Interview: Michael Shannon Talks ‘Take Shelter,’ Religion, Letting Go Emotionally and His Long Journey from ‘Hellcab’

Michael Shannon in Take Shelter

You’ve seen Michael Shannon before. Many times before. Similar to screen veterans Chris Cooper or Dylan Baker, Shannon is one of those actors who has had an extended career in front of the camera long before anyone really took notice of him. Even though he has been in films since the early 90s, he gained a strong national presence in 2009 with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Revolutionary Road.

Shannon is getting more attention now with the independent hit Take Shelter, playing a man named Curtis who starts having apocalyptic visions, leading him to build an underground shelter to protect his family. With Take Shelter in limited release and acting award buzz building, Shannon took part of his lunch break from his “super” schedule to chat with Film School Rejects about his career and what he hopes will happen with this stand-out independent film.

We’ll jump right in. First question: Is this going to be the year of Michael Shannon?

Shannon: Oh geez. Which year? 2011?

It spills over into 2012. There’s a lot of good buzz for Take Shelter. What do you think?

Well, I have to be honest. I love my film Take Shelter. It means a lot to me. I really just hope and pray that as many people as possible go to see it. As much as any of this can help, that’s what I’m shooting for.

After you made this, your co-star Jessica Chastain’s career blew up. Did you see this coming, and do you have any bets going as to who will get more nominations?

Oh, gee. Well, we knew that Jessica was going to have a big year with all her films coming out. She was very excited about it. But we’re both kinda bashful about that kind of thing, I think. When we were making the film, it was a real nuts and bolts kind of affair. It was a very low budget film. There weren’t any fancy trailers or anything. We were just showing up and doing our job, doing the best we could. Yeah, I don’t think it’s in either one of our natures to toot our own horns. We just like to work.

Do you prefer small independent productions like this, or the big explosive ones? I mean, do you like those big, fancy trailers, or do you like sleeping in a motel?

They’re all different. I’m working on something right now that’s very big, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it. I think the way that we shot Take Shelter, the budget that we had, really suited the film. If we would have had a bigger budget, it may not have benefited us necessarily. There’s something about how fast we had to work and how hard we had to work that I really feel brought the film to a different level.

Does it bother you that a film in limited release doesn’t get seen by as wide of an audience, as opposed to when Man of Steel comes out, it will be all over the world at the same time? Or do you like that slow burn of a limited release over several weeks?

I think Sony Pictures Classics was very smart about how they’ve done it. For me, as long as the film’s playing in a theater, people can go see it. It doesn’t need to be in 50 theaters because there’s no screening that’s totally sold out. There’s always a seat for anybody who wants to go see it. I don’t think people are getting turned away. It’s just more a matter of people taking a chance on something that is not guaranteed instant gratification or instant entertainment. Take Shelter’s obviously a difficult film. It raises a lot of serious questions and issues. I just hope people have the courage to go and check it out.

How strong of a role does religion play in Take Shelter?

I think it plays on so many different levels. I definitely think there’s a spiritual level to the story. Although it’s interesting though because Curtis doesn’t go to church and avoids that. But I think that he is looking for something spiritually. Because the reaction that he’s having to nature is very understandable if you believe that there’s no one in charge of it.

If you don’t believe in a god or any sort of organizing principle, then nature becomes a very arbitrary thing. These storms that are happening, they’re not evil or ill-intentioned. They’re just a manifestation of something that nobody is really looking after. They become very random, and so I think that’s one of the main reasons that religion exists, to help people deal with how random life is and how random nature can be.

You’ve done a wide variety of emotional characters – including Bug, The Runaways, Take Shelter and even Machine Gun Preacher – all of which go to some pretty tricky psychological places. How do you find your comfort zone to bare yourself like that?

Well, I never really focus on being crazy or being emotional or any of these things. I really focus on what a character wants or what a character’s trying to accomplish. Something like Take Shelter, Curtis is a very practical man. He’s not an overly emotional man at the start of the film. He’s fairly normal, and then he’s confronted with this situation that he doesn’t know how to cope with. But he tries everything that he knows of to do.

For me, I never show up on set thinking, “Oh, this is the day where I’m supposed to be emotional.” I show up and see what I’m trying to do and what’s happening to me, and focus on it from that. Just like people do in your life, you get side-swiped by things, you hit certain challenges and certain obstacles, and you do your best to overcome them. I look at it from that context, really.

Do you carry that emotional burden home with you? Can you detach from it?

Well, I think if you’ve accomplished your objective, there’s been a certain release of energy. I think if you’re going home with the energy still inside of you, then that’s a mistake because that was meant for the camera. It wasn’t meant for you to be sitting at home by yourself experiencing something. So you have to release it. You have to let it go, hopefully while someone’s filming you, and then the rest of the world can see it.

With your long career, in a couple years, people are going to be flipping through cable, run across something like Hellcab and say, “Hey! There’s General Zod!” Does that give you a sense of accomplishment as an actor?

Well, yeah. It’s funny you mentioned Hellcab because somebody brought that up to me the other day. I shot that when I was still in my teens or maybe my early 20s. It certainly gives you a sense of being on a long journey and yet you can never really prop yourself up on your past credits because nobody ever really cares when you’re at work. They want to see what you can do today, not what you did ten years ago. It’s a combination of having some appreciation for what you’ve accomplished, but also wanting to accomplish even more. I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near as good as I can be. I’m always trying to get better.

What do you want to do next after Take Shelter, Man of Steel and beyond?

Oh, gee. Well, it’s hard to know. I like to be surprised by what I’m offered and the opportunities that I receive. Right now, I’m looking forward to doing some theater next year, getting back and hitting the boards a little bit. But something like Take Shelter, even though it’s a very volatile story, it shows that I’m capable of being a father and a husband on screen. I don’t always have to be a loner. It’s hard for me to say because I just appreciate continuing to get any sort of opportunity. It’s hard to be picky about it because you never know when things might change.

Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, is currently in release in selected markets.

Kevin Carr crawled from the primordial ooze in the early 1970s. He grew up watching movies to the point of irritation for his friends and was a font of useless movie knowledge until he decided to put that knowledge to good use. Now, Kevin is a nationally syndicated critic, heard on dozens of radio stations around the country, and his reviews appear in a variety of online outlets. Kevin is also a proud member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS), and the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA).

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