and talks about getting into character on The Runaways.
RT: This is the most clichéd question but I have to ask it, because this is the kind of director who, when making a police procedural, will go to Peru and/or the Xinjiang province in China for a shot or two, so — what’s it like working with Werner Herzog?
Michael Shannon: I think you kinda summed it up. He’s very determined to do what he wants to do, no matter how outlandish or maybe, you know, unnecessary it may seem to some people. I think he shot the film because he’s been making a lot of documentaries recently, and also Rescue Dawn, which is a much more straightforward picture. I feel like With Bad Lieutenant and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done he was really exercising his imagination and doing things that he really wanted. He was talking about some shots in My Son, My Son that he’s been wanting to do for years, like things he’s been dreaming about or thinking about for years. So I think he put a lot of that energy and creativity in, particularly into My Son, My Son. But I also thought in Bad Lieutenant it was on display as well.
One of the interesting things about your character is that the movie is not a Whodunit, because you know who did it. It’s just the simple fact that his world makes sense to him — there isn’t a sort of an, “Oh I know what made him snap!” moment.
Yeah. I really appreciated that aspect, I think. I think it’s pretty foolish to assume that a movie, in the course of an hour and a half, can explain why somebody would drive a sword through their mother’s torso. And I like that instead of trying to explain it in a logical way, to make sense out of it, it just tries to create the point of view and the feeling of it. I’ve seen it a couple of times and every time I see it I notice different things or different themes that jump out, but I don’t think it’s a film to be necessarily understood.
Is the message, like a lot of Werner Herzog movies, “Don’t go to South America because you might go nuts?”
[laughs] Well I do think to a certain degree that part of it was this whole idea of losing all of his buddies on the trip. Werner always said that, for him, that’s what he wanted to be the genesis of the insanity. That was always interesting to me because I don’t think that’s something that actually happened to Mark, the character that Brad is based on, but a lot of times Werner didn’t seem as interested in telling Mark’s story as he was telling Brad’s story. I guess if he was interesting in telling Mark’s story my character would have been named Mark. The screenwriter, Herbert Golder, he researched Mark thoroughly, and there is a lot in the movie that is based on things that happened to Mark or things that he did. Herb actually met Mark and talked to him. But it was also combined with other things that were in Werner’s mind.
You played Kim Fowley [in The Runaways], who you met with briefly. When you’re playing someone like this guy, how much are you trying to capture the person’s nuance? How much are you playing a real guy?
Well there is this real difference to me between playing Kim and playing Brad in My Son. For example, in The Runaways I’m playing Kim Fowley, the character’s name is Kim Fowley and it’s a biopic. In that instance I was very aware of an obligation to be as much like Kim Fowley as possible, and I studied him and watched a lot of footage of him. There was one interview with him that I just watched over and over and over again. And I guess pretty much anybody can kinda do that. I mean I obviously physically bear a bit if a resemblance to him, so that helped as well. But it’s a matter of sitting and watching a tape and trying to absorb somebody’s manners and gestures and things. With My Son, it was totally different. Werner discouraged it. He didn’t want me to act like Mark; he didn’t want me to think about Mark at all, really. I guess for him the research had been done in the screenplay and the writing of it, and I didn’t watch any footage of Mark or do any of that kind of stuff.
Are you inherently drawn to unhinged characters, or is this what people tend to cast you in — these types of extreme personality roles?
It’s probably a combination of things. When people are casting things, movies and what not, they go on impressions they have of people, you know. The impressions they have of you are based on what they’ve seen you in. But I also think I find a lot of differences in the characters I’ve played, regardless of whether they may be violent or angry or act out or, you know, have lapses of control. I still find them all pretty interesting in their own regard, and not incredibly similar. I think if you took scenes from each of the films and put them on a loop, or played them back to back, you would maybe see more of the subtle differences between them. I think part of the reason I got into this was because I’m generally in touch with the uneasy side of myself and things in general, probably. I think the world’s an uneasy place, filled with anxiety and problems, so maybe the voices of the characters I play are representative of that.
Are you still doing live theater, in Chicago and such?
Yeah I did a play in Chicago last fall that I’m actually hoping to move to New York this fall. I live in New York and I go back to Chicago occasionally, but I’m still a member of a theater company there in Chicago. I like to do as much theater as possible but it’s getting increasingly difficult to make time for it. But no matter what I think I will continue to do it.
Did you ever encounter any “Brad” types in your various theater experiences?
Oh. [laughs] Yeah, that’s interesting, you know. I guess, particularly when you’re younger, there’s a little bit of that — people get upset with their parts and what not, and there’s this whole notion of creating a separate reality or everything needs to be realistic or lifelike: “I have to become this person in order to do my job.” I think that it’s something you find a lot with younger actors. I was probably guilty of it in my day. When you get older, at least for me, the transformation has become less about, “I have to become someone else” than, “I have to tell a story”. It’s more about being a participant in the act of telling a story; being more focused on the story as a whole and less on myself, you know. I think that happens to a lot of people as they get older. You become a little less self-centered and more cognizant of the world around you.