Michael Shannon as General Zod in “Superman.”
If there were two young actors, back in the day, whose work was revered by their peers (and whose onstage turns drew a crowd of other actors to watch them perform), those two were Mickey Rourke and Sean Penn. Another equally intense but more mature actor (who just won acclaim as Best Actor at Cannes in “Nebraska”) is Bruce Dern, who nailed such parts in “Coming Home” and “Black Sunday.” And, of course, you can’t forget Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter” and other films when discussing film portraits of personally conflicted protagonists that are delivered with ferocious intensity.
Today, the name on everyone’s lips for such roles—especially after the release of “Superman,” in which he plays the evil General Zod—is Michael Shannon. Michael Shannon’s first stage work began at age 15. Born in Lexington, Kentucky at Good Samaritan Hospital on August 7, 1974, his parents divorced and remarried five times. His mother, Geraldine Hine, is a social worker who stayed in Kentucky (reported by some other sources as “a lawyer.”)
His father, Donald Sutherland Shannon, who died November 19, 2008, took a position teaching economics at DePaul University in Chicago where he was much-honored during his 25 year tenure. Michael moved to be with his father, attending New Trier Township in Winnetka for two years. He moved back to Kentucky for his junior year. Then he attended Evanston Township High School for one semester before dropping out of school entirely.
It is ironic that Michael Shannon’s grandfather was famed entomologist Raymond Corbett Shannon, because one of the first stage roles Shannon inhabited was as the lead in 1996’s “Bug.” Shannon was cast in the stage version of the Tracy Letts play and then reprised the role in the film version in 2006, playing unhinged war veteran Peter Evans. In the film, directed by William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”), Shannon and Ashley Judd hole up in a spooky hotel room in Oklahoma and begin to hallucinate about a bug infestation. They definitely reach tin-foil hat levels of insanity. Shannon and playwright Letts played opposite one another in a pair of one-act plays, “Fun” and “Nobody,” at Evanston’s Next Lab when Letts was twenty-five.
Shannon’s acting teacher in Chicago, Jane Brody, commented in a Chicago Tribune article (June 30, 2013), “Mike once told me being onstage was the only place where he could be as angry as he felt and it was still acceptable.” As Shannon himself explained to interviewer Christopher Borrelli regarding his return to Chicago from Kentucky, “I’ve been an only child, a middle child, and an oldest child. I felt guilty because I wanted to help out, but at that age? My mother was dealing with other people’s problems all day, and then came home to a house of children. I had to leave.”
Shannon has become typecast as the intense, brooding guy steeped in pain. His role on “Boardwalk Empire” as Agent Nelson Van Alden catapulted him into viewers’ consciousness as a weird, freaked-out agent who becomes a bootlegger. He was equally riveting in a small part as a dinner guest (an outpatient from a mental institute) in “Revolutionary Road” in 2009.
In fact, Shannon received an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor, but did not win. He says of the experience, pointing to a certificate that confirms he was an Academy Award nominee, “Which is what I have to show for that experience. That, and a sweatshirt saying ‘Academy Award nominee,’ which I do wear.”
Just as with the Kings of Intensity, Penn and Rourke, co-stars give telling insights into the actors by relating their interaction(s) with Shannon. Chicago actress Shannon Cochran remembers the New York run of “Bug” onstage: “I was standing over Mike (in the scene) and he was hunched down. Then, suddenly, he stood up and screamed into my face at the top of his lungs.” Adds Cochran: “OK, so, do I react? I ignored it, then spent the rest of the show assuming he was mad at me. Later, I got this note apologizing, saying he shouldn’t lose control like that, but he gets so mad when audiences don’t concentrate. We never really talked much offstage, but eventually I did end up with a little pile of notes.”
Zack Snyder, who directed Shannon in the summer blockbuster “Superman,” relates that when General Zod is sentenced to eternal prison and is vowing to destroy Superman, he is to shout, “I will find him!” once. Said Snyder, “In the script, it’s once, but Michael hemorrhaged the line.”
Co-star Paul Rudd, who appeared with Shannon in “Grace” on Broadway and is a longtime friend, says of him: “He is extremely kind, with a completely unique sense of humor. Yet other times, you realize how guarded he is…that you have no idea what he is thinking. He always leaves you guessing a bit.” His acting teacher Jane Brody would agree with Rudd. Her take? “He liked to be a mystery.”
Liatt Kornowski at the Huffington Post wrote an article entitled “15 Reasons Why Michael Shannon is the Coolest Effing Person Around.” (June 14, 2013). Not so much an article as a video tribute to the intensity of Shannon’s eyes and the eccentricity of his onscreen characters and his offscreen persona, as well. She also mentioned his intense reading of an inane sorority girl’s letter that has garnered millions of hits on YouTube, done as a favor for a Columbia College (Chicago) graduate.
When Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune interviewed Shannon , prior to the start of his star turn opposite his best friend, actor Guy Van Swearingen, in Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico” (which runs through August 25 at the Red Orchid Theater in Chicago), the duo strolled around Shannon’s Red Hook Brooklyn neighborhood with Shannon clad only in socks. Shannon helped co-found the Old Town-based Red Orchid Theater 20 years ago.
Kate Arrington, who lives with Shannon and with whom Shannon has a 5-year-old daughter, Sylvia, says of him: “Mike has a high level of anxiety. He might seem chill, but he is anxious, as anyone would be who grew up as he did, always worried about others, angry. He hates that view of himself as a guy just a bit off, playing guys a bit off. But the thing is, Mike is off. He is not a normal person! He sees the word differently.”
Two of the best films this year, so far, were “Mud,” in which Shannon had a small part as the Uncle who is raising “Neckbone,” one of the young boys who helps the stranded Matthew McConaughey and “The Iceman,” a film about Mafia hitman Michael Kuklinski. Shannon’s performance as the cold-blooded killer was spot-on. One scene in which he merely sits at the top of a flight of stairs as his secret life is about to collide with his private family life is masterful. The entire film is one of the best films of the year, so far, with such co-stars as Wynona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Stephen Dorff, Robert Davi, David Schwimmer, and Chris Evans.
Like Christopher Walken before him, Shannon has mastered the art of conveying a certain humanity to even the most depraved of men. It’s clearly his forte. Does he like that? As Shannon told Borrelli, “And so now you’ve seen that I’m a normal person. I clean the house. I take care of my family. I’m exhausted by this perception that I’m a lunatic.” But, later, when asked about the many projects he has on the docket, including “Boardwalk Empire,” “Simpatico” on stage in Chicago, maybe a small film in Chicago in the fall, he adds, very gravely, “But overall, I find myself uncertain about the future.”
What’s not uncertain about Michael Shannon’s future as an actor is that he will continue to garner much-deserved accolades for his intense portrayals. Next time, maybe he’ll get more for his pains than a sweatshirt and a certificate.