Anticipating an interview with Michael Shannon is, I’d imagine, a lot like waiting to go on trial, or waiting to take a lie-detector test, albeit with the tables turned. What on earth do you ask this towering enigma of an actor, who seems so thoroughly removed from the film-publicity grind and its propensity for bullshit? The typical questions about script and story just won’t do. What if he glares at you with those deep-set eyes that seem capable of boring holes through the wall? (On that note, now’s a good time to mention his forthcoming role as laser-eyed General Zod in Man of Steel.) Even after his viral “dramatic reading” of a certain email from Delta Gamma gal Becca Martinson, a reading laced with foul-mouthed fury, but also lighthearted by nature, Shannon remains as mysterious as ever. And in person, he only adds layers to the puzzle, exhibiting, in almost precisely equal measure, the off-kilter oddness present in so many of his characters, and the off-the-cuff levity that’s led to things like a Funny or Die parody—the sort of strange, yet relatable, moves that have ballooned Jennifer Lawrence’s fanbase.
Suited and styled, but hunched and lanky, the actor ambles into a suite at the Waldorf Astoria looking like Lurch with a cosmopolitan makeover. His skinny tie and tailored gray duds are crisp, but he doesn’t quite seem at home in them, as if playing this promotional game is as alien as, say, someone digging beneath his skin for insects in a seedy motel room (as Shannon did in Bug), or someone prophesying what may or may not be the apocalypse (as Shannon did, transcendently, in Take Shelter).
“If I’m left to my own devices, I just walk out in a T-shirt and jeans,” Shannon says, his voice sounding at once erudite and weaselly, like he’s the smartest henchman of a Dick Tracy villain. “The more I do this, though, people start to give me fancy clothes, and I wear them. I mean, they’re free. I don’t think I’m ever going to go to Chanel and drop $2,000, but if they’re giving them to me, I’ll wear them.”
In The Iceman, director Ariel Vromen’s barebones biopic of Jersey mob hitman Richie Kuklinski, Shannon rocks a lot of pricey clothes as the cold killer with the titular nickname, his wardrobe reflecting the decades in which Richie was active (the 1950s through the 1980s). It’s all part of what Richie reaps for offing hundreds of toughs and targets, often at the request of bossman Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta). Whether through deep denial or sheer ignorance, Richie’s wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), and only friend, Dino (Danny Abeckaser), aren’t hip to the Iceman’s career path, let alone the dark history and chilling capabilities hidden beneath the slick clothes and weathered skin. Once again, Shannon embodies a volatile, bottled storm of a person, whose psychological complexity defies all comfortable definitions. As Ritchie eases into the life of a wealthy gangster (a life that, as portrayed in the film, is really just an outlet for the murderous rage that’s always stewing inside him), Shannon adopts that sort of effortless, fearsome cool that’s so key among so many cinematic mafiosos, as if he’s been plugging away in the mob genre for years. Liotta, who was on hand during the Iceman press junket, concurs.
“I’ve been very lucky to have worked with the people that I’ve worked with,” says Liotta. “Al Pacino. Robert De Niro. Gene Hackman. Robert DuVall. They all take their work seriously. And Michael falls right under that category.”
Shannon’s characteristic unpredictability, and distaste for rehearsal, left his other co-stars—who were also available for comment—on edge, in ways both unnerving and inspiring. “It was a bit of an adjustment, the lack of rehearsal,” says Ryder, who was so unsettled by Kuklinksi’s actual case that she couldn’t watch the man’s interviews. “You really don’t know what Michael’s going to do once the cameras roll. You just don’t know. And what that does for me, or any of the actors, really, is it pulls you into the moment. You have to be present. You could prepare for five years, but all of that will crumble if you’re not present in the moment with an actor like him. The way he works, that spontaneity, forces you to be alert, and I really appreciated that.”
“It was very intimidating,” says Abeckaser, “but as an actor, you gotta step up. When you work with someone as great as [Michael], it’s better not to rehearse, because your reactions are so much more natural. Every scene he does differently, and he gives you so much to work with.”
Though he doesn’t rehearse, Shannon certainly does his share of preparing. To ready himself for his turn as Kuklinski, the actor says he obtained unedited copies of the hitman’s first HBO interviews and watched them over and over—more than 20 hours of oft-menacing footage on 10 DVDs. Through this rigorous marathon, Shannon hung on to small things that emerged, such as how Kuklinski had no interests or hobbies, and was apathetic toward virtually everything beyond the comfort of home, a home Shannon came to believe Kuklinski never had as a child.
“It became a very intimate thing,” Shannon says, “sitting there by myself watching this guy on TV for hours. I almost started to feel like I was the interviewer, even though I wasn’t asking the questions.”
As he speaks, Shannon rarely makes eye contact. He looks up, looks down, and stares off into the void. He squirms in his chair, furrows his brow, and while thinking, often rubs his eyes with this thumb and forefinger. Yet he’s always on track, always with you, always “present,” as Ryder would say—just in his own fashion. He’s singularly eccentric and evidently unaffected. A Brooklyn resident, he’s known to openly peruse the streets and ride the New York subways. I tell him I passed him once on a sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan. And after that trepidation about his piercing stare has long since subsided, I ask him if he often gets recognized.
“I do,” he says. “I think once you’re on a TV show [like HBO’s Boardwalk Empire], you’re going to get recognized. You become part of people’s ritual. So that’s when that all really started. I don’t mind, as long as people don’t ask me for anything. But the thing is, you find there’s really nothing to talk about. Somebody stops you and they say, ’I know you.’ And you say, ’Yeah you do.’ And that’s basically the end of the conversation. There’s nothing else to say. Sometimes people say, ’Can I have your autograph?’ and they’ll pull out, like, a receipt. Are they gonna keep that? Or then there’s people who recognize you, but don’t even know your name. It’s like, I could sign anything right now. I could sign ’Claude Gains’ and you wouldn’t know the difference. So those things are funny. Unless you have a really nice autograph book that shows you’re gonna cherish something for decades, the whole autograph thing eludes me. It’s just gonna end up in the laundry.”
To look at Shannon is to be wonderfully baffled. Here is this character actor so uncannily skilled at animating scary, multidimensional, human-despite-it-all head cases, and yet so uniquely amused by—and amusing to—the world around him. Abeckaser calls him “one of the greatest actors working today,” and he might be right. Liotta simply admires his co-star’s transformative powers.
“On set, when you’re locked into what you’re supposed to do, and the other actor is locked into what he’s supposed to do, you’re really just thinking about that,” Liotta says. “But Michael’s a pretty goofy guy if you get beyond his intensity, and sometimes I’d think, ’I can’t believe this person is really who he is in real life.’ I mean, Al Pacino just always acted like Al Pacino, you know?”
So who the hell is Michael Shannon? Is it possible to know? Upon first meeting, and through his recent media exploits, he strikes me as the sort of celebrity who can open up to you without compromising any impenetrable allure, because there’s so much offbeat substance, it could never be fully exposed. He says something to that effect as we wrap up, just as he dashes any presumptions about a fear of being typecast.
“I’m very happy with my career,” he says. “The onus is not on me to say what I do. All I have to do is do it. If somebody else wants to categorize what I do then that’s their business. But, for me, I just look at a part and I play the part. And I don’t feel like my deck is full of twos and threes. I’ve got aces and kings in there too.”