Michael Shannon isn’t half as intimidating as some of his more imposing characters. The first time I interviewed Shannon, he hopped on the phone, with a high-pitched voice and all, impersonating the publicist, shouting, “Hi, this is Annie!” Clearly, Shannon isn’t an actor who takes himself too seriously, but his roles, on the other hand, he doesn’t take lightly ‐ including his latest performance in director Ramin Bahrani’s (Goodbye Solo, At Any Price) drama, 99 Homes. Although Shannon appears more interested in discussing the film or character at hand, he’s more than willing to explain his process and, even as we discuss his performance, why he’d much rather not hear about his performance.
99 Homes is a brutal drama about the housing crisis. Shannon delivers a ferocious performance as the malicious, sometimes vulnerable, real estate broker, Rick Carver. The star of the film is Andrew Garfield, playing Dennis Nash, a construction worker Carver evicts. With no job prospects or a proper home for his mother and son, Nash sells his soul to work for Carver, helping to evict struggling families.
In order to convincingly play Carver, Shannon did the necessary research to wrap his head around the world of real estate. “I went straight to somebody who had a lot to teach me, somebody Ramin had been talking to for a long time, as he was writing the script,” Shannon says. “This person was very generous with their time, showed me the ropes and told me a bunch of stories. I wouldn’t have been able to do [the role] otherwise, because I don’t really know anything about real estate. It’s not something I’ve been very interested in. Once you actually see what a dramatic situation it is… I mean, I would say some of the highest drama I’ve seen is down there in Florida.”
The man Shannon was following doesn’t exactly sound like a Rick Carver-type, but, slowly, the actor discovered a conflicted side to real estate agent he understood and drew from for his performance. “The person I was with was extremely affected by it,” Shannon continues. “You wouldn’t know it at first glance, because they’re very affable, amiable people. They’re easy to talk to, and because they’re in real estate, they have a winning personality ‐ that’s how you’re supposed to be. Later on, once we were at dinner getting off the tutorial, he started opening up about what it really is. He said, ‘I can’t sleep at night. I can’t sleep.’ See, that’s private, because they can’t drive around in their SUVs crying. You have work to do.”
Rick Carver is often cold and clinical about his business, but Shannon believes the character has empathy for the people whose lives he’s helping to destroy ‐ an empathy, understandably, Carver can’t express too much of. “You don’t want your surgeon freaking out during the surgery,” Shannon says. “For Carver, he’s doing surgery. It’s not like he doesn’t pay attention to people or their feelings. At the very beginning of the movie, he’s standing there staring at somebody who blew their head off, so he’s not turning a blind eye. Over the years I think he learned what he has control over and what he doesn’t have control over.”
Whenever Carver lets down his guard, we see a character that was once like Dennis Nash. Bahrani’s script draws subtle parallels between the two men. The real dramatic conflict of the film is whether Dennis will choose the path Carver went down ‐ and the success Carver earned really means nothing more than his pretty suits and beautiful houses. “I think Carver is lonely,” Shannon says. “At the beginning of the movie, I think he’s a very lonely person, and it’s one of the reasons he takes Dennis under his wing. He absorbs a lot of animosity. He knows people don’t like him; he’s not an idiot. Carver knows everybody wants to rip his head off, and how’s that going to feel? You see him with his family for like 30 seconds, so that’s obviously not a very close relationship.”
Carver is a tough character, and when it came to embodying the character’s darker tendencies, it wasn’t always easy for Shannon. Then again, according to the actor, it’s almost always a challenge finding common ground between him and a character. “To a certain extent, all of the films have been like that for me,” Shannon claims. “Playing [mob hit man] Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman… I mean, I can’t ever imagine killing somebody. I don’t know how people do physical violence to other people. Beyond any morality, I find it literally horrifying. I just wouldn’t be able to do it. There I am, though, playing Kuklinski ‐ and that’s, you know, weird. I do it because I think it’s important to try to understand what makes people tick.”
We’ve seen Shannon kill masses on the big screen before. The death toll Zod’s responsible for in Man of Steel is almost unimaginable, but Shannon got across a sense of anger and sadness that made for a very human comic book villain. Reflecting on Shannon’s filmography, despite the fact he’s been in two Michael Bay movies, we’ve never seen the actor star in a full-blown action movie, and we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. “I need there to be some deeper significance,” Shannon explains. “I mean, I’m not like a Shaman or anything; it’s not like I have an answer to all the world’s problems. If I read something and it’s all just a bunch of dudes running around shooting at each other, it’s like, who cares?”
What else doesn’t Shannon care for? Self-expression. He doesn’t view acting as a way to explore who he is, but every once in a while, a role comes along that does just that for him. “I always go back to Take Shelter,” Shannon says, recalling his most personal role. “Honestly, I often don’t look at acting as a form of self-expression, because you’re not really expressing yourself, because you’re trying to be somebody else. Take Shelter was the closest it got to self-expression, because this guy, what he’s worried about and eating away at him, I feel that, too ‐ that sense of oncoming dread and living in a world that can be completely out of control, and yet you’re supposed to go about your business and act like nothing’s happening. Is that possible?”
Shannon has appeared in all three of Jeff Nichols’ films, and he even has a role in the director’s next two features, including 2016’s Midnight Special, which explores themes found in Take Shelter, and one theme in particular Shannon definitely responds to. “Our next one, Midnight Special, is again revisiting that theme [of living in an out of control world],” he teases. “It’s a big thing becoming a father, and it’s beautiful to see a filmmaker readily exploring that, and not in a cutesy way like, ‘Gee, isn’t it great being a dad?’ He explores it in a real lyrical and spiritual way.”
If we’re lucky, Michael Shannon will play a role in all of Jeff Nichols’ films. Shannon is at ease collaborating with the filmmaker, but sometimes, or almost all the time, he wants to do what initially presents itself as the impossible, like, playing Elvis Presley in the upcoming Elvis & Nixon. “It was pretty terrifying at first, because it just did not seem like a good idea,” he says. “I kept saying, ‘I think the notion that I can play Elvis Presley to be a little outlandish.’ The producer was very diligent, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. It went from being kind of scary and unsettling to being quite fun, once I felt comfortable. It’s good to be scared. That’s the challenge, right? I’ve been doing this 25 years now, so what’s going to be the surprise? What’s going to make me feel like something I haven’t done 100 times before? Elvis definitely falls into that category.”
Over those 25 years, Shannon has evolved as an actor. Above all else, he’s become more focused on the bigger picture. “I think I’m more cognition of the other artists involved, and I think that’s the main difference,” he says. “At the start [of my career], I was very focused on ‘me’ and my performance, and it really was about expressing myself or getting some angst off my chest, you know? My dad came to one of the first plays I ever did in Chicago, and he said, ‘I don’t understand. You’re basically just acting like yourself, and all these other people are excited about it.’ To a certain extent, he had a really good point, but what can I say? I was just an excited young dude. Now, it’s much more about: How can I help these people do this? How can I help Ramin get his vision?”
Staying true to that intention, Shannon wants to hear audiences talking about 99 Homes, not so much his performance; he doesn’t want his “work” to be seen, so to be speak. “For me, it’s not so much about, ‘[Mundane voice] Don’t you think Michael Shannon is great in the movie?’” Shannon concludes, with a comical grumble. “I want the movie to work. More than anything, I want the movie to work. I want people to be affected by the movie, to think about it for a long time after they see it. Don’t think about me, because I’m the last thing you should be thinking about while you’re watching a movie.”
99 Homes opens in theaters September 25th.