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Full Nelson: The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon

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Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

By Brian Hieggelke

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Pre-Production Notes
When he gets the email from A Red Orchid Theatre’s publicist that Michael Shannon is available to do a cover story, the reporter has to move fast. Shannon’s back in Chicago for the theater company’s twentieth-anniversary production of Sam Shepard’s “Simpatico,” and it starts July 4. The reporter has limited familiarity with his work, having somehow managed to never see him live in spite of his long career on local stages, knowing him only from his Academy Award-nominated role as the troubled John Givings, Jr. in “Revolutionary Road” and his recurring role in “Boardwalk Empire” as the creepy G-Man Nelson Van Alden. It’s gonna require a crash course.

To get his head around the subject, the reporter makes a list of adjectives that come to mind when he thinks of Michael Shannon: creepy, brooding, tall, gangly, face of a fallen Puritan, mysterious, Christopher Walken, disturbed, unhinged, dangerous. The reporter cautiously commits to the story.

And there’s this: “Michael Shannon Reads the Insane Delta Gamma Sorority Letter” on the website Funny or Die has been watched 3,805,601 times. Add sense of humor to the list.


The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene One: “The Power of Celebrity”
Thanks to his starring role as Superman’s foe, General Zod, in this summer’s superhero blockbuster, “Man of Steel,” Shannon now has action figures in his likeness. “When I was doing press for the movie, in every interview,” Shannon says, “someone would ask me, inevitably, ‘Are you prepared for it to all change, for your life to be completely different now?’ And I would kind of get a quizzical look on my face and say, ‘I suppose. I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to,’ but you know, you have enough people ask you that question and you think, maybe it really will, maybe it will be like Beatlemania or something. But it’s not.”

That being said, Shannon’s happy to trade on his newly metastasized fame (third billing, after Clark and Lois, and over Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe and Diane Lane) to help out his theater company. I’ve been invited to stop by the after-party at Rockit for a fundraiser screening he’s hosting for A Red Orchid. We walk up to the entrance shortly after 5pm on a Saturday afternoon and tell the doorman we’re here for the Michael Shannon event and are on the guest list. “Where’s your wristband?” he asks. “I can’t let anyone in without a wristband.” We explain that, since we are just arriving, we don’t have a wristband, but he’s not budging. A board member of A Red Orchid is standing outside, and she pleads with him to let us take her wristband and go in, sensing that roughing up the press is probably not good for her cause. But our guy’s having none of it. Lots of cajoling, name-dropping and pleading takes place, and finally I convince him to take my business card inside. A couple minutes later, we’re whisked into the venue, with a sea-parting of apologies all around, past a press table, fully staffed but devoid of patrons thanks to the impenetrable doorman. Upstairs, it’s a scene. 5:30pm and the place is packed with folks downing fluorescent-green “Zod” and “Krypton” martinis while the thump-thump-thump of dance music reminds them that they are, indeed, at a party. Off to one side, Shannon stands patiently in front of one of those Hollywood-style backdrops designed to ensure that logos make the paparazzi cut while a parade of glad-handers and well-wishers wait in line for a moment of chitchat and a picture with the star. I get introduced and discuss my plan to visit the play’s rehearsal the next day. He says he plans to be there right on time at 2pm, but that he has to fly to New York and back in the morning to get his daughter, the five-year-old Sylvie. He lives in Brooklyn these days with the child’s mother, Steppenwolf ensemble member Kate Arrington. Suddenly, Billy Dec and entourage storm into the picture, hired publicists and photographers in tow, and everyone moves aside. The notoriously self-promotional club owner wants to catch a few rays of genuine star-shine.



Photo: Dave Rentauskas

Photo: Dave Rentauskas

The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene Two: “Just A Nice Guy”
I show up the next day, Sunday afternoon, at the A Red Orchid Theatre space in Old Town. As I walk up, I see Shannon, alone, perched on a Subway restaurant stoop next door, his six-foot-three frame hunched over a script in one hand, cigarette in the other. “Hi Brian,” he beckons me over. There’s something completely nondescript and at the same time singular about Shannon’s physical presence. He’s tall and thin, with a large head of boyish hair and a chiseled face bookended with a pronounced cleft chin and a deep forehead, accented with bushy eyebrows. His voice is part Chicago, part Kentucky coal. A hint of a low drawl at times. Shannon dresses in regular-guy stylish: navy t-shirt, fitted gray slacks, shiny dark sneakers. Except the socks, the colorful striped socks. On one hand, it’s easy to see how movie directors can see him playing such disturbed and disturbing characters, but in person, he comes off as smart, intense and, generally, just a nice guy. Bad guys don’t wear playful socks.

After a few minutes of small talk—he’d flown to New York at 6am that morning and made it back with minimal drama—he leads me into the theater. A Red Orchid Theatre (AROT) is situated on Wells Street, in one of those rear storefront two-flats with a funky layout that once helped make the environs a hippie epicenter. A long brick passageway off the street leads to the theater entrance. When we get to the door, Shannon sees that a scene is still being rehearsed inside, so we sit on the stairs outside and pick up our conversation. He tells me about the theater, about how Guy Van Swearingen built out the space twenty years ago. They’d met in casting whiz Jane Brody’s acting class. She put Shannon in “Groundhog Day”—”gave me my first job,” he says. In the early days of the theater, he says, the Hong Kong Bay restaurant had a doorway next to the AROT entrance, and a pay telephone in the corridor where Chinese bus boys would speak so loudly into the phone that it disturbed the theater inside.

The theater is a very small space, like a small studio apartment, that functions as both rehearsal room and a set-build-in-process. A few audience chairs are used by the cast, director, stage manager and others—there’s about six to ten of us in the room at any one time—but the bulk of them are stacked around the room’s perimeter. A petite French-style love seat is positioned on the stage, while a much bulkier reject couch is pushed off to the side, not really out of the way. The director, Dado, wearing a man’s sport jacket over a skirt, greets Shannon with “I got your jacket. Do you want it?” as if picking up a conversation mid-stride from the night before. He says he doesn’t need it, and she adds “It’s freezing in here.” Casual banter fills the room; folks are comfortable with each other, like family members reuniting for the holiday.

Except it’s time to get down to business. “Simpatico” is Sam Shepard’s 1994 noir take on the dark side of professional horse-racing structured principally around the lives of two men and two women, with various romantic triangulations down the stretch. Shannon and Van Swearingen, not coincidentally, play the two old friends whose lives have pulled them apart in every sense of the word ever since a youthful horse-swapping scam blew up on them fifteen years earlier. Shannon’s character, Carter, left town and found great success in the racing game in Kentucky; Swearingen’s Vinnie stayed behind and struggled through a down-and-out existence. Today, Shannon’s primarily rehearsing with Mierka Girten, an AROT ensemble member who plays Cecilia, a pivotal character in the play, and in today’s first scene, they’re jammed together on that dainty little love seat. They’re friends offstage—they performed together in Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” both here and in New York—but as soon as stage manager Christa van Baale calls “lights up,” there’s instant intensity. After the scene is run, Dado sits pensively with the actors, going over notes. Girten responds like a pupil eager to learn from the teacher, but Shannon challenges. He’s living inside the work and has strong ideas why certain actions are taking place. They run the same scene again. “I think the scene is in pretty good shape,” Dado says. Then she gives notes. Shannon is analytical about his character: “Carson is more observant than not,” he suggests, as they dissect line readings. The three of them are alone together, oblivious in both sense and spatial distance from the other six of us in the room; only some of their conversation is audible to the others. Shannon struggles with Dado over the scene. “It feels like putting a candy wrapper on a hotdog,” he says of one suggestion. His frustration grows. “Do you even get what I’m saying?” he asks emphatically. Soon, he tosses his script and pencil down, emphatically. “I’m frustrated, and I don’t often get frustrated,” he declares, as he gets into position to run the scene again, as Dado asks them to do. Shannon’s frustration quickly disappears inside his character.

Afterward, the stage manager calls for a break. Shannon walks briskly out of the theater, unlit cigarette already in mouth. He resumes his perch on the stoop, script in hand, alone. From a short distance up Wells Street, I watch him for a minute, seeing Sunday strollers passing by without noticing the movie star among them. As I walk away, contemplating the difference from the scene last night, I overhear parcels of a couple conversing behind me. Mumble mumble, “Superman.” Mumble mumble, “Revolutionary Road.”

After the break, they go on to the next scene with the two of them, now in Vinnie’s disheveled bedroom. Afterward, both actors retreat into their scripts. The director studies her notes. A long, uneasy silence fills the room like a detention study hall. Eventually, Dado brings her chair down by Girten and reviews her notes about Cecilia. More long silences. Shannon writes in his script with pencil. An extensive discussion of the events and motivations in the scene follows. The director mostly converses, not offering specific direction. Whatever tension earlier existed gradually diffuses. A production assistant sits on the floor, next to an empty chair, playing video-games on her phone. They finish, and Shannon exits. Between scenes Shannon always purposely charges out of the theater for a quick smoke and returns in a few minutes. (He’s not a heavy smoker, he says. It’s a working thing. “I’ve never smoked around Sylvie,” he assures.)

As rehearsal wraps, Shannon calls home. Sylvie’s sick. She was fine on the plane, but now has a fever. The concerned father rainchecks on a stop at the bar with cast mates and rushes home, to the Steppenwolf apartment he occupies for the next couple months with his family.


The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Production Notes
The reporter continues to research his subject. That means he sees “Man of Steel” in the theater, watches “Boardwalk Empire” on DVD and sees “Bug” and “Shotgun Stories” on Netflix on Demand. It’s hard, but necessary, work. He Googles his subject, reading many interviews about his Zodness. A few choice headlines: “15 Reasons Why Michael Shannon is the Coolest Effing Person Around” (Huffington Post). “General Zod Michael Shannon intimidates Captain America Chris Evans” (Zee News). “Michael Shannon Wants to Be the Next James Bond” (Hindustan Times). He watches a recent David Letterman appearance and notes how funny and polished Shannon is. Why did he think this guy was going to be creepy?


The Untitled Michael Shannon Profile, Scene Three: “He Never Smiles”
At the photo shoot, I am tempted to ask him to smile but I chicken out. In a conversation with my wife earlier, she said she’d never seen him smile. Google him and a Tumblr, “Michael Shannon Tries to Smile” comes up. (The site’s manifesto: “I love Michael Shannon, I wish he could be happy!”) At the shoot, I whisper about this to the theater’s publicist, and she agrees. “He doesn’t smile,” she says. “I’ve never seen him smile. At least, I don’t make him smile.” Between setups, I ask him about it. “I’ve been in the world almost thirty-nine years and must have smiled a few times over that period,” he says, seemingly somewhat irritated by the question. “I just don’t usually smile at these,” waving his arm, indicating the photo shoot, I hope, and not when he’s forced to hang out with an annoying reporter. He asks me if I’ve seen the Tumblr, and points out that it documents that he does, in fact, smile.

And then there are the socks. This time he’s wearing a pinkish polka-dot set color-coordinated with his rainbow-paisley sneakers. Above the ankles, he’s all business. Below, all smiles.

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2 Responses to “Full Nelson: The Singular Intensity of Michael Shannon”

  1. Michael Shannon for New City Says:

    […] You can read the New City article here. […]

  2. Michael Shannon Fan » Blog Archive » New City Stage (2nd July 2013) Says:

    […] on Michael Shannon on new city stage (2nd July 2013) (loveley […]

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