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If you’re an actor who’s signed on to share scenes with Michael Shannon, you’ve got yourself a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, you can count on people watching; on the other, you can be pretty certain they won’t be watching you. To be fair, nothing could be further from Shannon’s intent; co-stars and directors routinely praise his generosity and dedication to the success of any project he’s in. It’s just that the guy is – inherently, chronically and helplessly – riveting.
Evidence of this seemingly hypnotic power came to light most publicly with his fairly small role in Revolutionary Road. Variety wrote, “The pic’s startling supporting turn comes from Michael Shannon, who’s mesmerizing as the clinically insane son of local realtor and busybody… When Shannon is onscreen, it’s impossible to watch anyone else.” In that instance, “anyone else” included Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Or take 99 Homes, which Time magazine called “a showcase for Shannon, who magnetizes all eyes, like a cobra in the corner.”
Those are just two in a canon of some of the most consistently beaming reviews an actor could ever hope to paste in his scrapbook, though Shannon doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to keep one. If he did, it would be encyclopedic, as he’s piled up over 50 award nominations and an impressive number of wins over a career that comprises at least 100 film, TV and stage credits. So why is he not a household name? Hard to say, unless actors have to become “stars” to claim any permanency in our memory banks.
What’s more confounding is that Shannon never planned to be an actor. He was a troubled, late-blooming kid who floundered in school and only defaulted to drama to get out of sports. He left school at 16 and with no formal training, was on stage in a year, TV the year after, and in Groundhog Day the year after that. Shannon tried working with an acting coach only once in his career, and said it was the worst audition he ever had.
With fate apparently having done the heavy lifting, an impressive range of directors were quick to capitalize, including Michael Bay, Cameron Crowe, Oliver Stone, Peter Bogdanovich, Sydney Lumet, and even Tom Ford. As did HBO, casting him as Boardwalk Empire’s repressed G-man Nelson Van Alden. But no one has taken better advantage of Shannon’s facile embodiment of complex characters than Jeff Nichols, who directed him in Take Shelter, Midnight Special, and Shotgun Stories. Nichols has said, “Shannon makes me a better writer. He certainly makes me a better director. I wanted [Midnight Special] to be a very lean screenplay in terms of narrative and exposition, and if you’re writing that part for Mike, he’s going to be able to fill those spaces with all the subtext that you don’t want to have to write about. He can carry all of that on his face, and that makes him a very powerful tool for a writer/director like me.”
What more directors need to take advantage of is Shannon’s range, which seems to be hiding in plain sight. He’s known for playing menacing, angry, possibly crazy guys whose ability to keep it all just beneath the surface keeps us in their thrall – quiet bears you do not want to poke. While he plays them subtly and brilliantly, he also made a surprisingly good low-key romantic lead in Frank & Lola. His comic chops are most evident on the stage, where he still spends as much time as possible. Look no further than his portrayal of showbiz huckster Felix Artifex in the comedy Mistakes Were Made, a role he’s reprised several times to wildly enthusiastic crowds and ticket sales. The New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood said Shannon shouldered the part “with a full arsenal of gifts: a subdued but strong natural presence, a voice rich in grit and capable of imbuing Felix’s wheedling and needling with a variety of emotional colors, a keen understanding of how pathos can feed comedy and vice versa.” Roger Ebert put it more succinctly: “His performance in Mistakes Were Made was one of the most amazing I have ever seen.” Given that it’s a one-man play, it may also be the only performance in which Shannon risked being upstaged.
For all the taut wiring that sparks below his surface, Shannon says he’s learned to relax a bit more these days, and that approach has made him a better actor. Besides begging the question whether it’s possible for him to be any better, it also demonstrates a broad interpretation of the word “relax”. He already has eight projects in the works for next year, including Horse Soldiers, a Special Forces drama with Chris Hemsworth, and Signature Move, which he’s executive producing. He admits he may have a small problem turning down a great script. All the better for us. Maybe Shannon wasn’t looking to become an actor, but sometimes fate just gets things right.