A supporting actor Oscar nominee for 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” actor Michael Shannon finds himself in a similar dark-horse position for his role as a callous real estate eviction agent in Ramin Bahrani’s housing-crisis drama “99 Homes.” He also appears in Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld” opposite Julianne Moore and Ellen Page.
How did you like working with Ramin Bahrani?
For me, he’s on par with Jeff Nichols, just in terms of people that I will always want to be involved in what they’re doing. In a way, it was a very selfless thing for him to do. He spent a couple of years writing the script, doing the research, going to Florida, talking to people and getting the true, authentic version of this experience. Nobody else was going to take that time. And this movie is long overdue. There should be people competing to make a movie like this.
What kind of research did you do? Did you meet brokers like the one you play?
I spent a lot of time with a broker in Florida. He was very amiable, very affable — and on the surface seemed not to be terribly angst-ridden about what was happening, all the time acknowledging it was a tragedy. And yet, at night, we would go out and get something to eat or a beer or whatever, and that’s when he would be, like, “This is really f—ing me up. I can’t go to sleep at night.”
You seemed to play him as if he were holding that emotion down.
Exactly. He says he’s “numb” but it’s not numb, it’s compartmentalization. That’s what the e-cigarette is about to me. It’s like, “I want to scream but I can’t scream.”
Did you witness an eviction yourself?
I didn’t go to an actual eviction. I felt like that would be disrespectful. But I went to properties that had been foreclosed on. There was one house, the couple had just left piles of crap on the floor. I say “crap,” but I looked down, and there was a photo album, and it was pictures of their wedding. Their whole life had obviously just gone up in smoke.
It’s a pretty intense micro view of a situation we’ve only really understood in the macro.
Exactly. When it was happening, to me, all it was was a story I would read in the New York Times, with a bunch of words I didn’t understand very well and silly names like “Fannie Mae” and “Freddie Mac.” The whole thing just seemed absurd. But the stories in the paper aren’t going to bring you to the doorstep like this movie does.
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You’ve got another film, Peter Sollett’s “Freeheld.” This time you’re playing a real person, New Jersey police detective Dane Wells.
I met him before I started shooting. He invited me out to his house in New Jersey and I spent the day with him. He’s really into antiques and old cars. Very into history. He seems like he’s descended from the boat that crashed into Plymouth rock. You could see him with a black hat with a buckle on it.
It’s an interesting dynamic you have with Julianne Moore in the film, how the relationship is presented. He’d like it to be more than it is, etc., and the loyalty.
It’s funny because these people are cops. That’s what people would always say about Laurel [Hester], is Laurel insisted upon justice. It was like if people did bad stuff and hurt people, they needed to go to jail. And it’s just so ironic that she’s so devoted to justice and then finds herself in this position where she can’t get it. And that drove Dane crazy. He was there right by her side all these years.
These two directors really tap into a certain level of empathy with their work. How did they compare and contrast for you?
Ramin, it’s almost like he’s possessed by the movie, but in a very quiet way. It’s not like he’s screaming or throwing things, but he just never stops thinking about the movie. Peter’s just a little more laid back.
So did things change for you after “Man of Steel?” Are you still able to walk down the street and go to the community pool and whatnot?
It’s odd. They did and they didn’t. I would say if anything, “Boardwalk [Empire]” is the predominant thing that if someone’s a stranger and starts talking to me, nine times out of 10 it’s about “Boardwalk.” My kind of policy about it is I refuse to look at it as an issue. I do what I do and I throw caution to the wind. It’s not like when I walk out my door in the morning there’s paparazzi. So as long as that’s not happening I just go where I want to go and do what I want to do.
I haven’t talked to you in a while so I’ve been curious if that upended things for you at all.
Even with “Man of Steel” I felt like I was making a movie that had a certain significance in a sociological way. The story of the movie, the story of what happens to Krypton as we live on the planet we live on and as our resources are rapidly dwindling and as we’re confronted with the possibility that our planet won’t be habitable, it felt like an interesting, mythological version of what we’re experiencing.
I saw you in “Grace” on Broadway a couple years back, by the way.
Oh, really? You saw it?
Yeah. Interesting visual storytelling for the stage.
Yeah, well that director, he loves stuff like that. Dexter [Bullard]. He actually had a theater company in Chicago that was devoted to strictly physical theaters. They would do plays that didn’t have any dialogue. So he loved orchestrating all of that backwards stuff.
You’re about to work on another play, right?
I’ve been rehearsing a play with my little theater company that nobody’s ever heard of. And now I’m going to do this film with Tom Ford called “Nocturnal Animals.” And then I’m going to go perform the play. So it’s a bit of an experiment. I’ve never done anything like this in my entire life. I’m going to go back on weekends and do a run-through. It’s like a roller-coaster. You just hold onto the bar and hope you don’t fall off.
What’s your view of stage work? Does it kind of rejuvenate you? Is it your real passion? What?
For me, film is very technical. It’s like a puzzle. You’re trying to solve the riddle or something. Because you’re creating something that is going to exist for as long as movies exist. As long as we’re here, that’s going to be what it is. So you’re trying to get — it’s like, “What is the ideal version of this to exist forever?” But with a play you’re just, like, drawing in the sand. You know what you’re doing that night is that night, and after that night, it just goes away. That’s it. And for me there’s something very mystical about that. Something that disappears.
Something cleansing, maybe?