June 28, 2013
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.
Shannon grew up in Lexington, Ky. His parents each divorced and remarried five times. His mother, a social worker, stayed in Kentucky; his father moved to Chicago and became an economics professor at DePaul University. Later, in Chicago, Shannon told me: "I've been an only child, a middle child and an oldest child." In his teens, he recalls, he lived with his mother and young stepbrothers: "I felt guilty because I wanted to help out, but at that age? My mother was dealing with other people's problems all day, then came home to a house of children. I had to leave." He moved to Chicago and lived with his father, went to New Trier Township High School in Winnetka for two years, then moved back to Kentucky his junior year, then back to Chicago for his senior year, attending Evanston Township High School for a semester before dropping out.
He went to theater auditions.
Jane Brody, a Chicago acting teacher and casting director, recalled: "He would come to where I was teaching every day and sit in the lobby. He looked like the poorest child in the world, safety pins holding his clothes together. I let him take classes for free, then learned that he was not poor; he liked to be a mystery." Asked why he started acting, Shannon had difficulty answering, but Arrington said, "Mike once told me being onstage was the only place where he could be as angry as he felt and it was still acceptable."
The first time Chicago saw Shannon onstage, he was 15. A year later, he was cast in a pair of one-acts, "Fun" and "Nobody," at Evanston's Next Lab, opposite a 25-year-old Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (who later directed Shannon in "Grace"). Shannon was so raw, Bullard said, "two weeks into rehearsal, he shut down, wouldn't do his lines. I asked what was wrong. He said, 'It's all so fake; theater people are so fake.' I thought, 'This guy? Different.'" A year later, at 17, Shannon won a Jeff Award for the show.
Which led to Shannon's starring as Chris, the murder-plotting drug dealer, in the original production of Letts' "Killer Joe." By 19, he was in the London production of the play. A few years after that, he was a paranoid drifter in Letts' "Bug" and developing a reputation as an actor of unusual intensity and personal eccentricity, "a kid with nerves on the outside," Brody said. Indeed, one night during the New York run of "Bug," "there was this chatter in the audience," recalled Chicago actress Shannon Cochran. "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.
"OK, so, do I react? I ignored it, then spent the rest of 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."
We walked for blocks, Shannon in his socks, carrying his coffee cup from home, keeping a running commentary, stepping around glass (and occasionally through puddles), angling around bags of mulch outside a garden center, moving past empty lots, chain-link fences, couples waiting for brunch. A few halted and stared as he passed, though none approached. (St. John Frizzel, a writer and the owner of the Fort Defiance cafe in Red Hook, said later that Shannon seems comfortable here now, but "when he first moved to Red Hook, he would sit by himself, shy, quiet. He was odd. I got a sense he had a hard time getting out of character.")
We stopped in front of a brownstone.
"This is where it started, where we first lived," he said. "Kate and I met in Chicago. She was doing 'King Lear' at Goodman; I was doing 'The Pillowman' at Steppenwolf. About eight years ago. We started seeing each other. 'Lear' ended. Kate wanted to go back to New York but didn't have a place, and so we slept here, on her sister's couch."
He continued on. "The neighborhood's changed some. We got here seven years ago, after the Fairway (supermarket) but before the Ikea. Kate is from North Carolina and went to Northwestern, but she loves it in New York. I told her, why not move to Chicago and just work here all the time? But she would rather live here. Myself, I don't care. I think cities are getting the same, all this globalization. Cities used to seem more different. It's like, you would go somewhere, and it wouldn't be the same place you left. Now you go to London, they have Chipotle. Here a Chipotle, there a Chipotle. I don't know. I guess I like it here, maybe."
We turned on Van Brunt Street, the main strip.
A school principal was killed here once, I said.
"Yeah, long time ago, 20 years ago, famous," he said. "I know it used to be 'most dangerous place in America.' But, nah, it's not now. Nicest playground here is in a housing project. In Chicago you wouldn't dream of going near a housing project. Red Hook is safe. I don't know if it's hip, but it's quiet. What makes me nervous: hurricanes. During Sandy, all this flooded. My daughter wants to live here forever. I don't know how to tell her: We're on the third floor, but we're going to have to move eventually. Our street ponds at high tide! Fairway was closed for months after Sandy. Which I didn't mind too much."
Eventually, we arrived back at the Fairway. "I literally can't look at it," he said. "It's better without cars."
Maybe he could live in Ikea, I said, joking.
"Yeah, I went into that Ikea once," he said, not laughing. "I got dizzy. I get overwhelmed in places like that. Too much stimulus. I had a panic attack in Ikea. It's too much. I will never go in an Ikea as long as I live."
Through Jane Brady, Shannon landed his first movies — "Groundhog Day," Chain Reaction" — and though the roles were slight, by the late 1990s, film work arrived at a relatively steady clip for a Chicago actor. So much so that Shannon got a manager, Lee Daniels (later an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, best known for "Precious"), who suggested the actor move to Los Angeles. Shannon lived there two years, then moved back to Chicago. LA didn't take, he said. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Shannon there, a place so sweaty with passive aggression. He's too direct.
Playwright Craig Wright, whose stage work with Shannon includes "Mistakes Were Made" and "Grace" (he also is a member of Red Orchid's ensemble), remembered: "Just after we first met, we were sitting in this bar in Chicago talking about the best bands of the past 25 years, and I said that I thought (the ethereal Icelandic) Sigur Ros were one of them, and Michael looked at me that way he does, like he's looking at you through frosted glass, and said: 'Oh, I like to listen to them. I listen to them when I'm putting on my prom dress.' Then, to kind of rub it in, he mimed putting on lipstick."
At the time, around a decade ago, Shannon was beginning his slink into the pop consciousness, as a creepy white supremacist in "Bad Boys II," as a creepy villain in the kids flick "Kangaroo Jack," as Eminem's mom's creepy boyfriend in "8 Mile." To watch those broader creeps now — alongside later, more thoughtful creeps (in "Take Shelter," "The Iceman") and Oscar-bait creeps ("Revolutionary Road," for which Shannon received a 2009 best supporting actor nomination as a troubled neighbor with a talent for unnerving a polite room) — is to realize how many shades of vulnerability Shannon has actually brought to creeps.
"'Boardwalk' probably exploits his roar and wingspan," Bullard said, "his thing for walking that line between sane and truly dangerous, but watch something poetic like 'Take Shelter,' where he's a working-class guy with apocalyptic visions, and what's unnerving is how you can't accept him as just crazy. That's his talent."
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.
"I don't just like the ice cream; I like the ice cream song."
"Yeah, well," he said gravely, "it's a good song."
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