Perhaps it’s not surprising that Michael Shannon, an Oscar nominee (“Revolutionary Road”) known for playing troubled characters, appears as tortured madman General Zod in “Man of Steel,” opening Friday. Would he be open to doing something more unexpected, like playing Superman?
“I don’t know. Look at Henry Cavill. He is Superman. He looks like Superman; sounds like Superman. I’m a little more, I don’t know, freakish. Aren’t I?” asks Shannon, who has worked in the Chicago theater community off and on for more than 20 years and will appear this summer in “Simpatico” at the Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town.
“I think people assume that my role in life is to play what are commonly perceived as nutty characters. So when someone says, ‘Well, what if they said you could play Superman?’ I get confused. I assume that people wouldn’t really want me to do that.”
That’s a fair point, but it’s not as if the 38-year-old actor is predictable. He recently and hilariously read a now legendary Delta Gamma sorority letter for “Funny or Die” and brings something new to each of his unsettling roles, from “Bug” to “The Runaways” to “Premium Rush” to “Take Shelter.” In “Man of Steel,” Shannon says he wanted the part—played famously by Terrence Stamp in 1978’s “Superman” and 1980’s “Superman II”—to focus on Zod’s dilemma.
“It wasn’t about being nasty or mean or picking on people,” he says by phone from New York. “The guy sees his home destroyed in front of his very eyes. When I say home, I mean his entire planet. What an interesting place to start out from as an actor.”
You shot some of the movie in the Chicago area. Is there anywhere in the city that you wish “Man of Steel” would have filmed?
Oh, wow. The Wiener's Circle would have been nice. I like their hot dogs.
What would the conversation be like between the ladies at Wiener's Circle and General Zod?
[Laughs.] I actually think Zod would be bewildered. I think he would be so surprised that someone was treating him in that way [and] verbally abusing him. He wouldn’t really know how to take it.
He would just buckle under their aggression?
Yeah, he’d probably wind up working in the kitchen.
What’s the most lasting thing you learned working in Chicago theater, and how, if at all, did that inform how you approached General Zod?
[Laughs.] Um, OK. Well, I know ultimately when this is printed it will probably be a fairly short answer, but that’s a pretty complicated question. I guess if I had to really super-sum it up, I would say that there’s a tremendous discipline about the theater artists I’ve worked with in Chicago. They’re relentless, and they’re very hard on themselves and they push themselves very hard. And I would imagine that’s what General Zod does as well in his military training and also in his approach to trying to save his civilization.
Was there an aspect of the role that required you to push yourself that way?
Well, yeah, of course! I’m playing a general from an alien planet. That’s a pretty big role to try and get your head around. It’s not like I have had a similar life to General Zod. Our lives have been fairly different. I’m not a military person by nature.
At first, you didn’t believe director Zack Snyder wanted you for this role. Why did you think it was a prank?
I hadn’t done a big studio movie in a long time. I’ve been doing a lot of indies and I’ve been doing the TV show [“Boardwalk Empire”] of course and some theater … There’s a lot riding on these pictures. They take a huge risk every time they make one of these things. I figured it would be Daniel Day-Lewis or somebody like that. Apparently Billy Crudup years ago planted this seed in Zack’s mind. Billy told Zack he thought I was a pretty good actor, so I have to thank Billy Crudup for the recommendation. They were working together on the “Watchmen.”
Henry did a fantastic job as Superman. We accept a British Superman, but how would the British accept an American James Bond? Why hasn’t that happened?
[Laughs.] Yeah, that’s true; there’s never been an American. Well, gee, I don’t know. I haven’t really gotten a sense that they’re very proprietary about James Bond over there. It’s funny that you ask me that because I’m going to London right now.
So maybe I can drop a few inquiries and get back to you. It doesn’t seem like they really mind very much. The thing about it is whether these people are English or American, Superman or James Bond, they usually tend to be trying to help out the world in general. So I don’t really see a reason to get too hung up on where the actor playing them is coming from.
Has there been a dark character that took a lot out of you or was the hardest to shake? Or does it get easier over time and you’re used to that process?
Yeah, I’ve never really been haunted by a character. I think it’s more that I’m troubled by real-life things. Like pollution and corruption and the government, things like that. Then I take the anxiety that those things cause me and I put it into silly, imaginary stuff, and it helps me feel better.
Would it then be especially challenging for you to take on a comedic role?
No, because it’s all cyclical. A lot of the great comedy is created by incredibly tortured people.
Would you ever work with a kangaroo again?
[Laughs.] Jesus. That was really scary. When that kangaroo rapped in “Kangaroo Jack,” that animated sequence, I found that very disconcerting.
I wish that wasn’t in the [movie]. I wish I had never seen that. It was very frightening. There’s something evil about [that]. Maybe that’s what the devil is like. He’s like a kangaroo that raps.
How people would react if a real Superman was discovered: “Well, there’s a lot of people in the world. It’s hard for me to claim to know how all of them would react. I think people would probably be very greedy. It would probably be like being able to hit up God for favors. People would be very demanding. They’d want his help all the time. So I guess I would imagine that it’d be kind of draining.”
On comedy: “I would do a straight-up comedy if somebody sent me a script that I thought was really funny. I just haven’t read one yet.”