Michael Shannon is lounging in a Grandfather chair at the Waldorf Astoria—his burnished Derby shoes propped on an antique coffee table. The thirty-eight-year-old actor, dressed in a three-piece suit and with his career in full gear, seems to be in a ruminative mood. “Shit, I hope people see this movie,” Shannon tells me. He’s referring to The Iceman, a biopic of sorts about the real-life 1970s contract killer who was also a loving husband and father. It’s a role, in its spiritual paradoxes, tailor-made for Shannon. The Kentucky-born, Brooklyn-based actor has become famous for his portrayals of men trying to do right despite their demons. As we talk, I realize Shannon’s trademark intensity belongs as much to the man as his characters. There’s something almost late-Brando to his introspective wandering mind. At one point in our interview he asks me if I want a cupcake and it sounds as if he were baring his soul. “My picture’s on it,” he says, and when I take the red-velvet pastry there he is—goatee, suit and gun—the painted icing on the cake. Here, Shannon shares his thoughts on everything from hedge funds and Heath Ledger to the Oscars, his upcoming role in Man of Steel, and finding viral-fame as a Sorority ringmaster.
Do you like playing good guys or bad guys more?
Neither. I just like playing guys. I mean, I like playing multi-dimensional people—people that have a sordid life full of questions and contradictions and struggles. Kuklinski [“The Iceman”] was obviously a demented man who did a lot of sinister shit. But if I look back at my CV, my characters are not necessarily bad people or people who do bad things. As an artist you can just land in the zeitgeist a certain way. People say to me, “I love Boardwalk Empire. You’re so good on that show. I hate you.” And I don’t understand it! I look around at the other guys on that show and in comparison, I’m really not that bad. I mean, if you look at Harrow. How many people has Harrow killed?
Your character in The Iceman is like an extreme version of your character in Take Shelter. In that you just have to protect your family. You’ll do anything for them. So you do such despicable things, but in the name of family. That seems to be your bread and butter.
At the risk of revealing too much about myself, or my political views, I think The Iceman is an allegory for what’s going on in the world. There are a lot of people in the world who make a living and get their paycheck based on the misfortune of other people. And then they go home and they have their family. They pay all their bills. They make dinner for their whole family, and then they tuck in the kids, kiss them on the forehead and say, “I love you, goodnight.” And that’s not disingenuous. That’s for real. And this is a very extreme version of that: a guy completely warped by circumstance, like a knotted tree.
When I heard that you were in Man of Steel, my first thought was that you were going to play Superman. I thought they were going for a darker vision.
You know who I really want to play?
Aquaman. If they ever make a fucking Aquaman movie, I want to be Aquaman.
In Mud, your first appearance is in a wetsuit—
Yeah, I am like Aquaman! I want to take that one step further and start talking to the sea creatures.
I think you should get an Oscar for your sorority video. That shit was hilarious. I can just watch it on repeat.
Have a party, a kegger.
How did that video come about?
Well I did the LA press junket last weekend. I flew out on Friday. I got off the plane. Went to the hotel, dropped my luggage off. And then my publicist came and picked me up and said, we’re going to Funny or Die and you’re gonna read this letter. I’d never heard of the letter. I didn’t know anything about it. I never went to university. I never belonged to any fraternity or sorority. It’s not my terrain at all. They had the letter all written up on cue cards. I read it off cue cards. Some people think I memorized it. I didn’t memorize it. We did about seven takes and then I went back to my hotel. And the rest is history. They edited it all together and put the music on there.
Have people called you up about it?
Yeah, I mean my friends, lots of texting all this and that. You know there are people who don’t like it. Not everyone’s in favor of it. I looked on Funny or Die. I’ve got a lot of die votes.
Because it’s offensive?
I don’t know. You gotta think that anyone who visits Funny or Die is prepared to be offended, but it seems to be doing pretty well. In terms of something that I’ve done, standalone, kind of by myself, it’s definitely the most popular thing I’ve ever done.
You had a lot of small roles before you really broke out. When was it that someone really realized you could carry a film?
Honestly, the first person that really let me do that was Jeff [Nichols] with Shotgun Stories. That was his film before Take Shelter. He asked me to do that. He asked me to be the lead.
I just interviewed him a few days ago—
He’s a fucking moron.
I’ll put that in.
Yeah, put that in the interview. I’ve been saying that every time someone brings up Jeff.
So he just called you out of the blue?
He first sent me the script for Shotgun Stories. And I thought it was one of the best screenplays I’d ever read in my life. It just blew my friggin’ mind. I was like, this kid’s a genius. And I talked to him on the phone and he was like, “I don’t have any money. I can’t pay you anything. I’m putting all my money into the film and the camera. That’s where it’s all going, because I’ve got to shoot anamorphic.” And that’s when I knew I loved this kid. So many kids would have been like, “screw it, I’ll shoot it on video, I just want to get it made.” Jeff was stumping me but I was like, this kid’s got balls.
The New York Times called you the foremost interpreter of uneasy, American manhood. Or something like that.
Yeah, Brantley in the Grace review. That was awfully nice of him.
You’ve come a long way. Now what?
I just hope I stay uneasy, because if I get easy, I’m screwed. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about my career is how much of a surprise it’s been, so hopefully it’ll remain that way. I mean, I never know what to expect. Right now, I’m in a period of incredible volatility. I try not to think to much into the future because there’s so much that could happen––or could not happen, or might happen.
You work like crazy now.
Yeah, I’m kind of a broken treadmill that won’t stop, which is fine by me, because I like what I do. But it’s impossible to prognosticate the future at this point. I feel like in a certain I’m kind of at a plateau. I don’t know what more I can expect, unless I own a movie studio or something.
I thought you deserved the Oscar for Take Shelter. Have you people told you that?
Some people have. I mean people say lots of things. People say I should have gotten one for Revolutionary Road. And I’m like look, Heath Ledger was great in The Dark Knight. Who am I to discount that? And they’re like, yeah but he’s not here anymore. I said, so what? He still deserved the award.
Was Heath Ledger an inspiration for your role in Man of Steel?
Oh, definitely. I thought Heath gave a very virtuoso performance. But having said that, General Zod and the Joker are very different. General Zod really isn’t a malevolent human being, or not human being. I should say malevolent Kryptonian. He’s very pro-Kryptonian. He’s mad because some really nasty shit went down on his planet. Unfortunately, his job is to protect the planet and that didn’t work out so well. So he’s just trying to make up for it.
In The Iceman you go through so many hairstyles. Beard, no-beard, goatee, slicked back hair. Which was your favorite?
Honestly, my favorite was when I didn’t have any facial hair, because that facial hair is hard to work with.