I have that fear of anthrax, too—that’s one reason I’m reluctant to open those packages.Why wouldn’t somebody want to kill us after all we’ve done?-Michael Shannon
Michael Shannon has always been a weapon—although, for a long time, he was mostly one of the secret variety. After three years acting on the Chicago stage, the Kentucky-born Shannon’s entrée into moviedom was the small but memorable turn as the guy who gushes over the WrestleMania tickets he’s been gifted in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day (1993). Since then, Shannon has evolved as a quietly potent force in numerous films, plays, and television shows, including the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, where baddies rightfully fear the twisted moral wrath of his character, the obsessive Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden. On the big screen, Shannon has served as a vivid, versatile presence in pop-event movies such as Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001) and Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (2002), dark dramas such as Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) and Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008), and indie fare such as Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways (2010) and Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter (2011).
As an actor, Shannon brings a lot to the table: presence, intelligence, vulnerability, his métier both narrow and deep. Take Shelter, a surprise hit, was driven largely by Shannon’s arresting, visceral performance as its everyman protagonist, and he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his work in Revolutionary Road. But New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley probably put it best in a review of the recent Broadway production of Craig Wright’s Grace, offering Shannon’s physically and emotionally scarred performance in the play as a man wrestling with ideas of love and faith in the face of tragedy as further evidence that he is “our reigning champion in embodying uneasy American manhood.” (Shannon wears a facial prosthetic in the play, hence his new haircut.)
Shannon’s next pair of roles are both high-profile and appropriately off-kilter: in Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, which debuted at last year’s Venice Film Festival and is due out in May, Shannon offers a shattering portrayal of the movie’s titular hit man, Richard Kuklinski, a real-life contract killer who precariously juggled his bloody profession with his suburban family life; and in Zack Snyder’s new Superman reboot, Man of Steel, which hits theaters in June, Shannon takes on the role of the villainous and vengeful Kryptonian supercriminal General Zod (previously played with gleeful aplomb in Superman  and Superman II  by Terence Stamp).
Nevertheless, one thing that often gets obscured by Shannon’s ability to make doing intense disease look effortless is that he is also intensely funny—a fact on full display when the 38-year-old actor sat down recently with his Grace co-star Paul Rudd for a backstage chat.
PAUL RUDD: Tell us where we’re at right now.
MICHAEL SHANNON: We’re backstage at the luxurious Cort Theater on 48th Street, where we’ve just finished our matinee performance of Grace. We’re in your room where you get your mail. [Points to an enormous pile of packages] I’m assuming these are envelopes with pictures in them.
RUDD: I don’t know. Could be anthrax.
SHANNON: Or undies.
RUDD: I don’t think there are any undies in there.
SHANNON: I have that fear of anthrax, too—that’s one reason I’m reluctant to open those packages.Why wouldn’t somebody want to kill us after all we’ve done? You know what I mean?
RUDD: Yes, it makes complete sense. That’s why I’m always skittish around, like, a stack of envelopes.
SHANNON: Well, you could always tie a T-shirt around your face.
RUDD: Will that prevent anthrax poisoning?
SHANNON: If you tie it real tight. You’ve just got to make sure you can still breathe.
RUDD: That’s the thing.
SHANNON: Because otherwise you might suffocate opening your fan mail.
RUDD: [laughs] So we’re in between shows right now. How do you feel about doing two shows in one day? I think I know the answer, but I want to hear it anyhow.
SHANNON: It’s a little bit odd. The first time you do the play, you kind of throw yourself into it, trying to get the most out of all the individual moments. Then, a few hours later, you’re still there, wondering what you could possibly do differently than what you just did a couple hours ago. Sometimes I try to pitch my voice just a little bit higher as a way to deviate between the two performances. Or I’ll try a slightly different accent.
RUDD: Now, tell me, will you sometimes do an impersonation? Because I could have sworn in today’s show, while you were playing Sam—your role in this play—that you were impersonating Christopher Hewett of television’s Mr. Belvedere.
SHANNON: I can’t believe you know that guy’s name. Did you ever meet him?
RUDD: Never. But there was a bit of a story about him, years ago—I don’t know if it’s true or not—that he sat on his balls.
SHANNON: By accident?
SHANNON: Because they hung so low?
RUDD: I think so.
SHANNON: Oh, god.
RUDD: Well, Mr. Hewett is no longer with us, so I don’t mean to sound disrespectful to him or his family.
RUDD: He was an amazing actor.
SHANNON: But back to the point you were making: Hewett had a British accent. Was he actually British?
SHANNON: Because some people fake a British accent to sound cool.
RUDD: Have you ever done that?
SHANNON: Yeah. When I went to the Academy Awards, my girlfriend [Kate Arrington] and I were sitting right behind Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet. During the Slumdog Millionaire  musical numbers, I’d gone out to the lobby and had a few gin-and-tonics. Then I came back in and they were about to announce the best actress award, so I leaned towards Kate Winslet and said, “You’ve got this in the bag!”—something, you know, to pump her up. I leaned back and my girlfriend said, “You realize you’re talking with a British accent.” They’re both British, Sam and Kate, so I think it was osmosis.
RUDD: You think it was maybe that Zelig  thing, where you just blend in with your surroundings?
SHANNON: That could sound arrogant, I guess, but sometimes I feel like I have a bit of a Zelig thing. I’ll blend in wherever. I’m from the South, so I’ll have a Southern accent when I’m home. But if I’m up here in New York, I have a British accent.
RUDD: Which is overpowering right now—you sound like Madonna. [Shannon laughs] So why do you think you have that Zelig quality? Because you want to blend in with the crowd, get along with other people and be accepted? Or do you think it’s something else?
SHANNON: It’s obvious from my life and career that I’m really, more than anything, searching for acceptance. [laughs] But, no, sometimes it’s just fun to change. That’s one of the great things about acting—you get to pretend you’re somebody else, which is great if you get bored with yourself. I don’t know about you, but I do.
RUDD: Get bored with you? Yeah, I do on occasion.
SHANNON: That’s why I asked you to do this interview: because I knew that I wouldn’t be able to hold your interest.
RUDD: So, to take this back to me, when I was a kid and thinking about wanting to go into acting, my great uncle asked me some questions. He said, “Do you like to act because you like to be other people? Or do you want to do it because you want to express yourself? Or do you feel like you have to do it because there’s something you want to say?” I didn’t really know how to answer. Do you?
SHANNON: I think my answers have changed a lot over the years. I’m getting to be an old-time—I’ve been doing this for 22 years now. When I started, it was a terrific opportunity to take advantage of my emotional life and do something constructive with it. There are certain ways of being that people don’t find acceptable or very pleasant in regular life, but you go out on stage and do pretty much the same thing and they find it spellbinding. That’s how I got into this racket to begin with—it was just a good opportunity to blow off some steam and have people watch it and think, Wow, that guy’s really acting his pants off! Then you get that out of your system and become—or at least I became—more interested in helping people tell stories. It becomes less self-serving, I guess. And then there’s, you know, the applause.
RUDD: And the grease paint.
SHANNON: Yeah. We both got grease paint on us for this play.
RUDD: It’s very easy to get hung up on tricks. When you strip a performance of everything and just let the words do the work, then you exist in the moment. Then it is spellbinding and really riveting—the purest form of just telling a story. But there is also something mysterious about you as an actor because you have this imposing way about you. I mean, you’re, like, 6’10”. [Shannon laughs] How tall are you?
SHANNON: I am 6’11”, but it would be interesting if I was little. Do you think I’d have the same career if I was a little person?
RUDD: Well, I think that it would have shaped you differently.
SHANNON: Well, I would be a different shape.
RUDD: You’d have smaller pants. You’d probably wear, like, a little poncho.
RUDD: Which leads us to The Iceman…
SHANNON: A perfect segue. But, I mean, I do like to beat people down. There’s no question about it. Those are my two main occupations: acting and beating people down. [Rudd laughs] But one of the reasons I’m an actor is because I was no physical specimen as a child. I wasn’t athletic and didn’t have any prowess in that regard. Growing up in Kentucky, most little boys were trying to get into sports, and it was very competitive, so that was not to be. But I did want to do something.
RUDD: Did you even like sports? Did you try?
SHANNON: Nah. I was on a flag football team when I was in second grade for a couple of weeks, but then we moved before our first game, so I didn’t get to play. That, really, was a fundamentally shaping experience in my psyche. After that, I learned not to get attached to things. I wanted to rip those flags right out of those little boys’ pants—just rip those little shreds of fabric right out of their waistbands—and I never got to do it. I’m still chasing that flag.
RUDD: Guess what, Mike? Here we are, years later…
SHANNON: [laughs] Oh, god, no… But The Iceman is a movie about what many people consider to be a cold-blooded killer—hence, the ice man.
RUDD: Really? I thought it was about George Gervin, the basketball player. That was his nickname.
SHANNON: Well, this Iceman that I play was Richard Kuklinski. He was a Polish fellow who lived in New Jersey. Because he wasn’t Italian, he wasn’t allowed to be made into any of the Mafia organizations, so he kind of worked for all of them. He had a couple of nicknames, “Polack” being one of them and “Iceman” being the other.
RUDD: So how did you wind up playing this part?
SHANNON: The director, Ariel Vromen, and I started talking about it a long time ago. He pursued some other people first, just trying to get financing. At that time, I wasn’t going to bring in big bags of cash.
RUDD: Being the international superstar that you are now…
SHANNON: My Q rating was more of a P rating. So a couple of other fellows came and went, and then I had gotten a few more gigs myself—and maybe a little more gas? Maybe gas is the wrong word.
SHANNON: Juice! So then Ariel said, “Maybe we can try to do the movie with you,” and I said, “Okay.”
RUDD: So when you read the script, was it one of those things where you were like, “I would love to play this part”?
SHANNON: Well, it’s very intimidating. It’s a very sad, frightening, gruesome tale. It wasn’t necessarily something I was looking forward to, but I thought there was some value in telling the story. I looked at it less as a biopic, because, at the end of the day, biopics are very limited. You can’t cram somebody’s entire life story into an hour and a half. But I did see the potential to tell the story as kind of a fable. It’s a very classic theme—the notion of a double life. The thing that made Kuklinski interesting was that his family was apparently not aware of what he did for a living. They didn’t know he was a hit man. So he would go out and do these gruesome things, and then he would go home to his family and be a dad. I just thought that was kind of an interesting notion. A lot of people lead that kind of life, where they go out and they have to do things that are damaging to other people in order to make a living. And then they come home and love their family just as much as anybody else does. That’s why it interested me.
RUDD: Was it one of the harder parts you’ve played?
SHANNON: Probably. It’s always very daunting to play someone who actually existed. You have to honor that, and be specific and accurate and try to make people believe that you’re that guy, which is really hard. Also, a lot of people know about this guy. There was an interview with him on HBO that was very popular and a lot of people saw it. You can go on YouTube and see clips from the interviews he did.
RUDD: This guy killed a lot of people—like, more than a hundred, right?
SHANNON: It’s kind of mysterious, but yeah, he claims to have done that.
RUDD: Is he a serial killer? Is he psychotic? Or is this just what he had to do?
SHANNON: I think it was a mixture. He says that he wasn’t good at anything else—he didn’t do well in school and he didn’t feel like he had any particular abilities or talents, but he did have a really gruesome childhood. There was a lot of rage inside him. In a weird way, I think he was trying to make something out of it, so the context of the job gave him a way to rationalize his behavior: “This is a job, not something I go around doing because I can’t help myself.”
RUDD: He looked at it as a job?
SHANNON: Yeah. He was also fond of pointing out that most of the guys he whacked weren’t the greatest guys in the world. It doesn’t excuse what he did, but if he didn’t do it, someone else probably would have.
RUDD: When you play that kind of part, you obviously don’t judge the character.
SHANNON: Playing the part wasn’t about feeling like it was right or wrong or good or evil. I just tried to look at it from the point of view that he laid out, which was that he did this in order to support his family. It was just about survival, and trying to deal with these two conflicting sides of himself. Because I genuinely believe that as much as people like to talk about what a sick MF he was and a cold-blooded assassin… I actually genuinely believe that he had some tenderness for his family. I ultimately just thought he was a very sad human being—that he couldn’t control himself—and I do think he regretted the way his life went down.
RUDD: You’re also playing General Zod in Man of Steel. Growing up, were you a comic book fan? You had the bedspread, so I’m assuming you had the actual comics too.
SHANNON: I had some cousins who lived in a trailer in the country, and they collected comic books—they had boxes and boxes. So I would visit them and look at their comics. They had more Marvel comics than DC comics, so I didn’t look at a lot of Superman ones. I didn’t actually spend any money on comics because I didn’t have any money. I actually don’t know how my cousins bought all of those comic books or where they got their money from. They were ninjas too—they went to ninja school and they had nunchakus and throwing stars. They took it really seriously. Authentic martial arts training was involved. They took me once, and in one of their classes you had to stand this one particular way for an hour. Just standing.
RUDD: Your cousins went to ninja school?
SHANNON: This was out in the country.
RUDD: So they were country ninjas.
SHANNON: That could be our next project together, Country Ninjas.
RUDD: That’s not a bad idea. We would just dress in all-black ninja outfits but have, like, Larry the Cable Guy hats on that have the Dixie flag on them. So do people ever ask you about being in Groundhog Day?
SHANNON: They used to. That movie is 20 years old.
RUDD: It’s a perfect comedy, I think.
SHANNON: Yeah, it is. I saw my scene from it just the other day because I was on VH1’s Big Morning Buzz Live. They said, “Oh, we’ve got some sneak footage from Man of Steel and we are going to show it to you,” and I was really nervous but then they played my scene from Groundhog Day.
RUDD: How did you get Groundhog Day? Did you audition for it?
SHANNON: Yeah, it was a big thing in Chicago—everyone went in to audition for little parts. The casting director, Jane Brody, was also an acting teacher, and I’d been doing her scene-study class so she brought me in to read for Harold Ramis. He was a real nice guy. But they shot that film just downwind of Chicago, in Woodstock, Illinois. It was a pretty magical experience too, because I didn’t really do much in that movie but I was there a lot. Because of all the scenes in the restaurant, anybody who was ever in the restaurant had to be there every time they shot a scene there—even if you were just in the background. So I was basically an extra, and because one time Billy refers to us, Fred and Debbie—the characters me and an actress named Hynden Walsh played—we had to be there every time. So it actually ended up being a couple of weeks’ work, even though I only had a couple of lines. I got to watch Bill Muray and Harold Ramis do their thing. One day during lunch, Harold Ramis played pool with me. That was pretty cool.
RUDD: Who won?
SHANNON: I can’t remember. I think I let him win.
RUDD: He’s a very nice man.
SHANNON: Nicer than he has to be—like you. You could be a total dick if you wanted, but you’re not.
RUDD: No? Go fuck yourself.
SHANNON: True colors.
RUDD: Is that your favorite Cyndi Lauper song?
SHANNON: No, “Time After Time.” That’s a very moving song.
RUDD: Beautiful song.
SHANNON: And she sings it beautifully.
RUDD: Speaking of which, I know you’re a massive music fan.
SHANNON: A massive, gigantic music fan.
RUDD: What was your favorite band growing up?
SHANNON: Probably Talking Heads. I’m still frustrated because I’ve been doing plays in New York for a while now, and I just keeping hoping that one night David Byrne will be in the audience. I guess he doesn’t really go to plays much.
RUDD: I always see him in my neighborhood. I always see him riding his bike.
SHANNON: Next time please tell him that I say hello.
RUDD: I’ve never met him, but if I do, I’ll pass it along.
SHANNON: He’s like a god to me. My favorite artist of all time, though, is Thelonious Monk. Sometimes I listen to Thelonious Monk up in ny makeup room when I’m taking off the prosthetic I wear on my face for the play, scraping off the glue. So you might hear it wafting down the stairs if you’re playing your Stryper music too loud.
RUDD: Oh, I love Stryper. It kind of goes with the play. But even if it didn’t, I would still listen to it. But Monk is one of those guys like Charles Mingus where, if you’re a big jazz fan, you work your way up to them.
SHANNON: Well, I’m actually a jazz fanatic because of Monk.
RUDD: You have your own band, Corporal, which plays straight-up rock.
SHANNON: Yeah. But even though it’s not a jazz band, we can get jazzy.
RUDD: You’re not afraid to get jazzy?
SHANNON: Yeah, sometimes, we get jazzy. Somebody once told me that we sounded like The Replacements meets Steely Dan, which kind of makes my heard hurt.
RUDD: Where did you get the name, Corporal?
SHANNON: It has a variety of meanings: I was thinking of the word itself, but I was thinking of the rank above private in the military. So it kind of means just above the basic—just a little bit better than a plebeian. I like the way it sounded. I also thought General or Admiral would have been ostentatious, and Sergeant would have been misleading.
RUDD: What about Leftenant?
SHANNON: Leftenant might have been good.
RUDD: All right, Mike. I think we did it.
SHANNON: People are going to get this interview tattooed on their backs.
RUDD: On their lower backs.
SHANNON: Yeah, like a tramp stamp. Exactly.
RUDD: So, finally, Mike, before we go, I know that you and Kate, who we’ve been doing this play with, are together, but what’s your dream date?
SHANNON: Go to Top of the Rock, have a nice dinner, head to one of the fine Irish taverns in Midtown.
RUDD: Some of our readers, though, might be a bit younger, so taverns might not be an option.
SHANNON: We’ve got tweens on our hands?
SHANNON: Well, in that case, go ice-skating in Central Park and get a cup of hot chocolate.