Burn It Down

Michael Shannon on the Cautionary Tale of ‘Fahrenheit 451’: ‘We Gotta Stop Paying Attention to Trump’

In HBO’s new ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Shannon plays a version of Ray Bradbury’s truth- and information-silencing Captain Beatty, even more harrowing in the Age of Trump.

Michael Gibson/HBO

When we first see Michael Shannon’s Captain Beatty in HBO’s new Fahrenheit 451 movie, he’s sparring with Michael B. Jordan’s Guy Montag. After trading a few jabs, Shannon’s character knocks Jordan’s to the floor.

In our attempt to make small talk about the scene ahead of what turns out to be a rather heavy interview about Ray Bradbury’s cautionary tale, which resonates uncomfortably in today’s digital age under the Trump administration, we learn something important about the Oscar-nominated actor: He doesn’t very much like small talk.

It must be a nice feather in his cap to be in good enough shape that it looks believable onscreen when he knocks out Michael B. Jordan, we venture, since the actor with biceps the size of Jupiter happens to be reviving his role as a champion boxer in Creed 2 as we speak. “I don’t have a cap,” Shannon says, punctuating his response with deafening silence. A nice boost to the ego then, maybe? “I won’t say whether I have an ego.” Finally, after that, a mischievous grin.

There’s an intensity to the roles Michael Shannon plays—a trait so demonstrable that fans are campaigning to cast him as the next Bond villain—that tends to color your expectations when you meet him in person. He has a guarded, sort of wound-up passion that tends to uncoil the longer you spend with him, revealing him to be an incredibly endearing, if slightly odd, character.

Shannon hadn’t read Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel, a high-school reading-list staple depicting a future society in which “firemen” burn books, until the HBO film’s writer and director Ramin Bahrani asked him to play Beatty. (Bahrani had previously directed Shannon in 2014’s sensational 99 Homes.) “My guy in high school was Vonnegut for the sci-fi stuff,” Shannon says.

Bahrani updates Bradbury’s story for a future the author couldn’t have imagined, in which access to information, the lawlessness of the internet, and privacy breaches compound themes of government control of knowledge, the gaslighting of citizens, and the dangers of a despotic government proliferating fake news.

It leads to what essentially doubles as a State of the Union talk with Shannon as we discuss the story’s harrowing resonance today and what we can learn from Bradbury’s timeless cautionary tale 65 years later.

This is a book written in the ’50s and is timely now. And Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in the ’80s. What do you make of the fact that they’re so resonant today, that all these years have passed and the lessons still have to be learned?

I mean it’s strange. But it kind of points to what I feel like is the inherent question in the book, at least in terms of the version we made of it, which is “What is the value of knowledge?” For me, approaching Beatty and trying to assimilate Beatty’s point of view as my own, Beatty basically makes the point that people can’t handle knowledge. All it does is confuse them or upset them. So is ignorance bliss? Why this question never seems to be answered is as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else. But I have to say ultimately, I come down on the side that it isn’t, because if you remain in a state of ignorance you’re going to be subsumed or destroyed by people who are not remaining in a state of ignorance, people who are aware of what is happening.

The idea that information and knowledge are at odds with happiness is certainly something that’s on people’s minds now when they talk about the news and what’s going on in the world.

Yeah! I can’t tell you how many people who are like, “I don’t read the news anymore.” How many times do you hear that? “I don’t want to know.” Well it’s not that far a leap to, “OK, fine, we won’t tell you.” Is that what you want? Not me. But there are people who probably would be OK with that.

One byproduct is that people who are shutting off the news and valuable information are instead amplifying the inconsequential: memes and viral content and distractions and gossip.

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Nicholas Kristof wrote a very good column in The New York Times about how we gotta stop paying attention to Trump. There’s too many other important things going on. It doesn’t matter whether he paid Stormy Daniels to stay quiet about screwing him. It’s not important. What’s important is the damage that is being done to the world and the future of our civilization, for our children’s sake. A hundred years from now, nobody’s going to give a shit if Stormy Daniels had sex with Donald Trump. They’re just not going to care. But in the present moment, it’s certainly a lot more titillating. You’ll probably likely get more people’s attention with that than a story about deregulation or the dismantling of the Clean Air Act. It’s a matter of survival. Knowledge is a matter of survival, I think.

One of the major themes of Bradbury’s work is the gaslighting of citizens, feeding them incorrect information in order to manipulate them into behaving a certain way. That has been timely for decades. But its resonance certainly escalated intensely in these last two years under this administration.

The stakes are really high right now. I hate to say it, but I feel like there are things happening right now that are going to be unalterable. They’re going to do damage that we’re not going to be able to recover from. In order to keep people’s eyes off that, you’ve got to do a lot of tap dancing. But they’re doing it. They’ve got us all looking the other way. That’s what Captain Beatty says we’re better off not thinking about, I guess.

There’s a character in the film who tells Montag, “The revolution isn’t a dinner party,” warning him of the work it will take to rise up. In terms of what you’re seeing going on with the “resistance,” what do you make of the notion? There are people who say they want change, but who aren’t willing to leave the “dinner party.”

It’s hard to be the one out front. Right now we have a lot of people who say, “I am willing to follow, just tell me who to follow.” If you’re willing to do all the work and create something and be responsible for it, and I believe in what you’re doing, then I will be happy to send you a check or go to a parade or something. But in terms of being the actual one who goes out there—and I’m as guilty as anyone. I’m a bit preoccupied, but I guess we could all make that excuse. I think we have a lot of people who are adamant that they think somebody should be doing something about something. But that’s a generalization, too. I think there are people out there who are taking some risks and being vigilant about change and about transparency. I just don’t know if there’s enough of them.

There’s a lot of debate about series like Fahrenheit 451 or The Handmaid’s Tale or any aspect of pop culture that dives into the darkness that is happening around us, whether people are triggered by them, whether they’re useful, depressing, galvanizing, or what have you.

I think there are people out there who are taking some risks and being vigilant about change and about transparency. I just don’t know if there’s enough of them.
Michael Shannon

I think the thing that really impresses me about Ramin is that he makes something that is not preachy but it’s still captivating on a human level. It’s basically about the relationships and the people. The ideology and the themes are secondary. They’re there, but I don’t feel like Ramin is necessarily cramming anything down anybody’s throat. Is it haunting? It’s certainly not upbeat, but whatever. I think the dynamics of these relationships and these characters. I think they’re fascinating to spend time with, at the very least, if not entertaining.

There’s something Beatty says that’s interesting, because we’re supposed to think of him as the antagonist: “If you don’t want a person unhappy then don’t give them two sides of a question to think about.” Especially working in a newsroom, I see debate over the value of giving a voice to a fringe, misinformed, or harmful opinion, so I can sort of understand that mindset, that it could drive a person crazy to give credence to those sides of the question. What’s your read on that?

I’ll put it this way: I didn’t have a hard time saying it. I wasn’t like, oh boy I can’t say that line. Is it the way I would choose to run things? Probably not. But I can understand it. I can understand it as well as you can. There’s so many damn people in the world, and they’ve all got opinions. It seems the landscape is just oversaturated with opinions and with attitudes and with points of view.

Even within our own country, one of the reasons I think we’re so stuck and dysfunctional is that we keep trying to welcome all these wildly varied points of view and perspectives. We keep trying to say, oh, we’re going to have a country where all these different people—you can have Noam Chomsky on one hand and Don Blankenship on the other hand and everybody in between and we’re all Americans and we should all get equal say or whatever. Now I’m not saying that we should become some totalitarian society, but at a certain point it’s just too much. It’s not gonna hold. You can’t have a place where Noam Chomsky and Don Blankenship have an equal say in an operational place. Maybe that sounds terrible of me. But it just can’t fit.

Maybe that’s why so many people retreat to an echo chamber of their own opinions.

That’s right. And maybe not even their own opinions. Half the time, I swear to god, people, I don’t know what comes first the chicken or the egg, the person or the opinion. I think half the time people just latch onto what they receive. It’s like a fish latching on to a hook and they can’t get the hook out of their mouth. Somewhere in their mind they know this ain’t right, but they can’t get the hook out of their mouth. I feel like I see that all the time. It’s not easy days we’re living in. There’s no two ways about it.