Diving Into The Shape of Water with Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon on why his character in The Shape of Water is funny, how he felt becoming an action figure and more.

There are not really any villains per se in Guillermo del Toro’s fantastic new film The Shape of Water, just people trying to make sense of their own lives in the face of something they can’t understand. But the closest the movie comes to a heavy is Colonel Strickland, the military operative played by the great Michael Shannon. Strickland is the one who captures a humanoid creature that has never been seen before on the Amazon River and brings it back to a high-security research facility circa 1962, where he wants to see it dissected and destroyed. But others want it kept alive, and one of those — a mute cleaning woman with a soul as big as an ocean (Sally Hawkins) — falls improbably in love with it.

The Shape of Water is Del Toro at his most romantic, even for a monster movie, and each character is more than what they seem on the surface, including the paranoid Strickland. Shannon is menacing and superb as usual, a bad guy who turns out to be something of a tragic figure. In addition to The Shape of Water, he’s also appearing in January in 12 Strong, the true story of the Special Forces team known as the “horse soldiers” who went to Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks to wage unconventional war against the Taliban. HBO viewers will also soon see him in a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s milestone novel, Fahrenheit 451, opposite Michael B. Jordan. We spoke about all these projects when we sat down recently with Shannon in Los Angeles.

Den of Geek: Have you and Guillermo ever talked about working together before?

Michael Shannon: No, this was totally out of the blue. I didn’t know Guillermo. I was out here doing something silly, I don’t know. Maybe I was out for the indie film Spirit Awards or something and my agent said, “Guillermo del Toro wants to have lunch with you while you’re in town this weekend.” I said okay. So he came to my hotel and we sat at this table out back, and he just laid it all out. Said, “I’ve been writing this movie for a long time. I’ve been writing it with particular people in mind, and you’re one of those people. Are you interested?” And I said okay. That was it. It’s an astonishingly simple and concise story.

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He said he wrote Strickland with your voice in his head. So when you got to read the character, what struck you about the character?

I thought it was funny. I thought it was a funny character. I saw a lot of humor in it. I liked the opportunity to play some uptight, confused government agent guy. I mean he’s kind of a train wreck inside, but he’s presenting this exterior of authority and competency, which is a total fabrication at the end of the day.

If they made this movie in the 1950s, he’d be the hero, chasing the monster down in the Amazon.

Well yeah, I guess if it goes towards obliterating the classifications of hero and villain, that’s something I would be eternally grateful for. I don’t find the discussion of heroes and villains ultimately, at the end of the day, very interesting. I mean look, nobody’s perfect. Some days we do nice things and some days we do not nice things. That’s how most people seem to function.

I like the fact that we go home with him and meet his family, because a lots of times in these kind of movies you wouldn’t do that. He’d always be in the lab or behind the wheel of a truck or something. You wouldn’t go home and see his wife and see him talk to his kids.

It’s true. Not only do I appreciate that we go home with him, but I appreciate how much storytelling Guillermo accomplishes with so little time. You know those sequences are very brief, but they’re packed with so many details. That’s the magic of what he’s doing I think.

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This movie is kind of about seeing beneath the surface of people. What do you think it says to audiences today?

Well yeah, Guillermo’s a very conscientious filmmaker, he always has been. He’s very in touch with what’s going on in the world. Honestly, people want to draw parallels and they’re welcome to do that. I’m sure Guillermo would like them to do that. I honestly think that Strickland’s a lot more interesting than any of these gauchos we’ve got in government today. He’s a lot more interesting than Paul Ryan, these guys are just stooges. I don’t think Strickland’s a total stooge.

But yeah, I think at the end of the day, the impression I’ve gotten from Guillermo is he wants people to take away the love story aspect of it more than anything. I think any good art encourages people to pay attention, be aware of their surroundings. It encourages you to have a perspective. And I think this film is capable of doing that.

Did you have kind of a favorite monster when you were a kid?

I remember when I was a little kid I was really into Greedo and Hammerhead from Star Wars. I had the action figures, they were my favorite. Greedo and Hammerhead. Although for the life of me I can’t remember what I actually did with them. Because now I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with action figures. It’s a really weird name for a little piece of rubber. Action figures. I mean they can’t do anything, but you just hold them in your hands and look at them. Yeah, I was really into Greedo and Hammerhead. But particularly Greedo.

But that went away fairly early on. I always say my favorite, analogous to The Shape of Water, my favorite is Starman, which I feel has some things in common perhaps. I don’t know if you’d call Jeff Bridges a creature in that movie, more of an alien I guess. And with no prosthetics. I just think that performance of his is pretty incredible. It might be one of my favorite things I ever saw him do.

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Where do you keep your Zod action figures from when you played him in Man of Steel?

They’re like sitting around on a shelf. My daughter has one on her shelf. I gave some of them away. They make good charity auction items if you sign them. But there’s all different kinds. There’s the bigger one, and then there’s little bobble head ones. It’s very, it’s cool. But I don’t play with them.

Is it odd to see yourself as an action figure?

I’m totally in favor of it. I’d recommend it if anyone has the opportunity. I always like having unique experiences, so that would fall under that category I think.

You’re appearing in an upcoming film for HBO that I think is pretty relevant these days, Fahrenheit 451, as Captain Beatty, who’s in charge of the squad that goes around burning books. Tell me about that, and how you think this version of it compares to the book or the Francois Truffaut film.

Yeah, I made this with Ramin Bahrani. We worked together on 99 Homes and I think Ramin is just one of our top filmmakers right now. I love him like a brother. And it was kind of his idea. He thought it was time to get this out again. I don’t think many people have seen the Truffaut version. It’s a little clunky I think. This is much more … I think it’s got more of a pulse to it perhaps.

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Ramin really focused on the relationship between Beatty and Montag. The Clarisse character’s very different than in the book. That’s one significant difference. And it’s a little more modern, it’s a little more gritty. It’s not so precious, it’s almost feels at the outset like we might be watching some weird procedural show on TV. But of course it’s a lot more complex than that, ultimately.

I thought 99 Homes was one of the best movies of that year. It made me want to scream at the screen.

Yeah, right? You just gotta keep doing it man, you gotta keep making people want to scream. Maybe eventually it’ll work.

There are way bigger issues at stake, but at the same time, is it frustrating to you that a film you did, The Current War, is part of the collateral damage of the Weinstein revelations? (The film was pulled from release in the wake of the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, whose company produced it.)

Yeah, I’m very sad about it to be honest. I saw the movie in Toronto, and I think Alfonso (Gomez-Rejon) the director is a wonderful talent, and he really worked so hard on that picture. It’s unfair. Alfonso didn’t do anything wrong. It’s a beautiful story, very timely story, which is one of the reasons I did it in the first place. In this era when you’ve got the Koch brothers buying Time magazine, it’s important to remember someone like George Westinghouse, who somehow managed to be incredibly wealthy without being a complete dickhead. It’d be nice if there were someone like him nowadays. Although I look at Tom Steyer and I admire what he’s trying to do. They’re not all evil, just most of them.

You’ve got so many upcoming projects that you’re involved in, but one that is coming out pretty soon is 12 Strong, which is another true story.

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It is a true story. I hope it’s somewhat accurate. You always run the risk when you make a movie out of something that they may gin it up a little bit. But I got to meet the guy that my character’s based on. And I really admire him. I don’t want to say his name out loud, I don’t know if he would like that or not. But he was a very sweet, kind, thoughtful person who went over to Afghanistan after 9/11 and risked everything to try and sort out that mess. The idea of going in was to align themselves with the Northern Alliance or various warlords to try and take down the Taliban. Obviously that’s had mixed results, but that particular mission was I think very successful.

There’s a monument to those horse soldiers at Ground Zero. I’m glad to know the story behind that monument, because before I did the job I thought it was a guy sitting on a horse, I had no idea what it was about. And I think it’s important for everyone to know what that monument stands for. So hopefully this film accomplishes that.

The Shape of Water is out in limited release tomorrow (Friday, December 1).