Michael Shannon interview: Midnight Special, Friedkin

He's the star of Man Of Steel, The Iceman and now the sci-fi drama Midnight Special. We chat to the great Michael Shannon...

We find Michael Shannon in a reflective kind of mood. In the corner of a plush London hotel room, he fixes himself a cup of coffee before settling down into a tub chair, sipping thoughtfully at his brew between questions.

You can see why Shannon would be cast as General Zod in Man Of Steel, or the real-life contract killer Richard Kiklinski in The Iceman. He has the cool, charismatic, terse toughness of a golden-era Hollywood actor like James Cagney.

Midnight Special, Shannon’s fourth collaboration with Take Shelter and Mud director Jeff Nichols, is a change of pace and genre for both actor and filmmaker. It’s a sci-fi drama about a father [Shannon] on the run with his gifted son, Alton [Jaeden Lieberher], as they’re pursued across America by government agents (represented by Adam Driver) and a mysterious cult.

It’s a quietly absorbing, beautifully shot sci-fi movie and also a moving drama about childhood and parenthood, and how outside forces can conspire against them. What really makes the film is the chemistry between the cast, with Shannon putting in a tender, restrained performance alongside Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother and Joel Edgerton as a family friend and protector to Alton.

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Midnight Special is another great film in Michael Shannon’s long career, which stretches right back to 1993 and a small part in the classic Groundhog Day. While our time with the actor was short, we managed to squeeze in questions about Jeff Nichols, superhero blockbusters like Man Of Steel, and his memories of working with William Friedkin.

But first, we kicked all that off with an ice-breaking question about being back in London.

“How am I finding London?” Mr Shannon responds, before cracking into a derisive chuckle. “Ha! You’re funny. You know when I got here? This morning…”

Oh. And you’re flying back out again as well…

Today.

Ouch.

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But I’ve been to London a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time in London. My home away from home.

You brought Killer Joe here, didn’t you?

Yeah, that was the first time I came here, with Killer Joe. And that was… man, I can’t even remember when that was. 

That would have been the mid-90s, maybe?

Ninety-four, 95? Something like that. And we did it at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush. Then we went over to the Vaudeville at the Strand over here. And… yeah. It’s interesting, because one of the last times I was in London, it was when I was here for the Man Of Steel thing. I went by the Vaudeville, and I hadn’t been there in, you know, however many years. I looked inside and there was somebody in the box-office, and I said, “Can I look in the theatre? I did a play here a long time ago.”

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It’s funny, because I remember the first time I went in there, to the Vaudeville, I’d never acted in a theatre that big before. It just seemed so big – I was just terrified. Then I went back a second time and I thought, “Oh. It’s not as big as I remember”. It had shrunk, I guess. 

I wonder if that’s because you’d just come off a production as massive as Man Of Steel. Maybe that cuts the world down to size a little bit?

[Laughs] Yeah, well. And I’d done a lot more theatre since then as well. 

Congratulations on Midnight Special. I thought it was wonderful. Beneath the sci-fi, it’s a really engaging film about parenthood, I thought. 

Yeah, do you think that’s gonna work for us, though? Will people, like… because it’s being couched as this sci-fi film. Do you think they’ll be a backlash? Like, “Where’s the aliens?” or whatever?

There’s an audience for this kind of film. Some people think they go to cinema for explosions and things, but what they actually go for is the characters. 

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The people, yeah.

Sometimes you’ll go and see a big, I don’t know, superhero film or something, and you go, “Oh great. But where are the humans?”

Right. Yeah. It seems like they’re gonna max out one day on big battle sequences between… well, I shouldn’t say that because I am involved in one ostensibly [Laughs] but it’s gonna get to a point where, “How hard can that guy hit that other guy?” Like, haven’t we seen that?

How many cities can we destroy…

Yeah. 

So [in Midnight Special] what was your way into Roy’s character, who in many ways is an ordinary father? Did you mine your own experiences for that?

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Well, I don’t know if Roy’s an ordinary father exactly – he’s had kind of a strange life. He’s parents dragged him into this cult. So he lived on this ranch with these unusual individuals. And I don’t think he really bought into the whole cult thing, I think he just went because he had to go. It’s like he says in the movie, “I never really believed in anything except Alton,” his son. When Roy finally has his son, it gives him a sense of meaning and identity that he didn’t have before. 

That’s the tricky thing, because kids do give you that sense of purpose, but then they leave. 

The film also touches on the thing where you want to protect your child from everything in the world that’s converging in different directions, and that’s impossible in some ways.

Right. And the truth is, they can handle it, you know? I mean, it’s like, kids aren’t the frail, vulnerable people that we think they are. Not all the time, anyway. They’re actually capable of being quite strong. This little boy who’s in the movie, Jaeden [Lieberher], he’s a stellar kid. Very serious about his work – as serious as everybody else was. But anyway, I digress. 

It’s a great performance. All four of you [Joel Edgerton, Jaeden Lieberher, Kirsten Dunst as well as Michael Shannon] make a great unit. 

Yeah, it could have gone south pretty easily. You had to hope that the four people would get along, and hope that there was an inherent harmony and affection there. Because there was no time to create it… and it’s not something you can necessarily rehearse. It’s just chemistry, I guess. I think [Jeff Nichols, director] got lucky in that regard.

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Joel – I think people know around the business that he’s a real decent guy. Easy to work with, and just real smart. Joel’s real smart about movies. He can write them, he can direct them, he can be in them. 

I saw The Gift. I thought it was fantastic.

Yeah, yeah. And Kirsten’s been great for years. We spent a lot of time together on the set. A lot of night shoots, a lot of driving around. It was cold. We kept each other’s spirits up. 

This is the fourth time you’ve worked with Jeff Nichols, isn’t it?

Yeah, we did Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special. Now he’s got Loving, which is coming out in the fall I think – in the States anyway. 

Is there a repertory feel on set, now you’ve worked together so many times?

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The reason I’m always returning to Jeff is because I’m always wanting to see what he’s going to do next. I’m so curious about his mind. I’m so curious about… Jeff has this habit of pushing himself and challenging himself with every film he makes. The four films we made up until now, where we started and where we are now, there’s an exponential shift with each film. Shotgun Stories, he made that with the change in his piggy bank. Now he’s making a studio picture – basically in four moves. And I think that’s somebody who, without relinquishing any integrity, control… I admire that. That admiration and curiosity to see where he’s going to take things next is why I keep coming back to him.

Is that what you look for in your work? Writers and directors with a distinct, individual point of view? Because you’ve worked with William Friedkin, Werner Herzog…

I like iconoclasts. Auteurs. I like people that can only exist unto themselves. Where there’s nobody else I can go to and say, “Well, [working with them] will be like working with Jeff.” Because there’s nobody else like Jeff. It’s the same thing with Werner or Billy or [99 Homes director] Ramin Bahrani  – they’re visionaries. 

Is that what you try to do with your acting? 

I don’t know. I don’t get real high fallutin’ about my acting. I think actors are there to help the artist tell their stories. I’m there in service of Jeff, to realise his vision for the movie. I don’t honestly think that what I do is as hard as what he does. That’s not false modesty or anything. I couldn’t write a script, and I’m pretty sure I couldn’t direct a movie. I mean, it’s really hard work. 

What are your memories of working with William Friedkin on Bug?

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Billy! [Sighs ambiguously] I loved it. You know, Billy has a reputation for being tough. I guess from the films he made early on in his career. But it’s funny, but I catch people like Billy or Werner when they’re older, you know? So I think they’ve probably mellowed out a bit. We didn’t really have any major disagreements. He was very supportive, frankly – I mean, his intentions were so good, making that movie. He was a fan of the play, and he said he wanted to just take the cast from the play and put it in the movie, but that wasn’t financially possible. But he always insisted – “You gotta keep [Michael Shannon] in the picture.” So I’m very grateful to him for that. 

I dunno, he could do this trick where he would, um, suck in his stomach and his pants would fall down. [Laughs] He liked doing that. That’s my story about William Friedkin!

With that, we’re sadly out of time! Michael Shannon, thank you very much.

Midnight Special is out in UK cinemas on the 8th April.