Michael Shannon is a fairly intense guy. Put it this way: When I asked Shannon about his almost trademark onscreen rage, he compared the emotion to Danny Glover in 'Lethal Weapon' -- and I had no idea if he was joking or not. Perhaps that's the point. Maybe Shannon wants to keep people guessing because -- even in an interview setting -- it's impossible to know what he's going to do or say next.
In 'Take Shelter,' the Oscar-nominated Shannon plays Curtis, a man haunted by apocalyptic dreams that result in him building a storm shelter for his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter. The dreams also result in never quite knowing when Curtis is going to fly off into a fit of rage -- which, spoiler, he eventually does with much effect. Moviefone spoke to Shannon about his role in 'Take Shelter' (which is already getting intense Oscar Buzz), if we'll see his onscreen rage when he plays General Zod in 'Man of Steel,' and the time that he made a fool of himself in front of Bill Murray on the set of 'Groundhog Day.'
I grew up in the Midwest, so tornados frighten me. Do you feel the same way growing up in Kentucky?
I think we were just a little bit east of the tornado country. I mean, I never remember it being a problem when I grew up. We had the drills at school, or whatever, where you get under your desk. But I never lived through one. So, yeah, I had never actually been in a storm shelter in my life before working on this film.
With no spoilers, do you understand the ending of this movie?
It's up for interpretation. To me, it's very moving. The end of the film is very moving. But, yeah, it's hard to talk about it not only without spoiling it, or giving it away, but also not potentially influencing someone else's interpretation. But I certainly don't think it's the first film ever made where the interpretation of the ending is open to debate.
No, it's not.
Following a fine line of films. Actually, usually, films like that tend to be pretty interesting.
It's a surreal film to watch.
One thing that surprised me when I saw the film is that the dreams are pretty consistent and they're close together. There's a rhythm to them that is very... it's like a wrecking ball. You know? It just keeps pounding! Each dream. And the ball doesn't swing out very far before it comes back and you get smacked again. And the dreams are so powerful. When we were shooting the dreams, there's a lot of imagination going on. There's no special effects, there's no music or nothing. So I didn't realize until I saw the film just how scary they were going to be.
Have you ever had a recurring nightmare?
There was once when I was a little kid I seem to recall having a dream where I was in a house that was two stories and I was in the top -- it was like the end of a staircase. Not a round staircase. But I was on the top level of this house and had the sensation that the house was going to collapse. Not because of a storm or tornado, but literally the house was not fastened together properly. And I could feel it kind of teetering and I was wondering what I should hold on to, wondering how I wasn't going to collapse with it. For some reason that's a dream I seem to recall having on more than one occasion. But other than that, no. Certainly not in my adult life. I don't have nightmares often. I guess I get it all out and put them all on screen.
OK, speaking of, where does your onscreen rage come from. We see it again in 'Take Shelter.'
The pantheon of on screen rage.
Yes. If I ever write a top ten list about the pantheon of onscreen rage actors, you're on that list.
Right up there with Danny Glover in 'Lethal Weapon.'
You know, I think it's different in every circumstance. I mean, at least I'd like to claim it is. I think in 'Take Shelter,' the most palpable example of it is at The Lion's Club dinner. And that tension built naturally because we shot that scene towards the end of the shoot and it had been a lot of long days and a lot of trying to keep it a secret – because most of the film Curtis is trying to keep it under his hat. And I was ready. When we came to shoot that scene, I was ready. I actually felt like I popped one off and I got it off my chest. And I suggested to [Director] Jeff [Nichols] that we do one a with not as much of the rage and more of the sadness. And Jeff said, "I don't know, I think you got it." And I said, "No, trust me." And I think when he edited it, he kind of combined the two a little bit. But, I don't know, the pressure had built up to the point that I was ready to let off a little steam.
So you were irritable that day?
It wasn't even a matter of irritation, it was just a matter of finally I didn't have to keep it a secret anymore. It's hard to keep a secret, you know? When you're a little kid and you're keeping a secret, it's a lot different when you're a grown up keeping a secret. I mean, Curtis is really frightened. Not just the storm, but he's frightened with what's happening to himself. He's frightened that he can't control it.
You're the perfect age to remember Terence Stamp's take on General Zod from 'Superman II.' How are you not influenced by that while playing the same character?
Yeah! It's funny, I've recently seen bits and pieces of him doing it and it's very intimidating. But I just have to start from scratch. I mean, I've got a different script, I've got a different director and I'm acting with different people. And I just can't let it... I mean, it would be a shame if I let it inhibit my creativity. I mean, you look at 'Hamlet'... at least I'm not playing Hamlet. With that part you have 5000 genius interpretations of it over hundreds of years it's been around. I only have to look down one interpretation -- no matter how iconic it may be.
Will we see the rage?
Sh-t, I don't know. I gotta see. I mean, anybody who plans all of this stuff out in advance is not generally going to give a performance which you're going to want to see very much, probably.
I love watching the Wrestlemania scene in 'Groundhog Day' now and thinking, Oh, there are two future Oscar nominees.
It's funny, I just saw [Bill Murray], too, in Deauville. I was at the Deauville Film Festival. I had two films there, 'Take Shelter' and 'Return.' And he came with the director and the star of 'Return' and I got to spend a couple of nights hanging out with him. And I told him right after the screening, I said, "You're not going to remember this, but my whole career started in 'Groundhog Day.' He's like, "I knew you looked familiar." I said, "come on, it's 20 years ago."
What does Michael Shannon and Bill Murray do when they hang out? That sounds like an interesting duo.
I have a good story! So, Talking Heads is my favorite band. So one day... you know all of those restaurant scenes in 'Groundhog Day'? Where it's the same day over again? We spent a long time at the restaurant and I'm sitting at one of the tables at the restaurant. I'm just sitting there eating, but I had to be there all the time. And one day he was standing outside of the restaurant between takes and he was getting down with some Talking Heads. And I was so happy that he was listening to Talking Heads because it's my favorite band. So I couldn't contain myself and I went over and I'm like, "You like the Talking Heads?" And he looked at me like basically that was the dumbest question in the history of the world. Which it was. He was standing there listening to the Talking Heads. He was like, "Yes, I like the Talking Heads." Then I was embarrassed and I ran away.
People who didn't even like 'Revolutionary Road' still loved your performance. How did that movie change your life?
Well, I had a great sense of accomplishment. Just because I was such a huge fan of the book and it was so important to me that the film version of the book be of a high caliber -- because the book meant so much to me. And to be able to play that part, of all the parts in the book, was like getting the gold ring. You know, I think people were fond of saying whatever like, "he stole the movie," or, "he's the best thing on the movie," or whatever. I really never felt that way at all. I had so much respect for what Leo[nardo DiCaprio] and Kate [Winslet] did in that movie and Sam's approach and Kathy [Bates] playing my mom, it was a real collaboration. So that always kind of made me uncomfortable. I didn't enjoy hearing that very much. And I was shocked when the nominations came out. It was just... I thought it deserved more nominations than it got, honestly. I thought it should have been one of those ten nomination films. It's not up to me.
The fact that Roger Deakins didn't get nominated for cinematography for that movie is mind-blowing. The shot... you think about the shot that probably everybody remembers -- and they give me the credit for it. But it starts on Kate, I'm soft in the background arguing with my parents, then I say, "I'll tell you one thing,' it focuses on me and I point and say, "at least I'm glad I'm not that kid." I mean, you can't give me all the credit for that. That shot's f-cking brilliant. So, whatever. It's a collaboration. Film is always a collaboration. Even if you're watching what you think is the greatest performance in your life, you gotta remember there's a lot of people responsible for what you're watching.
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Photo: Kenneth Neil Moore/AP