Michael Shannon on Hotel Movies and the Delicious Mystery of ‘State Like Sleep’

We chat with the actor regarding his process (or lack thereof), and why theater is his one true love.

State Like Sleep
The Orchard

Hotels are a great big question. Who is on the other side of that wall? What brought them here? Are they living the same hell or heaven you currently occupy? Few settings are as narratively rich, offering an infinite void of mystery for both the actor and the audience to tumble down.

Michael Shannon is a sucker for them. The enigmatic location of State Like Sleep being one of several reasons why he took the role of Edward, the traveling businessman on the prowl. Shannon was already a fan of documentarian Meredith Danluck and was enticed by the reality she injected into her screenplay. Don’t let the trailer fool you; the film is less concerned with genre convention and more disturbed by the ordinary wounds we inflict upon each other.

What begins as a recognizable thriller quickly unravels into a story of colliding human trauma. As Katherine Waterston digs deeper into the mystery of what put a bullet in her husband’s head years earlier, she connects with Shannon’s lonely traveler and confronts the nightmare of her previous relationship.

I spoke to the actor over the phone. We kick the conversation off with the appeal of hotel movies, and how his infatuation with another actor compelled him to take the role. I try to dig into his process as an actor, but Shannon is not the type to overanalyze the magic of his profession. We talk about what drives him from one project to the next, his excitement for Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, and his frustration with how so many filmmakers butcher a performance in postproduction. Not Guillermo del Toro, though. That guy gets it.

Here is our conversation in full:

I was reading an interview you did regarding State Like Sleep and you mentioned how you were initially attracted to the film as a hotel movie. I totally get that. I’m also a big fan of hotel settings for cinema; anything from the Grand Hotel to The Shining. What’s the appeal for you?

For me? Well, I spend a lot of time staying in hotels. I’m pretty familiar with them. Hotels are capable of eliciting a very wide spectrum of emotions in people. There’s a lot of melancholy, but there’s also a lot of excitement. People are always at hotels for a variety of different reasons. Some people are on a vacation, and they’re having a great time. Some people are for work, and they’re lonely, and they’re sad because they’re away from home. They’re all sharing this space together. It’s such a fascinating micro-reality. I’ve spent so much time in them so I guess that’s my answer.

Do you think a lot about genre or setting when you’re choosing projects?

It could be anything, really. It could be anything that draws me in. A lot of times honestly, it’s whoever’s making it, that draws me in. In this instance, Meredith, the woman wrote and directed the movie, I really liked her. I knew this meant a lot to her. It’s her first feature and the script, she put her heart into. It’s not a direct story from her own personal life, but it influenced by things that happened to her and I found that compelling.

What is it about Meredith that you find so compelling as a director?

Like I just said, I could tell this story meant a lot to her. I could tell she understood the dynamics of the story very well, very intimately. All these characters were generated from her. They were all kind of versions of her or people that she had encountered. There’s great potential for authenticity there I would say.

So, for you, what was your first thought when you read the screenplay?

I don’t remember. I could give you some bullshit answer, but I don’t remember what my first thought was.

Well-

I liked this character because I liked his sense of humor. I thought he was funny and sad at the same time. He seemed very charming. It seemed like a part that Robert Redford or somebody would play. I really like Robert Redford. I thought well, maybe this will be my homage to Robert Redford in my own way. I’m not saying I was impersonating him, I’m just saying that’s what I thought of.

Do you think that a lot? “Oh, this is the type of role that actor X would play.” Is that the primary inspiration for your Edward?

Like I said, my own feelings of melancholy and confusion and isolation that I deal with when I’m on the road.

For so much of that first hour, we only catch a couple glimpses of your character. Our introduction to him is through this crack in the door. Do you consider introductions differently than other scenes?

Well, I think if you think too much about it, or put that much pressure on it, you’re going to really handcuff yourself. You can’t make a mountain out of a molehill. I agree with you, it’s an important moment, but in the reality of that character it’s just a moment in time. It’s really up to the director to decide what that moment is. A lot of it’s done I think, with the lenses and how she shoots it, she or he shoots it. You don’t want to get too … Acting is a province of the subconscious. You can’t come up with some plan. You really just kind of have to stop thinking and let your subconscious take over.

So you’re not the type of actor who has a process to every character or how you deconstruct a screenplay or anything like that?

I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know who would. I don’t know what other people do. I don’t know much about it at all really. People just asking me to do it.

Well, when I think about Edward in the film, the scene that I really go to is that first dinner sequence between you and Katherine Waterston’s character.

Oh with the words. Words that sound like what they are, yeah, yeah. I like that scene.

Yeah. To me, that is the standout scene of the movie.

Oh, that’s sweet thank you.

When you read a script, do particular scenes jump out at you? “I’m doing the movie for this scene.”

No.

You just –

No. Yeah, no. I mean honestly, I hope to draw as little attention to myself as possible.

(Laughter) Well, I get that sense. Now, this is the second time you’ve worked with Katherine Waterston. You’ve got The Current War still somewhere on the horizon.

I love Katherine. I’ve known her a long time. It’s funny that we made two movies together because I’ve known her for over a decade; much longer actually, maybe closer to 20 years. We both are in the New York theater scene. I just always thought she was such a wonderful person and so smart and talented and funny and interesting. I just, I’d love to work with her again on something. She’s very busy with these big movies. She hit the big-time.

Well, you’re not doing too bad yourself. You just wrapped production on Knives Out. I’m really excited about that movie.

Yeah, that was interesting. I really enjoyed that one. That was so much fun. What an interesting group of people it is. What an interesting group of people. I got to hang out with Don Johnson, man. That’s fucking cool.

I mean that’s-duh, yeah.

I’m with Jamie Lee Curtis. These are people I’ve been idolizing since I was a kid and here they are shooting the shit with me. It’s crazy.

As a fan of all those people too, I’m really stoked to see what Rian Johnson has done. That director, that cast, that had to be the draw to doing the film.

Yeah, it was like a slumber party.

What is driving you with your filmography? Is there anything that you’re still chasing as an actor?

No, I am ready to retire.

Yeah?

I would retire except I just bought a new house for my family so I got to pay the bills. Like I said, people keep asking me to do this stuff. Sometimes I find it compelling what they’re presenting, and I do it. I have a very love-hate relationship with what I do. I don’t like being away from home. I don’t like being away from my children and nothing ever shoots where I live. I honestly at the end of the day prefer doing theater. It’s a mystery to me, but we’ll see what happens.

Well, just looking at your career of late, you have jumped around from TV to film, and you do theater, you do short films, but your heart is on the stage?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, theater is my favorite. I honestly struggle with how much the work that you do when you’re shooting gets manipulated in post-production. I don’t like it. I find that most of the time, more often than not, I find it disappointing. Every once in a while you don’t.

Something like The Shape of Water and Guillermo del Toro, he made it better. He made it as good as it could possibly be. A lot of times you see choices and things, particularly in TV. TV is so by the committee. There are too many opinions. There are too many chefs in the kitchen. You see all these decisions. You’re like, “Why did they do that or why did they do that, why did they do this?” It’s kind of disappointing. With theater, there is none of that. It’s like you’re the arbiter of what the audience is seeing. They’re seeing what you’re showing, period.

Do you ever think about getting behind the camera to write, direct, produce? I mean you’ve done a little producing.

Yeah, that’s mostly in name only. I wouldn’t be able to produce a movie by myself. If you put a gun to my head, I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe. I might. I always said I wouldn’t, but I think I’m finally to the point where I’m just, maybe because of the frustration that I’ve felt that I just mentioned, maybe because of that, I’m interested in being the one calling the shots or at least one of the people calling the shots. I don’t know. Maybe. I would never say what it is or when or if it’s going to happen.

I think one of the most bizarre aspects of this business is the fact that you shot State Like Sleep a while ago –

I shot it before Shape of Water.

Right. So that’s ancient history in a lot of ways, then suddenly, it finally gets to the festival circuit and then it goes to general audiences and then now here you are on the phone with me promoting it. That’s got to be a really bizarre, surreal situation?

It can be. But in the case of this particular movie, I’m really, rooting for this movie. I really want people to see it. I want Meredith to have success with it and be able to make another one. I really like her and I think she’s an important artist and she’s got a unique point of view. Yeah, it can be a little strange to be in that position, no doubt.


State Like Sleep is now playing in selected theaters as well as on Digital HD and VOD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.