Michael Shannon understands that viewers find the characters he plays to be similar. After all, they share his intensity, his towering physique and that deep voice. He would just respectfully beg to differ. “The difference between me and the rest of the world is that I see every character I play as a completely unique individual,” he says in a conversation as part of a collaboration between the Autograph Collection’s The Individualists series and Variety. “I don’t lump them all together into one category like taking all the Play-Doh out of the box and just smashing it all to a big ball. I think, wow, look at this unique human being.”
Whether comedic, dramatic or somewhere in between, his performances always command the audience’s attention. Career wise, Shannon has moved nimbly between dramas like “Revolutionary Road” and “99 Homes,” which both gained him Oscar nominations, and action fare such as “Man of Steel,” the upcoming sci-fi film “Midnight Special” and the next entry of the Warner Bros./DC Comics franchise, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But Shannon appears to feel most at home on stage.
What does theater give you that you can’t get from film and television?
Theater’s the best. Film and television is basically like running a con on somebody. It’s all a trick. The theater, there’s no tricks. You have to do something. It has to happen in front of everybody. You can’t waste people’s time. I feel like movies and TV waste a lot of people’s time. But with the plays, you really shouldn’t do that.
Why do you feel that’s the case with TV and film?
TV and movies is a business. And even parts of theater are business, like Broadway. Broadway’s a joke. I go back to my little theater in Chicago that nobody’s ever heard of, and I do a play there, and it’s like another dimension. That’s what everybody says when they come see it. They say, “I can’t believe you can actually still see things like this.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you can. If you come to our little theater that no one’s ever heard of.” A Red Orchid Theatre, that’s what it’s called.
That’s where you would go if you need inspiration?
I’ve been there for 23 years. I’ve been there since it opened. There’s great theater in New York, it’s just not on Broadway. Broadway’s a cesspool. Although, ironically, that’s where I’m doing “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Why did you decide to make an exception?
Because it’s probably the greatest play ever written in the American theater. And I’ve always wanted to do it. If I don’t do it now, I probably never will. And Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne are playing my parents. That’s like, insane. So I’m happy about that.
Do you feel you’re in a place, professionally, where don’t have to take projects that you don’t feel passionately about?
Nobody has to do that. You don’t want to do that, even when you start out. I don’t recommend anybody doing anything they’re not passionate about. I’ve always been passionate about what I do. But I am being a little more picky.
What is it you need to be really excited about a project? A great script? A great collaboration?
It can be all those things. It starts with the script. Everything starts with the script. You don’t have a script, you’ve just got a bunch of people standing around. When I read like Jeff Nichols’ screenplays, or when I read “99 Homes,” that’s virtuoso screenwriting. So that helps, but for me, it’s about the people. It’s about being able to look somebody in the eye and say, “I feel like we might actually understand one another.”
What about the big blockbusters like ‘”Man of Steel” or “Batman v. Superman”? What needs to be in place for you to be interested?
Are you kidding? Nothin.’ I mean, I couldn’t believe Zack offered me that job. I thought it was like a practical joke. That’s the largest offer I’ve ever gotten in my life. There was no way I was going to say no to that. But to top it off, I just think Zack is a super-sweet guy. He’s one of those guys that you look forward to seeing every day. He’s a fun guy to be around. And it’s not that he’s not authoritative; he’s found a way to do that without being a dick, which is pretty inspirational.
If you look back at your career, what are the projects you’re really proud of?
Well, I have to say “99 Homes” joined that list pretty strongly, because I think it’s a very clear, definitive, distinctive, vivid portrait of something that a lot of people didn’t really understand very well and didn’t really want to think about. And “Take Shelter’s” probably my favorite movie I’ve ever made. A lot of people think that movie’s about mental illness, but it’s not really how I interpret it. It’s basically a movie about how a person can live in this world knowing how much danger and frailty there is and be able to function. Which, to me, I think it’s one of the most relevant narratives you can be telling right now. I basically think my children are f–ked.
What does travel do for you creatively?
I love traveling for work. I’ve been to some pretty far-out places for work. Particularly when I started working with Werner Herzog. He took me to Peru, Machu Picchu. He took me to China. He took me to Bolivia, the Salt Flats. So yeah, those are three places I’d probably never would have gone otherwise. It’s inspiring because you see firsthand how many different ways there are of living in the world. I mean, you read about other cultures, and that’s one thing, but to see it up close and realize that people are capable of living without a lot of the creature comforts that we have here in the States — it’s pretty impressive.
What’s your definition of home?
Being with my kids is home for me. It’s more about people than a place. I can’t say there’s a geographical location that feels like home. But I feel like I’m at home when I’m with my family. Wherever that might be. I mean, we spent the fall in Chicago, and that felt at as home there as I do in New York. As long as I’m with them, that’s all.