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Deauville Q&A: Michael Shannon on ’99 Homes,’ ‘Man of Steel,’ ‘Elvis & Nixon’

While in Deauville to present “99 Homes,” which took the festival’s Grand Prize, Michael Shannon — the versatile actor who’s known for his roles in “Revolutionary Road” (which earned him an Oscar nom for supporting actor), as General Zod in “Man of Steel,” a mentally troubled father in “Take Shelter” and agent Nelson Van Alden in “Boardwalk Empire” — spoke to Variety about his part as Rick Carver, a shady and seductive real estate broker who makes big bucks evicting struggling American families.

99 Homes,” which also stars Andrew Garfield, Laura Dern and Noah Lomax, and marks Ramin Bahrani’s sixth feature, played at Venice, Telluride and Toronto. Pic had its French premiere at the festival and will soon be released in Gaul by Wild Bunch and Sept. 25 in the U.S. by Broad Green. Shannon, a rebel at heart, also talked about why he likes socially or politically minded projects, his work with Zack Snyder on “Man of Steel” and the anticipated “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the way he prepares for roles (notably as Elvis Presley’s in Liza Johnson’s upcoming “Elvis & Nixon” opposite Kevin Spacey) and his wish to reteam with Bahrani on a TV series and possibly a movie. The actor, who’s never been busier, is now shooting Werner Herzog’s “Salt And Fire” with Gael Garcia Bernal.

You said that you were surprised when Ramin Bahrani offered you the role of Rick Carver. Why is that?

In the old days, people would ask me, “Why are you always playing the crazy guy?” So I don’t know. Just seemed that back in the days I would probably have auditioned for the part of Frank Green (played by Tim Guinee). Honestly I also wondered what it would be like to be play Dennis (played by Garfield) but I never imagined in a million years that Ramin would ask me to play Rick. To me, Rick is a part that Paul Newman would have played — a suave kind of guy. Even though Rick is also rough in his thinking and behavior, on the surface he’s pretty slick.

There is also a definite thriller element in “99 Homes.” Your character, Rick Carter, is so manipulative, seductive and dangerous. We don’t know how far he could go to achieve what he wants.

Yes, this part was a big leap. It was an unusual opportunity because I wasn’t sure I could pull that off. I don’t have anything in common with him. The interesting thing about Nick is that underneath that exterior I really do think he’s kind of a mess inside and he’s getting numb to it. But nobody ever gets numb to something like that. When I was doing research for the film, I spent time with the real estate broker (who inspired the film) and he was a very friendly guy and easy to talk to and he had a nice sense of humor; and I could tell that underneath he was struggling with the evictions and knowing that he was participating in hurting other people. He would talk about how he had a hard time sleeping at night and had to take medicine.

Like most matters in life it’s about rationalizing your behavior. The rationalization when Rick Carter shows up at your door — and he says this in the movie — is that he’s not the one who took your house away, it’s not him; it’s already happened. The decision was made by somebody somewhere in a building far away and you’ll never see them.

Your character in the movie, Rick Carter, claims he’s not responsible for the terrible things he does and basically blames the system. Isn’t it a bit cowardly? How did you manage to empathize with him?

All he cares is surviving. That’s not uncommon, there is very little personal responsibility out there, it’s kind of an epidemic. And it all happens in lieu of a revolution. What should really be happening is a revolution. The system should be torn apart by the people and these banks shouldn’t be allowed to do what they do, and these giant corporations shouldn’t be allowed to run the world to the ground the way they’re doing. But that’s not happening for whatever reason. I’d like for it to happen. I guess we’re too scared to fight the system and tear it down. So if you don’t fight the system you can either take advantage of the system or let the system take advantage of you.

The film takes place a few years ago during the peak of the recession in the U.S. Do you think the story could happen today?

Some people have referred to it as a period piece, but the thing is that the market is still very bad. There was a false sense of inflation created by these mass purchases, by these companies buying a lot of real estate. That gave the impression that the market was booming and that the economy was back to normal, but that’s not really true because that’s not the home owners who are buying those homes, those people are still broke. It’s the corporations hedge funds that that are making the money.

You’ve made a number of politically and socially engaged movies such as “99 Homes.” How important is it for you to star in those kinds of films that carry a message?

I definitely think it’s more satisfying. On the other hand, you want people to enjoy themselves or at least have an emotional experience. People don’t go to the movies to get the news, people don’t go to the movies to learn a lesson. People go to the movie to get an emotional experience. At the end of the day, even if the movie is about the system it’s really about these two people Rick and Dennis and it’s about Dennis and his family and hard choices that people have to make in order to survive.

In a way it’s a human drama, isn’t it?

It’s in the mold of these classic social dramas. There used to be a genre of social drama like “Norma Rae” (Martin Ritts’ 1979 movie starring Sally Field) about hard-working people that got screwed. That kind of movie has started to disappear.

You’re hardly recognizable in every film you made. Do you have a specific way of working the parts on a physical level?

I’ve started to think more that way. I didn’t use to focus on the physical aspect very much, but honestly when I was working on “Man of Steel” it really occurred to me. It was very interesting because I did a lot of training for that movie. Zack Snyder really wanted me to do that and one day I told Zack, “But you’re never going to see my body because I’m either in a CGI armor or in that rubber suit that has fake muscles in it!” But he said to me, “It’s not just about the body, it’s about the mentality: It will change your mentality.” And he was right because now that I’ve had that experience, I can’t imagine not approaching a role from a physical standpoint. It changes the way I approach the work.

Even in “Boardwalk Empire,” you look so different!

Over the course of the show I changed a lot too. Sometimes I look at the early episodes … I was so doughy in the face.

What about your experience on stage?

Yes I’ve done a lot of physical work in theater. When I did “Bug” as a play before the movie, that was a very physical experience. The costume is a huge thing. On “Boardwalk” the costume influenced my performance, in “99 Homes” it definitely did too. When you put your costume on and you get your hair and your makeup done and you stare in the mirror you feel like a different person.

That was certainly the case when you shot Elvis Presley, wasn’t it?

Yes, that was a big transformation. I had a wig, fake sideburns, wonderful costumes. I would study his moves. There are a couple of concerts that you can watch to see the way Elvis was on tour. I watched press conferences that Elvis did, I watched the movies he was in, I was constantly watching all this. .

Some actors say they avoid watching too much material when they prepare to play someone famous in order to create an original performance. What do you think about that approach?

It’s a case-by-case thing. But when you’re playing Elvis, he’s famous like Jesus, everybody knows Elvis. … It warrants a great deal of research and respect. And also it was fascinating because there are so many Elvis impersonators and I feel that they’ve created this misperception of Elvis. He’s kind of considered this goofball because of these impersonators and he wasn’t. He was a very serious man, a thoughtful and intelligent person and I just loved getting to know all of that about it because I read a lot of books about him. A lot of people probably didn’t know this, but his favorite book was “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse. He was a tragic individual. It’s a great story and it was great to get to experience Elvis and great time to get to because it’s before his decline. When he went to visit the president he was in a very good shape.

You had a great collaboration with Ramin. Are you looking forward to reteaming with him on future projects?

Yes I really enjoyed working with Ramin and I’d love to do it again. He’s writing his next script. It takes Ramin a long time to write a script because he’s rigorous. He’s got a lot of drafts and he’s got two writing partners so I don’t know when he’ll be finished. We’re also talking about doing a miniseries together of this detective book we like. It’s called “The Last Good Kiss” by James Crumley. We want to turn that into a miniseries.

It’s a throwback kind of noir. Although we can’t really call it a noir because it’s set in the early ’70s. It’s a classic detective story, but the detective is a Vietnam vet. There is a lot of drinking involved.

I was wondering what would you do now that “Broadwalk Empire” is over.

When I do TV again I want it to be something very special. I’ve had a couple offers to do different things. But it’s a long commitment. I wouldn’t want to gamble on something and wind up not enjoying it.

What about your collaboration with Jeff Nichols? Do you have more projects lined up with him?

We have this movie “Midnight Special,” which is great and I can’t wait for it to come out.

Yes, where is “Midnight Special” going to open? We expected it to open in Cannes, then in Venice and/or Toronto. And nothing yet.

I heard it’s going to premiere at Berlin Film Festival.

Will you be happy if it world premieres there?

Yes, I’ve had films play there and I’ve never been; but I’ll definitely go if the movie opens there.

And are you going to play in next film, “Loving”?

In “Loving,” yes. I’m just trying to keep the streak alive because I said I would be in every movie he makes but I’m just barely in this. I’m literally going for a day. But it’s a cool little part, I’m a photographer. It reminds me of a movie I saw last night, “Life” (with Robert Pattinson).

Would you like to write or direct a movie one day?

I think eventually I will. But I’ll have to stop acting and create the time and space to do this, and focus on it, which is hard for me to do because I’ve always got something lined up.

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