The Uniquely Talented Michael Shannon on Nocturnal Animals and His Busy Year

The hard-working Michael Shannon chats about his amazingly varied year, from Nocturnal Animals to Midnight Special and Elvis & Nixon.

Actor Michael Shannon has been appearing in movies and television shows for almost 25 years—probably showing up in a number of movies you didn’t even realize he was present for, like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys 2.

He started getting more attention about 10 years ago thanks to his partnering with director Jeff Nichols on his debut Shotgun Stories, while at the same time working with filmmakers like the late Sydney Lumet and Sam Mendes. (Shannon was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the latter’s Revolutionary Road.)

Shannon has been on fire ever since with memorable roles on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and continuing his run with Jeff Nichols through Take Shelter and the three movies that followed, including Midnight Special, released earlier this year, and Loving, currently in theaters.

More importantly, Shannon appears in Tom Ford’s second feature Nocturnal Animals, playing police lieutenant Bobby Andes, a West Texas officer who comes forward to help Jake Gyllenhaal find those responsible for kidnapping his wife and daughter after an encounter on a deserted road. It’s a story being read in manuscript form by Amy Adams’ art gallery owner, who is reflecting back on her relationship with her first husband (also played by Gyllenhaal).

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Den of Geek got on the phone with Shannon last week for the following interview where we covered his amazing year in movies, which included Jeff Nichols’ two latest films, Elvis & Nixon, Complete Unknown, and Bart Freundlich’s Wolves, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

I’ll probably talk with you about a bunch of movies you did this year because I haven’t had a chance to talk to you about any of them. We’ll start with Nocturnal Animals first, because that’s what you’re doing. Tom Ford seems kind of intimidating. I was curious if you knew him beforehand, or how he approached you about playing Bobby Andes?

Michael Shannon: I can understand thinking that because he’s got this huge international corporate franchise with the Tom Ford label and everything, but he actually couldn’t be sweeter, couldn’t be nicer. I think he’s very, very appreciative that these artists are willing to come together and help him make this movie, you know? Because he’s the first one to admit that it’s not necessarily his realm of expertise, although he’s very naturally talented at it.

I think he’s a great screenwriter. I mean, this screenplay is just amazing. I haven’t read the original book, but his dialogue is really spot on. You would not know that making movies is his second career.

Well, yeah. He’s got a very vivid imagination, you know? He makes these movies from a place of great passion for the material and the characters, and he really lives in it, when he’s writing it and preparing to do it. When you’re on set with him, he can almost snap into the characters or certainly their point of view, very quickly.

What did he tell you about the character you’re playing? Did he just send you a full script or did he tell you more about him?

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I read the script, yeah, they sent me the script. Initially I guess the first time I read it, I wasn’t necessarily chomping at the bit to do it, just only because I felt like it was very upsetting. It’s a very brutal piece. The more I thought about it, the more I really liked the character of Bobby. He reminded me of a lot of characters from that genre, historically, and I’ve always been a big fan of the Jim Thompson books and things like that.

I just thought, “Wow, this is my opportunity to get to be one of those guys.” So I jumped… Once I met Tom, I was also very excited because like we were saying, before, I was very surprised at how he was not what I was expecting.

I know you’ve known Jake for a while, but have you actually ever been in a movie with him before, or is this the first time you guys have actually done something together?

No, no. We’d been looking to work together for a long time. I really love Jake. He’s such a sweet guy and a really smart actor, and I think he’s making great choices with the material he’s choosing to do and really pushing himself, so yeah, that was also a huge draw, in terms of doing the project, knowing that I was going to get to work with him so much.

This is sort of a two-pronged movie, because it’s a very modern thing going on with Amy Adams, and then there’s sort of this very noir-ish old school, but still present-day story she’s reading. Is that something that you wanted to play more into? Getting more into a noir character?

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Yeah, I mean, I had a pretty straight shot at it. Bobby’s not a flamboyant type of person really. He’s about action. He’s about, “What are you going to do in any given situation?” We were so separate from the other part of the movie. The way the movie was shot is we shot the book first—all the book stuff—and then, they switched over and started doing Amy’s stuff. By the time they were doing that, I was gone. I didn’t get to even see any of it until I finally saw the movie.

When you read the script, originally, was it easy to follow the switches? With the movie, Tom does a great job the way he cuts between them, but I was curious how it was reading the script that’s like that.

Yeah, it’s a fun read. It’s not too complicated, because it always makes sense, the transition from her to the book. When it happens it always makes a lot of sense.

One thing I like when I see you in movies is that you have a certain way of delivering a line, even when you’re doing a straight drama, that is able to get a laugh and it brings humor to the movie. Is that something very intentional or does it throw you off when people laugh at some of your characters’ lines and actions?

[Laughs] Nah, it doesn’t throw me off. Look, humor is one of my favorite things. Who doesn’t love humor? Who doesn’t love the laugh? It’s how we survive all kinds of ordeals. I think Bobby is a very wry person. He’s a very cynical, jaded, wry person in that he has a very dry sense of humor. People always ask me, “When are you going to do comedy?” and I’m like, “Dude there’s comedy in everything.” You don’t have to extract it and do it by itself.

It’s like stuff in Revolutionary Road, I think that stuff is hysterical. That guy cracks me up. It made me laugh when I read it. This whole notion that comedy has to be like stupid people doing stupid stuff is … Comedy used to be so much more sophisticated, you know what I mean?

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Oh absolutely. I just rewatched Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, and that’s another movie where I remember every line you made got laughs.

Yeah, exactly. That guy’s hysterical. Even in the midst of that horrible intense situation. A lot of times that’s where humor comes from, it’s trying to deflect or diffuse something more serious.

Watch Elvis & Nixon on Amazon

You also had Elvis & Nixon this year, which I loved. I thought it was a rather underrated movie…

Oh, you’re so sweet. Thank you.

It was a very funny movie with you and Kevin Spacey, I mean, putting you two in a movie was just great, and hopefully it will find more of an audience down the road.

Well, thankfully it’s with Amazon, so easy enough to see it, you know? Just go on your computer and there it is.

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When I spoke to you last, it was for Take Shelter, and you and Jeff Nichols have quite an incredible run. Even your small role in Loving was a nice surprise, because when you show up there were gasps at my screening because no one knew where and when to expect you.

[Laughs] That’s cool to hear, yeah.

Your working relationship with Jeff has been great with you appearing in all his movies, even in smaller roles, so what’s the secret, and how does it work with him in terms of him always having something for you to do in his movies?

Yeah, you know, we’re just like brothers, me and Jeff. He’s my buddy. Look, I was with him from step one and Shotgun Stories. I’m still, to this day, so impressed with the fact that he got that made and they got it finished. I’ve never seen somebody work so hard to get something done. I just have a lot of respect for him, and it’s hard when people are special to you, or to me anyway, a lot of times, it’s because they’re unique. It’s hard to explain why someone is unique. It’s kind of the definition of word “unique” is that it’s hard to put into words what it is.

Loving Is also a special film, but Shotgun Stories was his first movie and making a first movie is always hard, so it’s amazing where his career has gone since then.

Yeah, when we shot that movie, he didn’t have enough money to develop the film. He knew he wanted to shoot on film, and it was the only thing he spent money on, I think, was getting 35mm film, but he didn’t have the money to develop it. So we wrapped and everybody left, and there he was with a bunch of film cans of unprocessed film, and he didn’t know what the hell it was going to be. He had to go out and get more money just to get the film developed. Things like that. Then he put it together, he edited it, he spent like a year editing that movie, and he’s a tough cookie, that one.

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Watch Midnight Special on Amazon

Another movie you did this year I’m also a little bummed didn’t get more attention is Wolves, Bart Freundlich’s movie. You weren’t very funny in that movie, but it’s such a great drama and I really enjoyed it. I was sure some distributor would grab it.

Thank you so much! You are the second person who has said that today, and I really appreciate it, because I’m really afraid for that movie. I’m afraid nobody is going to see it. That movie meant a lot to Bart. That’s like the most personal movie he’s ever made, and I was on the fence about doing it to begin with, because it was another low budget thing, and I had been doing a bunch of those, and I was kind burnt out on it, but I couldn’t help it, because Bart was so passionate about it. He said, “This isn’t my life, but it’s very much inspired by my life, the things I’ve been through,” and that always means something.

I was blown away by that movie. I thought you and Carla Gugino were great, and you and the kid who played your son…

Yeah, the kid, right? Taylor [John Smith]…

I got to see it with a real audience at a public screening that was so well received and then nothing after that. I hope Bart finds someone to get it out there.

I think IFC is going to try and get it out there, but they’re not super distributors. They’re okay.

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You also got to work with Guillermo del Toro recently, which I’m interested in, because like many, I’m a huge fan and have met him many times. He’s an amazing guy, Guillermo, so what was that experience working with him? Did you have a lot of expectations beforehand?

Oh man. You know, I didn’t. I was interested that he approached me and said I’ve got this script, and I had you in mind from the get-go. I was kind of flabbergasted, because we hadn’t crossed paths or anything. Pan’s Labyrinth is I think one of the finest films I’ve ever seen, and the guy is so super-intelligent about movies and about life. It was so much fun to get to work with him. It’s hard, he asks for a lot, or it’s demanding, but it’s worth it. Definitely worth it, and I just had a blast working with him, I really did.

You’ve been this really hard working actor for a long time, and it must be kind of gratifying to be at a point where you probably don’t have to audition anymore, you probably have at least some choice on whether to do something or not, and you’re getting a lot of these kind of projects. Is that the case, or do you still feel the need to work constantly?

Oh, no. I don’t want to work constantly. No, no, I don’t, but I have a hard time saying “no” sometimes. I’m working on it. The things that I “yes” to, by and large, and pretty interesting, I think. If I look at the movies that I’ve had come out this year. I know people weren’t super thrilled with Complete Unknown, but I thought it was interesting. Midnight Special and Elvis & Nixon were pretty interesting, I think. Just sometimes it’s hard for me to say “no” if the things I’m getting presented with are movies that I think are unique.

Do you still have time for your band Corporal, or you’ve just been too busy acting? Are you still doing music?

I don’t have much time for the band. When Corporal kind of came together, at the time, I wasn’t working all that much. I was kind of having a little bit of a dry spell, so I had time to devote to it. I love the band, and I love playing, but the thought of doing it now is pretty overwhelming. I just don’t have the time to do it right, and I don’t like doing it wrong. Every once in a while we get together, but even the band is getting frustrated, because it’s to the point where we should really be generating some new material. We cannot just keep playing the same songs over and over again, and I just haven’t been able to do it.

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Nocturnal Animals opens in select cities on Friday, Nov. 18. Jeff Nichols’ Loving is also still playing in theaters, and you should be able to find Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Complete Unknown in some configuration of streaming or DVD soon. Guillermo del Toro’s movie The Shape of Water will also come out sometime next year, and hopefully, Bart Freundlich’s Wolves will be released soon as well.