The super summer of Michael Shannon

Director Jeff Nichols, who has made three movies with Shannon, including "Take Shelter" and the recent "Mud," points out: "Notice, even his voice shades subtly. His Chicago accent goes in and out. It's so weird. On David Letterman, his voice changes, gets more accessible. Speaking to his daughter, his voice changes again. I remember asking him about it the first time we worked together. He said to me, 'Nichols, I work on this.' See, he crafts himself. He's an empathetic, emotional guy, but more than anything, he's calculating."

The problem, said writer-director David Koepp, who cast Shannon as a sweaty loser of a villain in the thriller "Premium Rush," is "an actor who makes a mainstream bad guy believable will be asked to do that a lot." Similarly, when I asked Zack Snyder, director of "Man of Steel," why he wanted Shannon for Zod, he told me instead about the scene where Zod, sentenced to eternal prison, vowing to destroy Superman, shouts repeatedly, "I will find him!" "In the script, it's once," Snyder said. "But Michael hemorrhaged the line."

Shannon is now so in demand that Dado, the Red Orchid member directing "Simpatico," was surprised to see Shannon flying in for rehearsals whenever he had a spare 24 hours last spring. (Indeed, Shannon has remained so loyal to Red Orchid that he once turned down an invitation to join Steppenwolf.) Now the worry is "Boardwalk Empire," which Shannon is contractually obligated to shoot at a moment's notice, and it's shooting all summer (the new season begins Sept. 8). Red Orchid is bracing for Shannon's inevitable absences. But then, so is Shannon, who told me: "They pay me a sizable amount to own my ass for six months. They're the boogeyman. They wait until you have plans, then jump out: 'Sorry, different plans.'"

Back in his apartment, Shannon went straight to the laundry, moving wet towels to the dryer. The family cat, a polydactyl with long thumbs at the end of its paws that force it into a high-heel strut, curled around his legs and continued through the room. "And so now you've seen that I'm a normal person," he said, unloading the washer. "I clean the house. I take care of my family. I'm exhausted by this perception that I'm a lunatic."

Certainly, spend enough time with Shannon and "melancholy" springs to mind much faster.

As he did the laundry, I poked around a table covered in mementos: a thumb statue from Roger Ebert's film festival, Screen Actors Guild Awards, photos of his daughter with Shannon's father (who died just after she was born), a certificate saying he was an Academy Award nominee for best supporting actor. "Which is what I have to show for that," he said. "That, and a sweatshirt saying 'Academy Award nominee,' which I do wear."

As I flipped through his vinyl records (R.E.M., Built to Spill, Modern Lovers), he moaned that he doesn't get out as much anymore; he lamented that he doesn't have many friends anymore either. (Indeed, the next day Van Swearingen flew in to accompany Shannon to the David Letterman taping and the "Man of Steel" premiere.)

"I don't do anything as much as I'd like to anymore," he said quietly, and walked into the bedroom to find a clean shirt. He yelled to his daughter to get ready. They were heading to a show, a production of "Around the World in 80 Days." I asked what he's doing after "Simpatico" ends, "Man of Steel" dies down and "Boardwalk Empire" finishes shooting in September. He shouted from the next room that he's in a movie for Nichols in the winter, then maybe doing a small film in Chicago in the fall, "but overall"— and as harmless as he might have intended this to be, his voice was grave, apocalyptic — "I find myself uncertain about the future."

His friends offer no shortage of advice: Brody said, "Michael's better built for theater." Rudd, asked if Shannon should do comedy, said wryly: "I'd love to see what that would look like." Kirsten Fitzgerald, Red Orchid's artistic director, said: "I don't know if fame is something he enjoys. He's not that kind of guy. In board meetings, he's so blunt, it's unnerving. He's more that guy." As for Letts: "Michael is dealing with people in the movie business. Movie business people do not have a lot of imagination. He has more arrows in his quiver than they see. But will he get a chance to prove it? His challenge now is to fight cliches. Because you are that (character) to people — play dangerous, you become dangerous."

Shannon came out of the bedroom, flopped onto the floor beside the front door and tugged on a pair of low-top Chuck Taylor sneakers his daughter had painted pink and green. She appeared a moment later, expectant.

"Daddy, do you know where my nail polish is?"

"How I would I know that? Why would I have any idea where your nail polish is?"

She put her shoes on.

"You know it's not a movie?" he asked.

"People onstage …" she said.

"People onstage, yes."

"Will there be a hot air balloon?"

"I assume, I mean … it is 'Around the World in 80 Days.' One assumes a hot air balloon."

We left and walked down Van Brunt, which in early June was already muggy, sticky. Time has become so tight, he said as we walked, "we literally pick up Sylvie the last day of school and head straight to the airport for Chicago. That's life now." He looked ahead, grim and solemn. But then again, that's how he looks. An ice cream truck ambled past, its jewelry-box warble blaring. The song faded away, and Shannon picked up the tune: "Bum bum-bum, be-bum. Bum bum-bum …"

"Daddy," his daughter said.

"Sylvie."

"I don't just like the ice cream; I like the ice cream song."

"Yeah, well," he said gravely, "it's a good song."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

CHICAGO

More music

More