Michael Shannon talks fatherhood and the end of the world
Michael Shannon, star of the new drama “Take Shelter,” is not the typical everyman.
With a 6-foot-4 frame, deep-set eyes and facial features that seem as if they were carved from granite, Shannon strikes an imposing figure. It’s served him well playing intense characters such as the troubled Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” but it also makes him an unconventional choice for the guy next door.
Then again, “Take Shelter,” which opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York, is no ordinary family drama. Shannon, 37, plays Curtis LaForche, a working-class husband and father in a small Ohio town who begins having visions of an apocalyptic storm. He channels his anxiety into building a backyard tornado shelter, but the strain soon overwhelms him, causing him to question just how to protect his wife (Jessica Chastain) and 6-year-old daughter (Tova Stewart).
For Shannon, whose breakout role as a mentally ill mathematician in the 2008 film “Revolutionary Road” earned him an Oscar nomination, “Take Shelter” is in some ways a quiet, thoughtful take on the disaster film — one that downplays pyrotechnics and addresses real contemporary concerns.
“There’s a general sense, it seems like, that there’s a lot of unease in the world,” Shannon said in a recent interview in Los Angeles. “I felt like ‘Take Shelter’ was a very poetic expression of that anxiety.”
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (whose 2008 debut feature, “Shotgun Stories,” also stars Shannon), “Take Shelter” taps into current economic uncertainty and environmental fears; at its core, it is also a film about the lengths a person will go to in order to keep his family safe. It asks, Shannon said, “How do you hold on to the things you care about?”
Unlike “Shotgun Stories,” which Nichols wrote in hopes of landing Shannon, he didn’t have a lead actor in mind while writing “Take Shelter.” The script was largely drawn from personal experiences. “That being said, obviously it crossed my mind, ‘I wonder what Mike would do in this role,’” Nichols recalled.
“He’s a really sensitive guy,” the filmmaker added. “He’s just a guy that is incredibly connected to the world around him and affected by it. So that doesn’t make for the most laid-back guy in the world, but it makes for a really interesting guy.”
Curtis being the dedicated father of a young girl resonated with Shannon, whose own daughter is 3. Of fatherhood, he said, “You don’t understand until it actually happens. Your imagination can’t prepare you for what a powerful experience it is. It’s literally like a new nerve is inserted into your body and it runs straight into your heart, and it’s directly related to this other person.”
Shannon’s quiet, tender moments in “Take Shelter” — a father playing with his daughter, a husband joking with his wife — reveal a side not often seen in his work. “It was nice to see this other side, this other quality, this family man,” said Shea Whigham, who plays Curtis’ best friend and also stars with Shannon on “Boardwalk Empire.”
Shannon, he said, is capable of enormous volatility in his work. “Because of his presence, I think people don’t know what to make of him sometimes.”
The actor has demonstrated that he’s as likely to deliver an explosive emotional outburst — as he does in a bravura scene at a Lions Club event in “Take Shelter” — as he is to convey vulnerability, a quality he brings to his role as an ex-biker and recovering junkie in the film “Machine Gun Preacher,” which opened in Los Angeles last week.
Shannon stars opposite Gerard Butler in the life story of Sam Childers, a reformed biker and addict who builds an orphanage in Sudan after undergoing a religious conversion. “Machine Gun” director Marc Forster said of Shannon’s performance, “That sort of edge he walked on, I thought the way he did that was just incredible.”
In addition to “Machine Gun Preacher” and “Boardwalk Empire,” which began its second season Sunday, Shannon will appear in the bike messenger thriller “Premium Rush” alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt in January. He is currently shooting Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” in which he plays the Kryptonian villain General Zod, which could catapult him to mainstream recognition.
But Shannon doesn’t spend much time thinking about that.
“One thing about this profession is you can’t ever rest,” he said. “You always have to keep working, keep trying to get better.”
-- Oliver Gettell
Photo: Michael Shannon in "Take Shelter." Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics.