My first five minutes with Michael Shannon consist of plotting to get his attention without making physical contact. It’s 1pm at The Odeon in New York City and Shannon is sitting at the bar speaking into a flip phone, wearing sunglasses and sipping a small goblet of red wine. It seems rude to tap someone on the shoulder while they are on the phone (particularly if they’ve just topped up their minutes). Plus, in person, Shannon is one of the few actors who looks disproportionately huge compared to his onscreen visage. Hunched over the bar, he has the sort of hulking physique that bodes poorly for unsolicited shoulder tapping. However, it is also very rude to be late for an interview, so after lingering behind him to weigh these conflicting impertinences, I sit on the bar stool beside him and lean into his periphery with my friendliest “Hello there!” wave. Shannon does not turn his head. And now I’m sitting within elbow-bumping proximity at an otherwise empty bar. I look at the bartender, who takes the opportunity to walk away.
Finally, after a few moments of blind Instagram scrolling, I can take no more. I lightly pat Shannon’s arm, and he turns his head ever so slightly in my direction. He tells whomever he’s on the phone with that he has to go, claps his flipper shut and places it on the bar besides his Walkman CD player. (Don’t be surprised! Not so long ago, it was thought that all phones needed a strong Walkman by their side.)
“You want some?” He gestures to the wine. I tell him no thanks, that I’d maybe just had a little too much cold brew (true). On second thought, wine seemed like the right choice.
Now, I’d seen a good number of Shannon’s films—Nocturnal Animals, Loving, Midnight Special, Elvis and Nixon and Salt and Fire this year alone—and I knew the Kentucky-born, 47-year old actor brings a certain gruff intensity to his roles. You probably wouldn’t describe many of his characters as “chatty” men, and you’d imagine he shares some of their sensibilities. But in the first thirty seconds of conversation—perhaps better described as a volley of fluttery small talk on my end and halting grunts on his—I realize that I have vastly underestimated his disinterest in the game of pleasantries or generally “normal” behavior. And then, in the thirty seconds after that, having noted that the sunglasses were definitely not coming off, I begin to think there may be another sort of game at play: let the awkwardness run rampant, and see how this jittery journalist holds up. I knew then that I must submit to the awkwardness. I must settle in. Terminate the giggle reflex. Let the silences stretch long as winter in Alaska. Go deep.
Shannon might also just be hungry, because about five minutes later a hamburger arrives, and his mood seems to brighten considerably.
We’re there mainly to discuss Shannon’s role in Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s sophomore directorial venture, a visually stunning noir thriller about regret and revenge. Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal play a couple who were married in their twenties, but divorced after a traumatic fallout. Two decades later, Adams’ character Susan, a gallery owner struggling with the sterility of her affluent life, receives a manuscript for a novel by her ex-husband Tony (Gyllenhaal). The novel tells a horrific and violent story that plays on the reality of their lives, and it’s within this fictional universe that Shannon’s character exists, as a homicide detective named Bobby.
“I honestly think Bobby is a very nihilistic guy,” Shannon says, taking a sip. “But he has this reluctant sensitivity to Tony. Bobby is dying of cancer and he looks at it like, well, this is my last shot to—I don’t know, help. Leave an impression on the world. Although, to what end? That’s the thing, in the end, across all of the story lines, you’re kind of left with a sort of emptiness… Ultimately the question is, should Tony and Susan be together or not? Should they have ever been together? Should they have ever split up? Should they get back together? Was it true love? Or was it just a chapter in the lives of these two people?”
I offer a half-baked thought about un-breaking things that are broken.
“It’s funny, love’s capacity to evaporate,” Shannon says. “I think about people that ten, twenty years ago, I would have sworn that I couldn’t live without. Now I hardly ever think about them. It’s really weird. But we’re told that’s the right way. You’re supposed to find someone, spend your whole life with them, and fall in a hole in the ground with them.”
I’m a little surprised at the personal nature of the comment, however vague. What and who, I ask, feels invaluable to him at this juncture in his life? Shannon orders another glass.
“I have an eight-year old and a two-year old,” he says. “On Monday, we went to the Children’s Museum of Art. We had a great day. We spent like four hours there, doing all kinds of art projects. You know, I’ve found myself in a situation where, after years and years and years of hard work—twenty-five years of doing this—a lot of people are inviting me to be involved in their things. It behooves me to take that seriously. But I have days where I just think, well, I climbed a mountain. I saw what it was like. I’m ready to go back down now. But it doesn’t really work that way. And I’m sure if I did that, I would regret it eventually. I have to keep reminding myself of that, because I don’t like being away from home. So I’m trying to find a balance. I was never really on a mission to conquer the world or whatever…” He pauses. “I just, I like acting, as a job. It’s a good job.”
Of course, we’re here because Shannon is very good at his job—Oscars-contender good. But does he care about that stuff? Is it a distraction?
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he says, “it’s just people getting excited about something, you know. But what you can’t do is think any less of what you’ve made if you don’t get the award. You can’t say, ‘Gee, maybe it wasn’t so good after all.’ I mean look, I had 99 Homes last year. From my vantage point, that is one of the most significant movies I’ve made. We didn’t get nominated for it, but I didn’t think, ‘Oh maybe that movie wasn’t so good.’ It’s all just like paper airplanes. It’s nothing. It’s a fun thing. It’s a party. People eat hors d’oeuvres and drink too much and get their picture taken. And then the next year you don’t even remember.”
What will Shannon remember next year?
“Well, I did A Long Day’s Journey into Night this year, the play by Eugene O’Neill. And I did the play for a lot of reasons, but one was that I wanted to honor my father’s memory. He passed away. But he lived in New York back in the 60s, and used to always tell me about going to Broadway and seeing Jason Robards do Eugene O’Neill plays. My father was an accounting professor, and when he lived here in New York he was an accountant. And he told me about this experience—seeing Jason Robards—mostly because, you know, initially when I said I was going to become an actor, he was perplexed. It kind of came out of nowhere. So he was trying to connect with me. And he was trying to figure out the merit of my decision, and part of the way he did that was connecting it to this experience that he’d had in the past. And thinking, ‘Well, if my son is able to accomplish what Jason Robards did, then that would make sense to me. I would understand that.’ I know that if he had been able to see it, it would have meant a lot to him. So, that’s that.”
The bartender clears away Shannon’s plate of burger vestiges. I ask if he has any final thoughts on anything, generally.
“I’m always very reluctant to reveal my true thoughts about any of it.”
“That’s fine, luckily you don’t really have to,” I say.
“I know,” he says. “You aren’t going to get all my deepest darkest secrets this time. Maybe the next time… if this was National Geographic or something…”
I say that I think the readers of National Geographic would care suitably little for Shannon’s secrets.
“Exactly what I’m thinking. They’ll be like, what’s this? And they’ll skip right over.”
Shannon bundles up and readies his Walkman for the trip home to Red Hook, and another day on the mountain he’ll keep climbing.