A true star emerges from the shadows
Is Michael Shannon the finest American actor since Robert De Niro? Film Critic Tony Earnshaw on Hollywood’s best kept secret.
TWO years ago Michael Shannon was deservedly nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor for his role in Revolutionary Road.
The film was notable for being the on-screen reunion of Titanic lovers Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet, playing a warring married couple. But it was Shannon, as a neighbour recently released from the funny farm, who acted as the film’s uncomfortable conscience.
It was a stand-out portrait. Shannon appeared in just three key scenes but stole all of them. The award went, posthumously, to Heath Ledger. Such are vagaries of the business: you can’t compete with a corpse.
Those in the know have long claimed that 6ft3ins Shannon has been one to watch. Like Paul Giamatti his presence in a movie is a guarantee of quality – not necessarily about the movie, but certainly from the actor concerned. Whatever “it” is, Giamatti has it. So does Shannon.
Still only 37, Shannon has amassed an impressive resume of roles in big films with bigger stars: Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck, Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise, Bad Boys II with Will Smith, World Trade Center, and Bad Lieutenant, with Nicolas Cage, and Machine Gun Preacher with Gerard Butler. All of them headliners. All of them good-looking above-the-title leading men. Yet Shannon could well eclipse them all.
The Kentucky native has been described as having the qualities of Steve Mcqueen but none of his looks. Harsh, but probably fair. Shannon, in reality a pleasant and affable man, does not possess a face that hints at normality. Thus his career, like Johnny Depp’s in the 90s, has been built on the quirky, the eccentric, the idiosyncratic and the downright weird.
Now, after 20 years in TV and film he is on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough thanks to recent work for Werner Herzog (as a matricidal actor in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and in Bad Lieutenant), in The Runaways, a biopic of the 70s all-girl punk band in which he played rock ‘n’roll grotesque Kim Fowley, the wacked-out Svengali who moulds the girls, and a trio of new projects.
He’s currently to be seen in HBO hit Boardwalk Empire as the strait-laced Agent Nelson Van Alden opposite Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson and in the doom-laden Take Shelter. Coming up is Man of Steel, yet another reboot of the Superman franchise. Things are about to change in a big way.
He arrived in the UK to attend the London Film Festival last month fresh from shooting the $175m Man of Steel. In the film Shannon plays über villain General Zod, pariah son of Krypton and another in his growing gallery of movie monsters. He takes over from Terence Stamp who played him in the 1970s. Those are big boots to fill. Shannon smiles a crooked smile.
“Definitely, yeah. Very intimidating. I’ve been purposefully not watching the old ones because it’s just too much pressure.”
Shannon has been at the heart of blockbusters before – seek out Pearl Harbor as evidence. But this time he’s not so much a bystander as a building block. Man of Steel will be his entré to global audiences. Yet, like contemporaries such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, he appears happier in quasi indie fare like Take Shelter, a significant hit at the Sundance Film Festival.
“The character I play, Curtis, is having dreams or nightmares about a storm. There’s no evidence that there’s actually a storm coming, but he keeps having them night after night and eventually he cannot ignore them any more.
“The dreams that Curtis is having are a poetic metaphor for this general sense of uncertainty and instability that it seems like a lot of people are having to deal with, you know? And how do you accept that and not let it overwhelm your life?” Take Shelter is not your common or garden disaster flick which, one assumes, is what drew Shannon to it. He nods.
“A lot of films about the apocalypse or the end of the world are very sensationalistic. Like the aliens are coming down and there are people running around with guns trying to stop them. They are usually set in very big cities. This is set in a very small rural area.”
Shannon and Take Shelter keep everyone guessing. Is the storm real or in his mind? Is he mad? Where will the journey take him?
“[The ending] is definitely a head-scratcher, yeah,” he smiles. “The ending can be frustrating for people. But it will give you a lot to think about...”
Take Shelter (15) is on nationwide release from today.
ONE TO WATCH: Michael Shannon’s career is “on the cusp of a mainstream breakthrough”.
THOUGHT-PROVOKING: Michael Shannon in a scene from Take Shelter, “not your common or garden disaster flick”.