In early June, a few weeks before Michael Shannon moved back to Chicago for the summer, he could be found at home on a Saturday morning padding about, doing chores, soaking in a relatively unscheduled moment of free time.
This was before the release of "Man of Steel" (in which he plays the evil General Zod), before A Red Orchid Theatre begins previews for "Simpatico" (in which he returns to the Old Town-based company he helped co-found 20 years ago), before HBO premieres the fourth season of "Boardwalk Empire" (in which he plays a puritanical Prohibition agent turned bootlegger) and before Corporal, his sometime folk-rock band, could rehearse for a planned July gig at the Metro. This was right before the Summer of Shannon.
You could find him in Red Hook, his low-lying, outlying neighborhood on the far western edge of Brooklyn, better known for its shipping warehouses, gang flare-ups and crumbling cobblestone lanes than families, hipsters and movie stars.
Specifically, you could find him at the edge of the water, at the end of the last street, above a supermarket where he lives in a 19th-century shipping warehouse with Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member Kate Arrington and Sylvia, their 5-year-old daughter. He leaned out of a bay window and waved me up. At the door he said, in his implacable croak: "It was Sylvie's birthday. Things are a mess; she got a lot of stuff."
He stepped aside to reveal a large three-room apartment turned over to pink, turquoise, frilly ballerina fabrics, Mylar balloons and impromptu galleries of children's art covering the walls, tacked to thick pine railroad beams.
Ocean air wafted in.
A tugboat crawled past the window.
The Statue of Liberty stood just beyond.
"It's nice here," he growled. "I once told New York magazine I was sick of looking at the Statue of Liberty. Got a bunch of (expletive) for it too." He walked to the kitchen and called his daughter: "Sylvie, clean this up. Don't just leave things there, OK?" Then he turned back: "So, you want me to make ya some breakfast?"
Two things come to mind:
No. 1: It's a good time to be Michael Shannon. At 38, after a couple of decades as a fixture on Chicago stages and a growing presence in movies, he's becoming a household name, Hollywood's go-to guy for unsettling men of surprising depth, a next-gen Christopher Walken. He has a blockbuster and a hit TV series to his name. The Funny or Die video of him reading an email from a profane sorority girl recently became one of the most watched videos on the website, with almost 4 million views. And starting Thursday at Red Orchid (through Aug. 25), he's appearing opposite his best friend, actor Guy Van Swearingen, in Sam Shepard's "Simpatico." (In a clever bit of scheduling, Arrington also will spend the summer in Chicago, in Steppenwolf's "Belleville.")
No. 2: Almost nothing about Shannon conforms to his on- and off-screen image as an intense mystery of a guy, steeped in pain, and almost nothing about that image feels entirely misplaced. As Arrington said later: "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 world differently."
Terence Winter, creator of "Boardwalk Empire," said: "I first saw Michael in Tracy Letts' 'Bug' in New York. It was a small theater, and Michael played this paranoid guy, and I remember thinking, 'That couldn't be acting.' I left seriously convinced that they had cast an actual emotionally disturbed individual. He was frightening."
Shannon washed dishes. I sat at the kitchen table. Physically, he reminded me of a Pez dispenser, thin with a large head, not nearly as imposing as he comes across on a screen or stage. He seemed casual yet intense, friendly yet quizzical.
Danny Jelinek, the Columbia College graduate who directed Shannon's sorority-email video, told me that Shannon had been at the top of Funny or Die's list of actors to work with, yet Shannon himself is not online-friendly, carries an ancient cellphone, has never tweeted a day in his life. His texts arrive with smiley emoticons.
"I find Michael very hard to read," said Paul Rudd, a longtime friend and co-star last fall in the Broadway production of "Grace." "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."
Even his apartment, far from a subway line, above a market, is less than obvious. I asked why he and Arrington moved here. He thought a second, then asked Arrington's cousin (helping out while Arrington was in Chicago rehearsing) to watch Sylvie. "Come on," he said to me. We took an elevator to the roof. "Crap," he said, pulling on locked patio doors. A storm the night before had left a large puddle. We took the elevator back down to the lobby. A guard said the patio was too wet. "Nah," Shannon said, "look, it's fine up there!"
The man shrugged.
Shannon turned to me: "Let's walk. I'm a walker."
We left, walked past the supermarket, headed into the neighborhood. I had no idea where we were going. He walked with a brisk, stiff-legged gait, and a block later I looked down: He was wearing only socks, no shoes.