Michael Shannon on Acting: “Just pay attention. That’s the chief principle. Pay attention all the time”

Michael Shannon in '99 Homes'

“I mean honestly I look at acting like it’s my job to disappear. The best acting is invisible.” – Michael Shannon

We celebrate all kinds of actors here at Daily Actor, but we each have our favorites. Man of Steel and Boardwalk Empire star Michael Shannon is one of those actors whose work is so riveting it can’t be missed (like in this new trailer for his upcoming drama Midnight Special). In a conversation with 52 Insights, Shannon speaks about his preferred approach to acting, and he also explains why the most important thing an actor can do is pay attention.

Shannon expresses that he approaches every role as if he was trying to solve a mystery. He explains, “At the end of the day I look at what I do as an investigation. My favourite playwright is Eugene Ionesco and his contention is that every story is a detective story, that we’re all just trying to figure out what the heck’s going on. And actors are doing that with people. If you look at a character like Rick Carver in 99 Homes, from the outside he’s someone who a lot of people don’t have much patience for, they just think he’s a scumbag or whatever. But for me I look at him and think, well why does this guy do what he’s doing? Why does he feel it’s okay to do those things? And how did he come to be? What shaped him? I think it’s important to answer these questions because you might watch 99 Homes and get upset about Rick Carver, but he’s not entirely a figment of the imagination. There’s a lot of Rick Carvers out there doing similar things, so why not try to figure out why the hell they’re doing them.”

Furthermore, Shannon points out that even his own life has followed a bit of a mysterious path, which is why he doesn’t often know what to tell aspiring actors. He reflects, “I could never have possibly foreseen the twists and turns that my life would take. I approach acting pretty much the same way I approached it twenty-five years ago. I’m just doing it because it interests me. I was never gunning for international superstardom or mountains of money or anything. I just kept showing up and saying, ‘Oh this is interesting, I like working with these people, they seem to know what they’re doing.’ I’m always loathed to take too much credit for anything because it’s such a collaborative process. And honestly without the writers and directors, what do I have? I can’t just show up on set and free style. For me it’s like you’re a servant. You’re serving the audience, you’re serving the director, you’re serving a vision. It’s not about exalting yourself. I would not be a good acting teacher. But when people do on occasion ask me for advice I say, ‘Just pay attention. That’s the chief principle. Pay attention all the time.'”

Particularly after his role in Boardwalk Empire, Shannon was recognized for his intense portrayals of his characters. When asked if the biggest misconception of his work is that he’s an intense person, Shannon answers, “I mean honestly I look at acting like it’s my job to disappear. The best acting is invisible. I understand it’s natural for people as consumers to categorize things and look at your body of work and say, ‘oh okay, you do this.’  But I never show up with my trusty formula for a day’s work to make sure I achieve the full Michael Shannon effect. I show up and I’m lost and I’m searching for a character. And to me every single character I’ve played is extremely different and unusual and mysterious. There’s nothing I would necessarily want people to know. An actor is a lens between the people creating the film and the audience, so I’m never really trying to call attention to myself.”

In fact, Shannon confesses he doesn’t understand why other actors hold him in esteem for simply preparing himself for his roles. He says, “Preparation is actually the key. If you just show up and haven’t read the script or thought about your character, and just expect something to happen. . . well that usually doesn’t pan out very well. Film is a very technical medium. One of the great misconceptions to me is that theatre is very fake and movies are like real life. I used to hear that said a lot and I’d never had that experience of it. To me movies are like surgery.  […] You need to have a surgical focus. Because every frame is crucial. There are ways to figure out how to exist in front of a camera and how to look good. You might watch someone and think, oh yes, that’s a person who should be in a movie, they’re making great facial expressions, their voice sounds nice. So there’s that component of it.”

Shannon adds why he thinks some stage actors fail when it comes to acting on camera. He continues, “There’s also people who have a lot of raw talent but don’t have any sophistication and don’t understand that you need to have a relationship with the camera just as much as you need to have a relationship with the director and your fellow actors. You need to understand lenses and things like this in order to make a fully crafted performance. You need to be aware of all that stuff but you also need to forget about it. It’s a weird contradiction. You’re supposed to know how to do a lot of things and at the same time you don’t want it to seem like anything except an accident. Because that’s what life is.”

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