Michael Shannon is not only one of the standouts in a nearly all-standout cast on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, but he is also currently earning rave reviews for his new film, Take Shelter, which is now in limited release.
As Shannon prepares for his upcoming role as General Zod in Man of Steel, he sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about his early years as a struggling actor.
Unlike many actors, Shannon didn’t enter acting because of a deep love for movies or theatre. In fact, he accidentally stumbled into it in high school after he realized that he wasn’t cut out for anything else!
He explains, “I wanted something to do after school; I was in Kentucky and I was not athletic — athletics are very competitive in Kentucky so I was not going to get on any teams — I tried math team or something and that didn’t go very well. And then I saw this thing for speech team, which I… I didn’t even know what the hell it was. I walk into the room and they say ‘Tell a story. Just make up a story.’ I was like ‘okay’ so I made up some goofy story and they’re like ‘All right, that’s pretty good,’ and they said ‘We want you to be in the monologue competition.’ And I was like ‘I don’t know, what is it? I don’t know what that is.’ And they hand me a piece of paper and said ‘You memorize this.’ Okay, so I went home and memorized it and it was Garrison Keiller; it was from Lake Wobegon Days, and it was like a page long, you know, and I had never memorized anything in my life. But I practiced it all the time; I would just be in my bedroom practicing it. I was an alternate, I actually was not a first-stringer, I would only do it if somebody got sick or got hit by a bus. But that never happened. Although I did go for… they called me once and said ‘Our extraneous speaker can’t come, would you like to do that?’ and I was like ‘Sure.’ That’s when you draw subjects out of a hat and you have to make a speech about it. So, that wasn’t really acting, but that was my first exposure to the wonderful world of dramatic arts.”
After that experience he started to pursue acting in Chicago. Shannon recalls his first experience on stage: “I had moved up to Chicago where my father lived, and I had gotten out of high school and just started auditioning in the city. The first play I did was called Winterset by Maxwell Anderson. It’s an amazing play about Sacco and Vanzetti — remember them, the Italian anarchists — well it imagines one of their sons trying to avenge their father’s death. It’s an amazing, beautiful play. I did it out in some suburbs… in the Park Forest River Park… Forest River something. But that was my first job”
So were the reviews any good? Shannon jokes about his initially reviews in the Chicago media. “Richard Christianson, who was like the Frank Rich of Chicago Theatre… I think he said something like ‘Michael Shannon is a semi-attractive youngster who thinks acting is rubbing his eyebrows and flapping his arms like a Brooklyn Bird… well the second show I did he said ‘Although technically deficient, Shannon has a great deal of passion… or raw talent.”
After a few years in Chicago theatre Shannon decided to pursue a movie career in Los Angeles for several years. “I came out to LA… I lived here from 99 to 2001 — the turn of the century… I did three Jerry Bruckheimer movies — that didn’t hurt — which helped. Yeah, it was good, it was a productive time. I worked pretty much constantly. There were breaks here and there, but it was good. Most of the time I was like, third guy on the left or whatever, but I got a lot of experience, I got to see how it worked, you know. But then I started to miss doing theatre, and I went back to Chicago in 2001.”
In the interview Shannon goes on to explain his first major roles and how he ended up with the lead role in Take Shelter. Check out the rest of Shannon’s interview below: