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Michael Shannon: Indie Actors Shouldn’t Be Working for Free

Actor Michael Shannon, at Karlovy Vary to screen Joshua Marston’s chamber drama about identity and payback, “Complete Unknown,” featuring Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Danny Glover, jokes that when making art film the pay often lies mainly in the fest tour experience.

Are too many great actors willing to work for almost nothing if offered a great script?

Yeah, it tends to be the model nowadays. I’ve come to the point where I’m gonna start putting my foot down. I mean a movie like “Complete Unknown” is basically like a volunteer effort. That why you gotta take advantage of these film festivals. This is kind of your reward for making the movie. Stay in a nice old hotel.

The GrandHotel Pupp is a little like walking into a real-life Boardwalk Empire, isn’t it?

Yeah. I hadn’t put two and two together – it does kinda look like that.

But can you blame actors for wanting to do challenging, prestige work at almost any cost?

I think as a group actors need to stop enabling this behavior. There’s no reason it should be that way. If somebody’s got a good script and you want to put good actors in it then everybody should be taken care of. We’re not asking for millions and millions of dollars. It’s gone too far in the other direction really. If it was just me I wouldn’t care. I probably would do it for free. But I have a family.

You wonder whether new platforms will change any of that. Ted Hope has said he wants Amazon to be buying indie films for much more than the filmmakers are currently getting.

I like Ted’s attitude.

How do you know when you have a character down? Can you feel it at a certain point?

No, you don’t. I don’t ever really feel like…I guess I don’t really look at it that way. It’s weird. Because I don’t think people ever really have themselves down, you know? Experience isn’t really that way. ‘Oh, I finally have become Michael Shannon.’ Which is like what this movie’s about. It goes beyond qualitative commentary, being a good performance or a bad performance. It’s more that I’m being what I can stand being right now.

Do you worry about type casting after so many successful roles as tough guys – especially after your Van Alden role for HBO made you a household name?

No, I just look at everything on its own terms as it comes to me and I thought “Complete Unknown” was just an interesting story about something that a lot of people experience at some point in their lives. That feeling of wanting to change who you are and start over. It seemed like a subject worth exploring. I don’t think many people would have imagined me playing Tom. All the more reason for me to do it – to thwart peoples expectations.

And what was it about that role in the film that appealed to you?

I just liked the idea of being the one defending who you are – yet being tempted to cross over to the other side. And at the end of the day having to make a decision. Am I right? Am I wrong?

But you’re comfortable in longform work now, watching your character evolve in a cable series?

It depends on whose hands that’s in and what they’re doing to the character. I wasn’t always happy with what was happening with Van Alden. I honestly thought it could have been a lot more interesting. I thought it fell into a very repetitive thing, particularly toward the end where he’s just being constantly humiliated and he tries to take it, then he loses his shit and does something bad and then he does it again. It’s a classic structure – it’s almost like a very dour Three Stooges. The great dark secret of humanity is that people love to watch other people squirm. They love to watch other people suffer, which is really strange.

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