Michael Shannon isn’t just a screen villain. He’s frequently played soulful, sympathetic heroes, particularly in the films of writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Midnight Special). His stage career, as an actor, director, and co-founder of Chicago’s Red Orchid Theatre, has let him take on a wide variety of characters, like the embattled, disintegrating romantic lead in the stage and film version of Tracy Letts’ grueling Bug. And he’s been nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor Oscars, in both cases for sympathetic parts: as a mentally ill man in Revolutionary Road, and a fascinating detective in Nocturnal Animals.
But Shannon is an intense, fervent actor, and that makes his villain roles in films like Guillermo del Toro’s new horror / romance / fantasy The Shape of Water standout. Strickland, a government agent working behind the scenes to counter Russian space supremacy in the 1950s, is vehemently opposed to the kinds of creature-feature freaks of nature that often become the stars of del Toro films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Shannon plays Strickland as a disintegrating man (literally, at points) who’s laser-focused on enforcing a white, suburban, two-kids-and-a-dog vision of America, and doesn’t understand why it isn’t making him happy. Strickland is in keeping with some of Shannon’s other memorable villain roles — Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, legendary mob hitman Richard Kuklinski in 2013’s The Iceman, or Kryptonian antagonist General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. The character has some depth and nuance, but that doesn’t make his intentions any less horrifying, or their execution any less unsettling.
I recently sat down with Shannon in Chicago to talk about del Toro’s political symbolism in The Shape of Water, what’s going on in Strickland’s head, and what “Shannoning” means to the film’s cast.
Leading up to this film, you often talked about how excited you were to work with Guillermo del Toro. What about working with him was compelling to you?
His vocabulary. His cinematic vocabulary. When I saw Pan’s Labyrinth, I thought, “This is a standalone movie. There’s no other movie — it defies genre. It defies comparison. It is like a crystal-pure thing that came from this man’s mind and his heart. I was very moved by it. So ever since I saw it, I was a big fan of his. I was out in LA, and we had lunch, and he said, “You know, I’ve been tinkering around with this script for a while now on this idea, and I think I finally got it about where I want it. I’ve had you in mind.” This was very flattering.
What’s he like with actors? How does working with him differ from working with someone like Jeff Nichols or Zack Snyder?
You know, that’s a difficult question to answer, really. The trick, I think, with directing, is that you have a vision. Good directors are very prepared, and have spent a lot of time considering their vision. Guillermo is a huge believer in preparation. He wants to sit down with the actors weeks in advance of shooting. He wants to rehearse, he wants to go through the whole script. He wants to come up with the backstory of the character. He gave me a backstory to Strickland. He’s like, “You’re welcome to elaborate on this, or go any way you want about it, but for what it’s worth, this is what I thought. This is how this character came into my imagination.”
So you have to have that very definitive vision of the story and the characters in the film, but also be constantly on the lookout for things that will surprise you. Things that were unforeseen to you, no matter how much preparation you did. Happy accidents, you know? This requires a great amount of attention and concentration. And you have to make the actors feel comfortable and relaxed enough so that they’re not stymied, so their blood is flowing, and they’re breathing normally, and they can have an organic moment.
Guillermo’s very masterful at that. He has a great combination of seriousness and fun, serious fun. When he can feel something coming to life, there’s such a joy about it that it’s infectious. There’s a giddiness about really cracking into a particular scene, or a particular moment.
Can you think of anything specific on the set where he did something particularly funny or joyous?
[Laughs] I’ve shot about 500 movies since I shot Shape of Water, so I’m not really sure I’m going to be able to answer that question. All I can say is that he caught on very early that I was pretty relentless about things. I’m very meticulous. I don’t like to leave a scene. I like to do lots of takes. Oftentimes I’ll come up with something in the first three takes that the director will say, “Well, that’s perfectly usable. That serves the function I was looking for.” And I’ll be like, “No, we can’t move on. I know we’re close to something, I know there’s something more here. What about this version, or what about that version?” And I think because Guillermo has a similar kind of neurosis, he was tickled to see someone who might actually have it worse than he does.
On set, they came up with this idea, this vernacular — this is embarrassing, I can’t really do this without sounding like I’m trying to glorify myself. But Octavia [Spencer] came up with this term on set, “Shannoning,” where you get something right in one take. Every once in a while, after one take, Guillermo would be like “That’s perfect!” and Octavia would say, “I Shannoned it!” It became part of our vernacular. But even if I got, early on, what he was going for, I always wanted to keep kicking it around, just because it was so delicious. A delicious character is such a rare opportunity. You don’t get opportunities like Shape of Water very often.
But specific examples? I don’t know. We were shooting nights in the rain, and those scenes were tough. And I had the luxurious honor of being in two. Most everyone else only had to do one of them, because there’s one with me and Michael Stuhlbarg, and there’s another at the end of the movie, and I’m in both. So I spent a few nights up all night in the cold, drenching, soaking wet. Which really builds character. But those are the nights where you really find out who everybody is.
But even on those nights, Guillermo was happy. He was so happy to be making this movie. I think he’d really wanted to make it for a long time.
Do you find it easier to get to where you want to be with the character when you’re on the set, in costume, with everyone around you and the cameras going? Do you want that live exploration, rather than doing it in rehearsal?
If the material’s strong enough, I don’t think you’re ever done exploring, ever. On stage, in the theater, I’ve done some very long runs of plays, and I’ve done plays more than once. I just finished going back to a play I had done five years ago. If the writing is strong enough… there are so many different variables. Every single moment, something different could happen. I’ve never been able to convince myself that a take is the absolute right thing. I have a very chaotic mind. So I gravitate toward chaos.
Do you prefer a director who’s very ordered, and will complement you and challenge that impulse? Or would you rather work with someone who’s equally chaotic, and can roll with the experiments?
There needs to be some structure. Otherwise, you end up with Apocalypse Now. I’ve certainly had times — and I’m not going to go into who, what, where, or how — but I’ve seen certain people in the directorial position where I’ve been like, “You need to know better what you’re trying to do.” It’s a combination. It’s a balance. It can’t be all one thing.
I’ve worked with some of the old-school directors, like Sidney Lumet, who’s like, “We’re going to be done in eight hours every day, because I know exactly what this is, and I’m not going to fuck around and waste people’s time. We’re going to go home at a decent hour to have dinner with our families.” And that’s good. I’ve loved that, too. That was one of the highlights of my career. And that’s not chaos, that’s Sidney saying, “This is the story. This is what happens.”
More than anything, I just enjoy variety. I enjoy working with different people on different stories in different places. Acting is the opposite of going for 40 years every day to the same office and having lunch in the same restaurant. It’s the exact opposite.
In an interview about Frank & Lola, you described your character Frank as having a frightening emptiness inside him that he tried to fill with other people. That feels like it would apply to Strickland, and to a lot of characters you play, though they use different things to fill that emptiness. Do you see any similarity between these characters?
Wow, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t think Frank is as uptight as Strickland. Strickland is an uptight guy. He’s really bought hook, line, and sinker into the whole thing of, “If you follow the rules, and do what your boss tells you to do, you’re going to have a nice life. You’re going to get a nice car and a nice house, and your wife’s going to make you happy, and everything’s going to be okay.” The sparkling-chrome version of life that was the ideal in that period of time in our culture, and even to a certain extent, nowadays, although we’re much more cynical. I don’t think Frank would have necessarily fallen for that ruse. He’s a little more worldly.
It just seems like Strickland has that emptiness, too.
Well yeah, it’s not working. Nothing he’s doing is working. And that’s an emptiness and an anxiety. Guillermo and I talked about that a lot, the anxiety of that equation: “Well, if I do this, I’m going to get this. But wait a minute. That’s not true.” And this unease that it may not be true. That’s what he really wanted to capture in the character of Strickland.
That feels like an anxiety we’re seeing a lot right now in America: that fear of missing something, of not being able to find happiness. And a lot of people are expressing it the way he does, with sadism and racism and prejudice. Trying to find someone to blame, trying to make other people unhappy as well.
I welcome all of that discussion about this film. I think Guillermo does as well. At the end of the day, it’s really about love and beauty, and it should be an entertaining experience. I think Guillermo would probably off himself if he thought we’d made a boring movie. But Guillermo’s a deeply political person, and I am, too. And if this movie, and Strickland in particular, leads people to have that kind of discussion, I would welcome that. It’s essential. In a way, it’s a huge responsibility. I welcome it.
Because I want to understand it, too. I don’t just hate people that voted for Trump. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. And one of the ways of doing that is trying to have empathy for these people. It was the same thing when people were like, “Well, how can you play the Iceman, Richard Kuklinski?” I’m like, “Well, I can play him because I’m kinda curious, what would make a guy do something like that?” Don’t people want to know that? I wanna know it. And I said at the time, when I was playing Kuklinski, “Look, this is a very over-the-top, exacerbated version of how a lot of guys make their dough.” A lot of people are living off the misfortune of other people. And then they come home, and they tuck their kids in the bed and say goodnight, and they say their prayers just like everybody else. And they don’t look at themselves as bad people.
But that’s how a lot of people make their money nowadays. The people that are making money, nine out of 10 of them, that’s how they’re making it, by other people getting screwed over. And so I was like, “Let’s look at Kuklinski like a Grimm’s fairy tale version of this.” I don’t mean any disrespect to the victims of the crimes he committed. But I’m a storyteller, and these stories, to me, they’re fables. I want them to have that ripple effect in people’s consciousness. I’m not intimidated by that.
Shape of Water is openly a fairy tale, and it’s openly symbolic. Did making it help you answer that question you’re asking, about how people can live their lives like Strickland?
I can understand the fear. I can understand the anxiety. I can understand, much more, that people are desperate. And people feel like they have not been given the answers they deserve or need. But at the end of the day, playing a character is not like taking a test. You’re not always necessarily consciously aware of what you’ve learned, or the information you’ve accumulated. But it does play into the membrane of your social interaction with other people. It’s more of an experiential thing. It’s like if you meet somebody, you’re talking to somebody, you’re like, “Oh, this guy reminds me of Strickland.” Trying to see things from that point of view helps inform the way you deal with other people.