The Iceman cometh
After years in supporting roles, quirky-looking actor Michael Shannon |is moving into the spotlight as the star of summer blockbusters |The Iceman and Man of Steel, hears James Mottram
There's something quite unnerving about Michael Shannon. Dressed today in a short, dark leather jacket, jeans and a black T-shirt — emblazoned with red wings and the word ‘Intelligentsia' — he comes across as almost as intense and troubled as the characters he plays. “I'm not trying to frighten anybody,” he says — though it's clearly an issue. “I was hanging out with some people last night and they were like ‘You're so quiet, you're so quiet; it's so creepy — why don't you say something?' And I said, ‘I don't really have anything to say!'“
It's this stillness, and the fact he rarely makes eye contact with you, scrunching up his face as he talks, that leaves you unnerved.
Shannon is not exactly a graduate from the George Clooney charm school. He's tall and slightly awkward in his own skin — which may account for why, unlike Gorgeous George, you won't find him fronting political campaigns or Nespresso commercials. “Nobody has asked me to be an advocate or spokesperson,” he shrugs. “I guess because maybe they're worried I'll scare people. Maybe I'm not the face that you want to put on your pamphlet!”
Still, there are compensations. Like Peter Lorre or Harry Dean Stanton, there's something utterly memorable about Shannon — a character actor with the chops to shoulder a lead. While audiences began to take notice after he won an Oscar nomination for his seer-like neighbour in 2008's Revolutionary Road — gaining a reputation as a scene stealer — for years, he'd been that actor you knew but couldn't quite place. Bad Boys II, Vanilla Sky, 8 Mile, Pearl Harbour — all big movies, all featuring Shannon. “Hollywood,” he says, dryly. “They call from time to time. I'm not some kind of superstar. I'm slowly rising up the ranks.”
That looks set to change, however, as the 38-year-old takes on his biggest film to date, Zack Snyder's Superman reboot Man of Steel.
No minor role here; Shannon stars as General Zod, the Krypton bad boy so memorably played in 1980's Superman II by Terence Stamp.
Having starred in HBO Prohibition drama Boardwalk Empire, Shannon is already used to being recognised — but starring in a blockbuster is a whole new level of fame.
“I don't really know what to expect,” he says. “I'm thinking about disguises! I found some sunglasses that are really big.”
He admits that when his agent first told him Watchmen director Snyder wanted to meet him, he thought it was a joke.
“I thought it was ridiculous — the whole notion of me being General Zod.” He was particularly intimidated at the prospect of measuring up to Stamp, who “pretty much nailed” the part. No wonder, early in his prep work, when he caught his girlfriend, actress Kate Arrington, watching Superman II, he had a mini melt-down. “I said, ‘You've got to turn it off. I can't watch that. I'm not worthy!'“
At 6ft 3in tall, with broad shoulders and wide palms, Shannon certainly boasts the physical qualities to take on British actor Henry Cavill, who plays Superman, though until Man of Steel, he'd never taken fitness to any extreme level. “I spent the whole summer sweating in a warehouse outside of Chicago just doing heavy lifting and karate. So by the time you're standing in front of a camera, you've forgotten you're an actor at all.”
Did he feel powerful? “Yeah, I felt like I could take somebody on! Maybe not Henry, but definitely some jerk at a bar!”
With Snyder's film set to retell Superman's origin story, Shannon believes the timing perfect. “I look at Man of Steel and think it's a very relevant movie,” he says.
“The fact of the matter is, it's a very delicate time right now on Earth and there is a lot going on that is pretty frightening. It would be nice to believe or think that there was somebody that could protect us from that. So I just think people will be surprised when they see it.”
Before we do, Shannon stars in The Iceman, a true-life tale about professional New Jersey hitman Richard Kuklinski.
With his deadly profession entirely unknown to his family, friends and neighbours, when he was arrested in 1986, Kuklinski boasted of killing more than 100 targets for the mob.
A cold, ruthless, dead-eyed killer — who gains his titular nickname due his habit of freezing corpses to confuse the time of death — such is the power of his performance, one critic, not unreasonably, dubbed it “Shannon's De Niro-in-Raging Bull moment”.
Based partly on 1992's The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman, Shannon carefully studied this HBO documentary — which contained a series of interviews with Kuklinski.
“I think a lot of people think he's a cold-blooded, ruthless monster — and I felt differently when I watched those interviews. Not that I think he was a good person or that what he did was justified — it wasn't. It was terrible. But I saw a real sadness to him, a real loneliness that I found fascinating — like some bear in the woods.”
Born in Lexington, Kentucky, Shannon's own background is somewhat more learned than Kuklinski's upbringing; the grandson of entomologist Raymond Corbett Shannon, his mother Geraldine Hine is a lawyer and his father Donald S. Shannon, an accounting professor at DePaul University. Yet it wasn't all white-collar.
“They both had artistic inclinations. My mother played piano and sang and my father was a very good visual artist — drawing and painting.”
His interest in acting, he thinks, was inevitable. “It was latent in the family gene pool. We were bound to have a storyteller sooner or later; every clan does.”
Moving to Chicago, Shannon helped found A Red Orchid Theatre in 1993 before joining the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
His first movie role was in 1993's Groundhog Day — though he was anything but an overnight success. “I've been doing this a long time and there have been a lot of ups and downs,” he says. Like playing second fiddle to a marsupial in 2003 comedy Kangaroo Jack? He smiles. “There was a stretch when I actually ran out of money. My girlfriend was literally paying the bills. I just couldn't get anything going.”
Fortunately, he's now in a very different position. He and Arrington, who starred together in Broadway show Grace last year, live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, together with their four-year-old daughter, Sylvia.
That strange aura of Shannon's evaporates as soon as he talks about her; he suddenly seems disarmingly normal, just another proud parent.
He tells me that his daughter visited him in Vancouver during the Man of Steel shoot.
“She went on the set and she met Superman. That was exciting for her. The little boys she goes to pre-school with, they're into Superman and Spider-Man.”
Shannon has just wrapped The Harvest, a creepy-sounding tale with Samantha Morton, and is now working on Jake Paltrow's Young Ones, a near-future set tale of a farmer facing a life-threatening drought.
Yet he still seems baffled by his success, superstitious even.
“I feel you can become a really bad actor in a moment. No matter how much experience you have, if you're not constantly working hard and doing your best, you're totally capable of being terrible and people hating your guts. You just have to keep working.”
Wise words indeed.
The Iceman opens on June 7. Man of Steel opens on June 14
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