Michael Shannon phones from his gate at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport en route to Los Angeles, where he’ll presumably don some serious latex at a few promotional photo-shoots for his new film, Zack Snyder’s take on the Superman legend, Man of Steel. While waiting to board his flight, the Oscar-nominated actor shifts his focus from the superhero reboot to his most recent film, Return, a quietly seething portrait of war’s lasting effects. In writer-director Liza Johnson’s feature film debut, Shannon plays Mike, an Ohioan plumber and husband to Kelli (Linda Cardellini), a National Guard reservist who’s just returned from an 18-month deployment overseas. In Kelli’s absence, Mike tries his best to raise their young daughter while also resisting the temptations of a local woman; following her return at the beginning of the movie, he struggles to get to know her again.
BULLETT: I was first introduced to your work via Bug, in which you play Peter, a war veteran suffering from PTSD. His story is much different from Kelli’s in Return, but there are similarities.
MICHAEL SHANNON: It’s always grounded in a need for connection. The one thing that Peter and Kelli have in common is they’re desperately trying to find somebody who can understand what they’re going through. It’s a very lonely experience, you know. Their stories speak to me in that they explore the notion of how intimate human beings can ever be with one another, how much we can share our own experience with another person without destroying them. It’s something most people, at some point in our lives, have to deal with.
One of Return’s great ironies is that Kelli so desperately needs that connection, but at the same time she shuts herself off from those around her.
I think she’s afraid to indulge in any sort of self-pity because she feels like nothing bad has happened to her, which is sad because, if nothing else, the thing that happened to her has been the enforced distance between she and her family. I can’t imagine enduring that kind of distance. I have a rule that I’m never away from my daughter for more than a week. After that, I start to go nuts. This woman was gone much longer than a week, which is enough of an ordeal, but she doesn’t think it’s enough because she didn’t get her arm blown off in combat and she doesn’t hear voices in the middle of the night. Liza had originally written a lot more of the notion of PTSD into Kelli’s character, but in the editing room she got rid of a lot of it, which I really appreciated because most people wouldn’t have the guts to tell this story without all the fireworks.
Had Liza shown all of the terrible things that Kelli had undergone overseas, I think your character’s infidelity would have been much more easily vilified.
More than anything, I think his infidelity is sad. I really believe that Mike loves Kelli. I don’t think that’s false. I don’t even think it’s eroded. But it’s also really hard for a man in that position. I hate to sound garish or silly but a man in that position, at a certain point, is going to succumb to some sort of animal impulse. At least that’s what I’ve heard from my biology teachers over the years.
It might also have something to do with his feeling emasculated by Kelli, who is the breadwinner in the family and the one who went off to fight in the war.
There definitely is the emasculation thing in play, but more than anything it’s about separation. It’s a very frightening thing—you can be with somebody and you can love her, but if she’s gone for a year then that love can go away no matter how strong it was. It’s terrifying that something that feels so absolute and true and powerful can just disappear.
You seem drawn to stories that relate to the military, given the characters you’ve played in Bug, World Trade Center, Pearl Harbor, and Tigerland. What is it about the experience of war that compels you?
It’s not like I think that because you’re in the military, you sign on for the same experience that millions of other people had. That would be like saying every doctor has the same life. But they do share an experience. The one thing the military does is give you a very structured system and it says, “You are, to a certain extent, going to be just like everyone else around you and you are going to put up with the same things that everyone around you is putting up with.” They really make an effort to strip away individuality to make a team—that’s the whole point of it. Within those parameters, however, there are so many stories to tell.
Is there something about the idea of suppressing the individual—and then reacting against that suppression—that speaks to you?
It’s a big source of material. Drama is conflict and so is war, and that’s where the military is, ever since the Greeks.
Even in Man of Steel, once you strip away the bombast, it’s about the same power struggle between good and evil.
Well, to me General Zod is not a villain. He’s a General in the military and he’s doing whatever any General in his situation would do; he’s fighting for his people. It just happens to not necessarily jive with what some other people in the universe want.
Return is in theaters now, and will be released on VOD via Focus World on February 28.