It’s not a surprise that Michael Shannon can carry a motion picture, but he shoulders the considerable dramatic weight of Take Shelter with such ease, with so little apparent effort, that his performance might be taken a little for granted. Perhaps we’re getting used to Shannon now, after he burned a hole through Revolutionary Road, The Runaways and Boardwalk Empire, and have come to expect the intensity he brings.
He really does own the film, however, and for all of the good work done by the rest of the cast, the crew and writer-director Jeff Nichols, Shannon is the most interesting thing on screen from start to finish. And that’s in a film including Old Testament-style visions of an apocalyptic storm.
I got to sit down with Shannon recently, to discuss Get Shelter, his acting practices and, just a little, his appearance as Zod in the upcoming Man of Steel.
Here is some of what he told me.
It’s a story about a young father who is having anxieties about trying to protect his family and I was starting a family myself. I’d recently had a daughter and I was having some similar anxieties, though obviously not to the extent that Curtis is in the movie. I wasn’t having dreams about storms, but I think anyone who’s started a family could have some empathy for what Curtis is going through in the movie, wanting to protect your family. And some other things were similar, Curtis’ father had just passed away and my father had just passed away. So there was some synchronicity between what Curtis was going through and some of the experiences I was having in my own life.
I worked with Jeff Nichols on Shotgun Stories, his first movie, and I just really think he’s unique. I can’t really think of any other young director in America today that is as focused as he is, has as distinctive of a vision as he does. He showed me this script and I could just relate to the material… but he absolutely did not write it for me. It was a very personal story for him. It just happened that we were both having similar experiences at the same time.
It’s funny, I mean it wound up being a very topical movie and there’s a lot of other films right now about the apocalypse or the end of the world and what-not but for Jeff the genesis of it was very personal.
To me this isn’t a movie about mental illness. I mean mental illness is a possibility, it’s on the spectrum of possibilities. But I do think that in the modern era we’ve all become acutely aware of mental illness and we’ve been instructed to be on the lookout for it but I don’t ultimately think that’s what Curtis is experiencing. I don’t think anxiety is a mental illness, I think anxiety is healthy. I think people who don’t have any anxiety about anything are strange.
I didn’t want to know more about what Curtis was going through than Curtis did. Because I don’t think Curtis knows very much about what’s happening to him, it’s a mystery. That’s part of the journey of the film, is him trying to figure out what’s happening to him. So I didn’t want to be ahead of him.
Jeff wants to know what blocking feels right or what feels natural for the actors but he does have compositions in his mind, pictures in his mind. Jeff’s an extremely visual filmmaker. And he’s making those decisions about costumes and what-not. At the end of the day, I don’t really mind what I’m wearing, I could show up and he could be like ‘Put this bunny suit on’ and I’d be like “Okay.” I really trust Jeff visually, now that I’ve worked with him twice. I’m more focused on the activity of the scene.
Jessica Chastain challenged Jeff a lot, a lot more than I ever do. She would ask him a lot of questions. It was fun to see Jeff squirm a little bit because he was used to me just showing up and saying, “What do you want me to know?” and then just doing it. It’s not necessarily that my way is better or that Jessica’s way is better, it’s just different. But Jessica never asks a stupid question. Every question she asked was always very provocative and interesting.
I don’t like to talk too much about something before I do it because I feel like it saps the spontaneity out of it. For me the most important thing is to make sure that whatever is exciting or interesting about a scene happens in front of the camera, not off-camera. That’s why the first time I worked with Jeff with Shotgun Stories, the cast showed up and Jeff was kind of confiding in me because I at the time I had the most kind of credits and a lot of the other people were amateur or non-professional actors.
Jeff said, “Well, should we rehearse, what should I do?” I said, “Don’t do anything because probably the most exciting things these people are going to do will be the first time they do it. The more you try and talk to them and make sure everybody understands everything, the less likely something spontaneous is going to happen.”
Now I’m working on Man of Steel. I guess Russell Crowe twittered about our fight, which is unusual. I was always instructed to not say anything at all about it, but I guess its okay if little bits and bobs come out along the way. We were doing a little fighting…
And then Michael stared obeying instructions, and said nothing else about it. I looked him in the eyes and knew I wouldn’t be comfortable pushing it.
Take Shelter opens today across the UK. It’s tense and commanding, with a central performance to match. Recommended.