Michael Shannon Talks About Mental Illness, ‘Take Shelter,’ and Superman

Oscar nominee Michael Shannon returns with a critically lauded turn tackling mental illness in 'Take Shelter,' in theaters Friday. The gifted actor talks to Marlow Stern about childhood nightmares, how he’s preparing to play Superman’s nemesis General Zod in 'Man of Steel,' the second season of 'Boardwalk Empire,' and more. 

Grove Hill Productions / Sony Pictures Classics

Michael Shannon knows what it’s like to be haunted. The imposing, square-jawed actor stars as Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’s acclaimed eco-thriller that sees Shannon’s character experience a series of increasingly intense apocalyptic visions. He begins obsessing over building a heavily fortified storm shelter in his backyard and his apparent descent into madness not only gets him fired from his construction job, but also distances him from his devoted wife, played by Jessica Chastain, and deaf daughter, as well as the rest of their small Ohio town.

Like Curtis, Shannon is a Midwesterner—raised by his divorced parents in both Kentucky and Chicago—and was plagued by a recurring nightmare when he was younger that he feels was a byproduct of their split.

“When I was a little kid, there were certain dreams I got that would scare me and wake me up,” Shannon told The Daily Beast. “I used to have a nightmare every once in a while where I would be in a house, and it would be a multistory house, and I would be on the top floor. There was this winding staircase and the house would feel like it was about to fall apart. It was like I was in a house of cards and the whole house was going to come down.” He takes a long pause. “I remember having a dream like that more than once.”

The similarities don’t end there. When Shannon was 16, one of his first jobs was going door-to-door canvassing for Public Interest Research Group, an environmental organization founded by Ralph Nader that once employed Barack Obama.

“I wasn’t just doing it for extra cash. It was something I was very passionate about and I was met with a lot of indifference,” said Shannon. “People don’t seem overly concerned with the environment, and that should be the No. 1 priority.” He shakes his head. “It’s hard for me to look at everything that’s been going on with the weather and the Earth recently and think that there’s not something to be concerned about.”

He began as a stage actor in Chicago before receiving his SAG card playing an extra in the 1993 film, Groundhog Day. After several minor roles in standout indie films like Jesus’ Son and Tigerland, the towering Shannon moved out to Los Angeles and caught the eye of blockbuster director Michael Bay, who cast him first as a lieutenant in Pearl Harbor, and then as a dim-witted criminal in Bad Boys II. Despite the films’ critical drubbing, Shannon has nothing but fond memories of his time with Bay.

“I was very young, and it was an incredible opportunity,” said Shannon. “It was such an amazing experience to be actually on Pearl Harbor, recreating this historic battle in our nation’s history with so much detail and accuracy. And with Bad Boys II, it was just a fun character to have a laugh with.”

Shannon is quick to note that despite his intimidating looks and penchant for intense film roles, he comes from an improv comedy background in Chicago, having trained with the Bang Bang improv group for a number of years. He still goes back to Chicago from time-to-time to do free-form comedy sketches at the Improv Olympics.

But it was the role of Peter Evans, a PTSD-suffering Gulf War veteran in Tracy Letts’s 2004 off-Broadway production Bug that really changed things for Shannon. Evans shacks up in a seedy motel with a troubled woman, Agnes, but soon starts growing increasingly paranoid that he was the subject of secret government experiments, and has been outfitted with bugs around his body. When Exorcist director William Friedkin was casting the 2006 film adaptation of Bug, he demanded that Shannon reprise the role of Peter Evans, ignoring producers’ wishes for a more marquee name. His magnetic performance—in his first lead film role—landed him the part of another mentally insane character: John Givings, who tries to give a jaded 1950s couple, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a harsh dose of reality in Sam Mendes’s 2008 drama Revolutionary Road. Shannon received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his performance, establishing himself as one of the most gifted “actor’s actors” in movies. As to why he plays mentally unfit characters so well, Shannon is nonplussed.

“I’m not an expert on mental illness,” said Shannon. “I don’t necessarily think that we have as great a handle on our brains as we seem to think we do. I still think the mind is very mysterious and people are very mysterious.”

Since the Oscar nod, Shannon has been in high demand. He’ll next appear as a corrupt cop hot on the tail of a courier, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in next year’s thriller, Premium Rush; he says he will soon commit to star as hit man Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, opposite James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal; and is currently shooting the role of Superman’s nemesis, General Zod, in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, set to be released the summer of 2013. Shannon, in what he acknowledges is his most high-profile film job to date, will be playing a character made famous by Terrence Stamp in the original Superman films—a task that poses quite a challenge.

“I’ve seen Terrence’s interpretation and I loved it. It’s iconic and it’s intimidating,” said Shannon. “It requires a lot of imagination, since it’s not an everyday character or someone you’d run into on the street. I have to figure out what it means, the whole notion of being a general. I went out and got Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs just to read about the life of a general and see what he thought about and what that experience was like, because to me, that’s a key component to capturing the character.” Shannon pauses for a moment, and adds, “It’s not enough for me to be in Man of Steel, I want to do something really special with it. It’s not like I’ve won the lottery or something. I’ve got to justify everybody’s wanting me to be involved.”

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He’s also captivating audiences on the small screen as Nelson Van Alden, a Federal Prohibition agent in the 1920s-set HBO series Boardwalk Empire, executive-produced by Martin Scorsese. In addition to the character, Shannon accepted the role of Van Alden, a devout Protestant who uses brutally violent means to combat criminal mischief in Atlantic City, to remain close to his partner, actress Kate Arrington, and their young daughter, Sylvia—the series shoots in Brooklyn, where the family lives—and he is excited about where his character will go next.

“This season is about Van Alden trying to get redemption from some of the bad decisions he’s made in Season 1,” said Shannon. “In the finale last year, Lucy [his mistress] reveals herself to be pregnant, and so he’s going to try to find a creative way to deal with it. He doesn’t want to lose his wife, and he knows he needs to get his head back into the game as far as how he’s going to approach his work, because at the end of last year he wanted to give up. He’s basically got to pick up the pieces and figure out how he’s going to soldier on.”

While Shannon may not be an “expert” on mental illness, perhaps part of the reason he’s attracted to these complex, at times mentally unstable characters is because it’s in his blood. His grandfather is famed entomologist Raymond Corbett Shannon, who spent his storied career analyzing the behavioral characteristics of insects. The irony of his career-making Bug role aside, Shannon sees parallels between the troubled characters he plays and his grandfather’s academic studies.

“There certainly seems to be a curiosity that’s been handed down,” said Shannon. “He died when my father was a child, so sometimes I wonder what he’d make of all of this that I’m doing.” He pauses. “My father had this letter that my grandfather had written, and it was the only thing I ever really knew or saw about my grandfather, and it was a letter in which my grandfather listed all the things he wanted my father to be able to do, and it was like 200 damn things! My father would show me this letter and say, ‘This is where I came from.’ I was like, ‘Holy s--t, that’s intense!’ So I guess I’ve got some of that in my DNA. That intensity.”