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Michael Shannon of THE MISSING PERSON - Interview
It’s not every day when you are lucky enough to talk to an actor who was not only nominated for an Academy Award for his work in a film like REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, getting edged out by Heath Ledger for his role in THE DARK KNIGHT, but who was also in GROUNDHOG DAY. Honestly, between the former and the latter I am not sure what warrants more kudos but I do know that his work in the new film THE MISSING PERSON is one of the brightest spots in films for 2009.
To talk with Michael is to really love the guy. He speaks with the kind of thoughtfulness and consideration you wish people in your everyday life would use and seems to exude the sense that he’s always observing, always taking in his surroundings. Being an Academy Award nominee ought to have put him in rarefied air but as he expresses below, he does look forward to the day when he can play a role where people aren’t instinctively afraid of him. I floated the idea of a romantic comedy but I think we both agree that project might be a wee premature. Regardless of the personas he puts on like a finely tailored suit, Michael Shannon still is one to watch and in THE MISSING PERSON he is effortless in the way he navigates a film that showcases his best talents as an actor.
THE MISSING PERSON is now showing.
MICHAEL SHANNON: Hey Chris.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Hey Michael.
SHANNON: How are you?
CS: I’m doing fine. How is your press day going?
SHANNON: Good. We are having fun.
CS: Is this really a fun part of making a movie that you get to answer the same questions over and over again?
SHANNON: You know, I don’t mind it. It’s been a while since I made the movie so it’s fun to go back and think about it.
CS: How is that? That it takes a while for a movie to get made and takes a little while for it to get out there – do you ever get anxious for people to see what you’ve done or are you kind of off doing your next thing once you’re done with a film?
SHANNON: For me it’s like pushing a little boat onto the lake or something. It sails away and you’re not sure if you are going to see it again. You just move on and go onto the next thing. A lot of actors won’t even watch their own movies. I’m not of that school. I actually try to enjoy watching the movie if, and when, it comes out because you work really hard on a movie and I like to see the end result. But I certainly don’t wait around waiting for it to happen. You have to go on and do the next thing.
CS: Getting the part seemed – just to read it on the surface seems like it was relatively easy. You had a friend in Amy Ryan and she just happened to pull you along where you got to meet Noah. Was the process just as smooth as the story makes it out to be?
SHANNON: Well, I did a reading of it and reading are always kind of weird. I don’t like doing a reading of a screenplay. It’s such a visual medium. We sat around and read it and it really read well. The dialogue was cryptic and it was just a really fun night. And I think Noah, for whatever reason after the reading, he just felt comfortable with me doing the part. Obviously, at least at that time, he could have hired profile names for that part and it would have made it easier to finance and distribute but Noah doesn’t really care about any of that. He goes with his gut. He’s a very instinctual person.
CS: Yes. I talked with him about the film and yes, he amazes me that someone like that can still survive in this business, where it’s not a commodity that can be packaged and bubble wrapped, it makes it a tough sell but it seemed like he still got on the film what he intended to have there with his script.
SHANNON: In his own quiet way, he’s a real warrior. He had to deal with a lot of uncertainty and doubt from a lot of people but he had a vision and held to it. That’s why I’m so happy that this film is going to get a life. If anyone deserves to have a film out there it’s him.
CS: It absolutely is and it was no hyperbole yesterday when I told him it was one of the better movies I’ve seen this year. It’s wholly original, wholly it’s own, and you just unfortunately don’t get to see a lot of these films that aren’t spawned by a sequel, or prequel or reboot or rehash.
CS: It must have been appealing to you as an actor to take something that was completely, start from scratch.
SHANNON: There are two instances for me when I have just been blown away by reading the screenplay without even going into production or anything. And this one, was one of them and the other was Shotgun Stories. Both of them, just on the page, were very substantial and original and about something meaningful. In a way, instead of Noah and Jeff Nichols from Shotgun Stories, there are some similarities. They are both very quiet, very thoughtful and they are really two of my favorites. I hope to work with Noah a lot more. It’s hard to tell what his next move will be. It’s hard for him in this business because he has some standards that he’s not going to let go of. He’s also not a showy person by nature.
CS: Right. I don’t see him directing the next installment of X-Men anytime soon.
CS: The character for you was obviously on the page but you had to interpret it in your own way. What did you see in this character? What humanity did you bring to it off the page? What did you see in it?
SHANNON: To me it starts with 9/11. It’s starts with a man who’s life was ruined on 9/11 and was not able to carry on, which is something that all identify with, at least in our imaginations, if we have not experienced it personally. A huge sense of loss and a huge sense of giving up and at the beginning of the film he’s in this pit of darkness and despair and living in a haze of booze and cigarette smoke. And Miss Charley comes to begin to pull him out of his funk because at the end of the day that’s the bottom line that 9/11 happened. The world didn’t stop and we all had to figure out a way to deal with it and move on. Noah is from New York, born and raised and 9/11 was a huge deal for him and I think in a lot of ways this is his way of trying to deal with it.
CS: In my notes I have that it doesn’t feel like a statement about 9/11 but just happens to be like a fact. It’s not something that needs to have a spotlight shown on it. It seems like it’s important to the character because that’s how he starts out. That’s how we get to know him. But it feels like something that has happened but nothing that needs any more context other than that.
SHANNON: There certainly isn’t any moralizing going on. It’s not like lessons being taught. It’s just about the people. It’s about John and the other missing person. The person I’m trying to find. It’s about the decisions that they make. It’s not, will I be able to love again or feel again.
CS: It almost feels like, and not to be cliché about it, but he literally has nothing else to loose. If any number of things could have been put in front of him to do that might have been slightly dangerous or some kind of thrill, he’s got to feel like there is nothing else there – just kind of numb to everything around him. It’s interesting that he choose to couch this film sort of with a noir tinge and I can’t think of any recent films that want to try and marry the modern experience with noir but it fits right in. How did he explain it to you?
SHANNON: Noah didn’t explain much of anything to me. I think a lot of times the contract between an actor and director is basically if you are able to mesh them and give them the confidence that you will show up at a reasonable facsimile in their imagination, which I think I did at the meeting, they don’t really get in your face too much when you’re working. For me, a film noir is dark, black. I can’t think of an even that would make more sense to marry film noir than 9/11. It seems almost a childlike simplistic marriage. So I wasn’t very conscious of trying to act in any particular style. But, I’m sure a lot of it comes from the subconscious. We all like to play and pretend and this detective is an art type in our collective consciousness. I can’t name any person that I’m trying to copy or emulate but I know it’s all in there and when I put that suit on and stumble around I’m just playing at the same icon that other people have played before me.
CS: But it’s not one we’ve seen in a long time. At least if you were to open up the paper and look at the movie listings it’s not something that’s really in vogue to do.
SHANNON: I guess there’s a risk of it seeming dated – if people can see something coming I guess they are more likely to find it distasteful. It’s a hard thing to pull off without seeming like you are weeping about it. So I guess that’s why I didn’t want to go back and watch any of the classic movies because I didn’t want to go back and then show up imitating someone. I wanted to show up and be there and react.
CS: Was it a fluid process on the set? This isn’t a Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t a mega production. Is there an intimacy, to put it like that, when you are on a set this size that you don’t get on a major film set?
SHANNON: Oh yes. It was very intimate. What I enjoyed about it was that it was hard. There were long days. We shot the movie very quickly. We typically would do a couple, maybe three, scenes a day. I was always working. I wasn’t sitting around much which I enjoy. I think it helps the film. It’s a better atmosphere. More conducive to good acting than sitting around for hours and hours doing nothing.
CS: I know that this question seems sort of far off field but looking to see how you got your start with Ground Hog Day and I lived in Illinois and actually visited the set when I was still in high school. Just as an idea or a thought, Amy has been in the office and your roles as of late has been quite heavy and dramatic, any romantic comedies coming out of you any time soon?
SHANNON: I don’t know. It’s a hard time in the business in general. There’s not a lot of people making big risks right now. I got real close on a James Brooks film actually. I was in a callback and it went through my mind while l was auditioning that this would really surprise people. This would be the thing that would dispel all these lines of thoughts that I’m some crazy guy.
And I think because I had that thought consciously, it made me very nervous and wasn’t able to audition well enough to get the part. So, it’s kind of like, I don’t know, maybe I need to go to a sport psychologist or something to fix the pitcher that can’t throw his curve ball anymore because he’s so worried about it getting knocked out of the park.
But, I don’t want to spend my whole life playing people that other people are scared of. The thing is, John is a funny guy and a sweet guy. He certainly ends up being sweet and funny with Miss Charley and he gets his stuff together in the end and stops drinking so I think it’s kind of uplifting in a way, this film.
CS: It absolutely is and I know my time is done but it is a great film that showcases what you are really capable of doing and your whole body of work does that and I really do hope that it opens the eyes to some people who might see you now in a more kind light.
SHANNON: Thank you Chris, I really appreciate that.
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