It’s almost apocalyptic, the sickly sky and the on-cue cacophony of construction. The weight of bulky chains clank and grate against the cement floor as workers heave-ho through what suddenly seems an obtrusive hallway. As Michael Shannon and I sit in the lightless offshoot hideout, the ground rumbles with pulsing vibrations, and the air fills with the staccato drilling of jackhammers. For all we know, the jarring dots and dashes could be a warning of the end of days.
It’s not the end of the world, but if it were, Shannon would have you know it’s not an act of God or mystical revelations realized: it’s science. “There are too many people,” he says. “The earth cannot sustain the amount of people that are on it right now. It’s just a fact. We use too many resources, and eventually, it cannot continue.”
An actor whose trademark is his ability to ooze intensity without sacrificing subtlety, Shannon reunites with director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) in the slow-burning (until it erupts) psychological thriller Take Shelter. The film follows Curtis LaForche, whose stormy apocalyptic visions are either premonitions or the first signs of mental illness. In his rising panic, he struggles to protect his family.
Leaning in close, attempting to conquer the chaos, he is focused. Gazing at the ground, fingers laced, the actor says, “The story resonated with me because I’m very anxious about the state of things in the world. I have a family, and I oftentimes have to try to figure out how to balance the anxiety about the world with being in a family. You don’t want to bring that into the family—you want the family to be a peaceful, calm thing. How do you block out that anxiety? You also don’t want to be oblivious to what’s going on, because that doesn’t seem to be the right way to handle things, either. It’s trying to find that balance. I think the storm is a metaphor for a lot of different things. Although recently there’s been a lot of horrific weather in the world, so it may not even be a metaphor anymore.”
When you signed on to make the film, was it discussed with Jeff Nichols whether or not your character was truly having premonitions?
It was really not something we spoke about. It wasn’t important for us to even agree on it. As much as we’ve been talking about this phenomenon and the end of the world, [the film is] actually much more about the relationships between the people, regardless of whether the outside circumstances are true or false. That’s insignificant. The fact of the matter is that your attention can be drawn away from your family by anxiety, by outside forces, and it’s ultimately about the best way to protect your family from that anxiety.
But if the audience concludes that Curtis is schizophrenic, or is in fact experiencing premonitions, it’s likely to color their opinion. Which point of view do you think they’d be more sympathetic to?
I don’t know. Some people have a lot of sympathy for people with mental illness and some people don’t. Mental illness has always had its skeptics anyway, because some people take it very seriously, while some people don’t really believe it’s a disease. Either way, whether it’s a delusion or whether it’s really happening, his issue remains the same—he’s still trying to protect his family from himself. There’s ambiguity in the film and it’s purposeful. I know Jeff tries not to talk about it that much because he wants people to have their own experience.
The inability to trust one’s own mind and the fear of losing control are familiar territories for Shannon, whose career is built on the exploration of human complexity. In HBO’s period drama, Boardwalk Empire, he plays Agent Nelson Van Alden, a corrupt cop in Prohibition-era Atlantic City whose religious fanaticism allows him to sacrifice his own morals in exchange for the punishment of those who revel in a bootlegged pool of sin. In some ways comparable to Curtis LaForche’s personal battle, Van Alden snaps under the burden of intention and compulsion, ultimately hurting those he means to protect. Shannon pinpoints this as a great irony. “It’s a question of intimacy,” he says. “How intimate can people really be with one another? You have the family, you have a relationship, but at the end of the day, how much do you really share with another person? Can people accept another person in totality, every little facet of them? I think that’s what we’re all looking for, and to give someone that acceptance is very hard.”
Is there a fine line between sane and insane, good and bad, in people?
Yeah, I definitely felt that with Nelson Van Alden on Boardwalk. People would stop me and tell me they enjoy the show, and they’d say something like, “You’re really good at being crazy,” or, “Oh, I really hate him, he’s so evil.” It strikes me as odd because I actually think Nelson started out with very good intentions, and I think he’s a genuine person. The significant journeys that people take in their lives—they’re not just one direction in a straight line, you know? Point A to Point B. The journey of self-discovery, self-actualization, enlightenment or wisdom is not just a straight walk down the road. There are a lot of twists and turns, and sometimes you go back the way you came. It’s hard to figure out the right thing to do every day.
Are most people inherently good?
I do have faith in that. I think people who are really violent or harmful are not born that way. There are people who withstand a lot of negative activity and abuse, and that informs who they become. Any sort of atrocity that’s committed is usually sort of handed down through the ancestry of that person. It’s not just something somebody thinks up in the moment like that.
The term “losing control” has both positive and negative connotations. What does it immediately trigger for you?
I think control is an illusion, always. If you ever have control, it’s very isolated. You have control if you tie your shoes successfully; you’ve controlled that one small inner exchange between you and that object. But in terms of having control over something, like Curtis trying to have control over that situation—it’s absurd, yet it’s something that people really look for. It gives people comfort to feel like they’re “in control,” but it seems like an illusion to me.
In the flesh, Shannon dwarfs any potential adversary—an effortless way to assert control. He’s a towering presence that could easily nestle himself among the heroes of the Golden Age of Cinema, but as if to spite his on-camera intensity and strapping build, he also exudes a subtle boyishness. If not for his easy sense of humor, it’s likely the Michael Jackson moonwalking jokes he throws around on set would have been left hanging, woeful and lingering. In this dichotomy, he effuses a charm that is distinctly his own, at once simple and intricate.