On the HBO drama series Boardwalk Empire, actor Michael Shannon plays Agent Nelson Van Alden, a Senior Prohibition Agent with the Department of Internal Revenue. He approaches his work with the zeal of a man on a mission, and will go to almost any lengths to uncover the corruption that he believes to be the root of all evil.
During a recent interview to promote Season 2, Michael Shannon talked about how nice it was to be invited to be a part of Boardwalk Empire, doing a long-term TV series where he never knows what to expect, the depths of despair and misery that his character is facing, how fortunate he feels to be so successful, at this point in his career, and how unprepared he is for the onslaught that comes with being part of a film like Man of Steel, due out in the summer of 2013. Check out what he had to say, along with highlights from the interview, after the jump:
From Emmy Award-winning writer Terrence Winter (The Sopranos) and Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese, Boardwalk Empire is set in Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition, when the sale of alcohol became illegal throughout the United States. The undisputed ruler of Atlantic City is the town’s Treasurer, Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Steve Buscemi), a political fixer and backroom dealer, who is equal parts politician and gangster, and equally comfortable in either role. Along with his brother Elias (Shea Whigham), the town’s Sheriff, and a crew of Ward Bosses and local thugs, Nucky carves out a niche for himself as the man to see for any illegal alcohol, doing business with the likes of Arnold Rothstein (Michael Stuhlbarg), Big Jim Colosimo (Frank Crudele), Lucky Luciano (Vincent Piazza) and Al Capone (Stephen Graham).
Here are the 10 most interesting highlights of the interview:
- The production design, costume design and cinematography of Boardwalk Empire are held to as high a standard as a movie.
- Michael Shannon assumed that they’d want him to play a gangster on the show, and was shocked when he found out they wanted him for a law enforcement official.
- The grief over what Van Alden did to Sebso (Erik Weiner) last season will be compounded, throughout the rest of this season, with the grief over losing another young agent because of his own carelessness.
- He relates to the character of Van Alden, in the way that they both have a dry sense of humor, and that he’s certainly experienced that kind of guilt, though not to that extreme degree.
- He didn’t want to believe that his character would fall from grace so easily, as he did in Episode 10 of Season 1, when he had sex with Lucy (Paz de la Huerta), but he trusts the great writers they have.
- It takes about seven months to do one season of the show, but it’s an easy schedule because there are so many characters.
- Always happy to just be working, he feels very fortunate to be able to do work that he believes in.
- He admits to not being prepared for the onslaught of attention that comes with being a part of Man of Steel, in which he’s playing General Zod, and says he is frustrated with how restricted he is, in talking about the film and his character.
- He finds it funny that people think they know what his character will look like, when he won’t even be filming the majority of his stuff for the film until November, and that the shoot will go until February 2012.
- He also has Premium Rush, with Joseph Gordon Levitt, coming out next summer, and hopes that The Iceman will happen, although he says it’s currently in an unstable place right now.
Question: Boardwalk Empire is really the first time you’ve worked on a series, other than a guest shot. Does this feel completely different than being on a movie set, or is the level of quality so high that there’s no difference for you?
MICHAEL SHANNON: Well, it’s at as high a standard as a movie, in terms of the production design, costume design, the cinematography, and all that. It’s movie-level quality. It’s just the structure of it that’s very different. When you do a movie, you get one script, unless there are going to be sequels, or something. That one script has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you go shoot it and that’s that. With this, it’s not like you’re telling a story. It’s like you’re creating a whole other world, that moves in every direction. The story just keeps getting more and more twisted and complicated. That’s the main difference, for me. I walk away from the end of the season, and I have absolutely no idea what to expect. It’s very mysterious.
What attracted you to this show and the role of Agent Nelson Van Alden?
SHANNON: I guess it all started with being invited, in the first place. It was a nice invitation. Martin Scorsese directed the pilot, and a lot of people were excited to work with him, and also with Terrence Winter because of his success with The Sopranos. It was just a good combination there. But, when I went in for the first meeting, I assumed that they’d want me to play a gangster, or some sort of thug or heavy. I was pretty shocked when they said, “No, we want you to play the law enforcement official.” That was a real 180 for me. It’s not what I typically have been asked to do, so I was excited about that. I didn’t know, at the time, that he would sink to the depths of despair and misery that he has, but at least I started from a place of righteousness, which was nice. Ultimately, it’s probably more interesting now. If I just went and arrested the bad guy every week, that would probably get pretty boring, after a while. It’s almost Shakespearean, in the dimensions of the character. They keep making it more and more interesting, so I’m really lucky.
Does Van Alden continue to go even further into these depths of despair and misery, as the season progresses?
SHANNON: Well, it’s hard to say outright what happens without ruining it. There’s half a season left. A lot of what Van Alden is dealing with in Episode 6 is some residual hold-over from what happen with Sebso last season. This is the second young man whose life he has endangered and, ultimately, taken. With Sebso, he ignored it or denied it or didn’t process it at all. But, this time, it’s a double whammy. I think the grief over what he did last season is compounded with the grief over losing another young agent because of his own carelessness. The difference between Sebso and this guy is that Sebso was ultimately corrupt, and Van Alden’s hunch about Sebso was correct. But, this agent is a good agent who actually is probably more virtuous than Van Alden. I think that’s what makes it even harder for him to bear. But, in terms of the rest of the season, I always find it difficult to talk about it without revealing too much. Obviously, now the baby is here and that’s the main thing, as anybody who has a kid knows. Once the kid is there, it’s a whole new ball game. So, he’s got to figure out what to do with that kid.
This season, the actual morality of Van Alden’s crusade has settled down a little bit. The focus is not as much on his own personal beliefs about Prohibition. Was part of that everyone deciding that there was just too much swirling around Nucky, and that they needed to give all those stories a little breathing room to actually operate and flourish?
SHANNON: Yes, it’s a crowded intersection, for sure, but I think Van Alden really just gave up. Van Alden really tried in Season 1. He knew what happened and he knew who was guilty, and he knew what should have been done, but couldn’t do it. His supervisor wouldn’t let him do it. Sebso screwed him over. So, he gave up and he descended into this really dark place, where he started drinking and knocked up Lucy. For me, this season is about Van Alden really trying to accept what he’s done and trying to redeem himself. Honestly, right now, Van Alden can really give a flying rat’s butt about alcohol. I think he’s a lot more concerned about this baby that he has, and his wife. I believe that Van Alden really loves Rose. I think that’s why the first episode was Rose coming to visit him in Atlantic City. In an ideal world for Van Alden, he would be able to get back to Rose and the life he had before all this started, in the first place. He’s really focused on trying to make spun gold out of hay because he thinks he can get this baby. Rose finds out about Lucy. His plan is to try to get this baby because he figures Lucy is not going to want the baby. He wants to give it to Rose and say, “Oh, it’s an orphan,” or “I found this baby on a doorstep.” It’s a ludicrous plan, but it’s the only possible way that the situation could have any bright side, whatsoever. That’s what he’s shooting for. So, I think Van Alden is really more concerned about himself, at this point, than Nucky Thompson. He’s very frightened for himself and his soul. He knows that he’s sinned a great deal, and that he’s probably not in God’s good graces anymore, so he would like to rectify that somehow.
Do you feel bad for this character, or do you play it with a little bit of emotional distance?
SHANNON: There’s no distance, really. I don’t think that really works, at least for me. I just try to be him, as much as I can possibly be, and as much as anybody could be some other person that they’re not. But, I’m never presenting it through any sort of lens. I’m just trying to be as direct and honest as I can.
SHANNON: Well, we both have a dry sense of humor, and I’ve certainly experienced the kind of guilt that Van Alden feels a lot of the time, though not to that extreme degree. I’ve felt guilt like that. I think that’s something that anybody can identify with. That’s what Van Alden represents. He just represents this overwhelming guilt, and it’s all the more heartbreaking because it’s coming from a man with good intentions. I think Van Alden started out with very good intentions. He wasn’t a corrupt person. So, to see that fall from grace, I feel like that’s something that I can identify with, or I think a lot of people probably have experienced, at some point in their lives, I would imagine.
How would you describe the overall experience of being on this set?
SHANNON: I love the directors. That’s one of the nice things. There is a continuity to who directs the show, which means you get to establish relationships with the directors, like Tim Van Patten. He directed four episodes last year, in Season 1, and four episodes, in Season 2. It would be different if it was just a different director coming, in every week. It’s nice to develop a relationship like that. Alan Coulter did Episodes 7 and 11, in both seasons. It’s just nice because you really get to go a little deeper into things. You have a history with the directors.
SHANNON: It takes about seven months to make a season. Unlike most shows, it’s actually an easy schedule because there are a lot of characters on the show. It would be different if it was just three characters and they were in the whole episode, but this show moves around from character to character, and story to story. So, even in an episode that I’m in quite a bit, like Episode 6, I’m not there every day. I work four or five days for the whole episode, so I have a lot of time to spend with my family, which is nice, or work on other projects, which is also nice.
Has Van Alden become a favorite character of yours?
SHANNON: I get pretty attached to the majority of the characters I play. I can’t help myself. But, with Van Alden, I always look forward to seeing what’s going to be next. That’s a very different experience than anything else I’ve done. But, I do have a lot of sympathy for him. I think Van Alden has a very hard life, and I feel for him. A lot of people will stop me and say, “Oh, I watched Boardwalk Empire. I love the show. You’re good on it, but I hate your character. He’s such as asshole.” And, I like to say, “Why do you think he’s a bad guy? Why does everybody hate this guy? Is it so hard to understand what happened to him, or is he too opaque?” When I look at him, he makes me really sad. He tried really hard to do the right thing, and he failed, and then he went off the tracks. But, the character seems to illicit some really negative feelings from people, which makes me a little defensive sometimes.
Unlike with a movie, your character is evolving over the course of each season, and you find out, just like everyone else, what’s going to happen. Have there ever been any times where you disagreed with the route the character was headed?
SHANNON: Yes. When I got the script for Episode 10 last year, where I got to the Speakeasy and drink, and then go have sex with Lucy, that was a hard pill to swallow. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to believe that Van Alden would fall apart that quickly. I saw it coming, but I didn’t think it would be in the first season. I wasn’t belligerent about it, but it just made me kind of depressed because I was really excited to be playing the guy taking down this corrupt system. To realize that I was just going to end up being another corrupt person myself was hard. But, when I look back on the season, as a whole, it’s great writing. Terry Winter and the writing staff have so much to keep track of. You have to trust them because they’re some of the best writers in the business. We’ve got Howard Korder, who’s one of the great American playwrights of the 20th century, and he’s sitting around writing scripts for us. You’ve can’t become all myopic about your own storyline. You’ve got to trust it because it’s like conducting an orchestra. They’ve got all these different instruments going, at the same time, and they know the sounds that each instrument needs to make, in order for there to be a coherent piece of music. You’ve got to remember that everything that is happening with your character is juxtaposed with all these other stories on the show, and every other episode has a theme, and you just have to trust that they’ve got it all organized.
SHANNON: Yes, one of the major principle themes of the show is how Atlantic City is like this dark forest that you wander off into, and whoever you think you are before you go into the forest, may not be what you eventually become. Atlantic City is as much of a character as any of the actual people on the show. That’s what was so great about Episode 1 in Season 2 when Rose said, “I was silly to think that I could live here.” She could feel it. It’s just something that you can feel when you’re there. And, Van Alden tried to fight it, but it’s like some sort of virus, really. He tried to fight it as hard as he could, but, in the end, the virus wins.
Do you ever see Van Alden questioning his faith, in this type of environment?
SHANNON: Oh, I think he already has. In Episode 11 of Season 1, the scene everyone remembers is when I drown Sebso, but there’s another scene by the river, the first time we stumble onto the deacon, baptizing his congregation. Van Alden is pretty direct, in that scene, about having lost his faith, saying that he doesn’t believe that anybody listens, that there’s anybody listening to their prayers, or that anybody cares. But then, the next time he comes back to the river, his beliefs have been reinvigorated. I think he wants to keep his faith, but I’m sure he questions it, all the time. Particularly after this most recent episode, it’s going to be even more difficult, considering all that transpires.
Do you see him bouncing back and forth because it’s such a tough place to be in, between his faith and the corruption and evil in Atlantic City?
SHANNON: Yes. Even in the moments when he loses his faith or questions his faith or questions God, what alternative does he have. I’m speculating as much as anybody, but I don’t think he’s going to say, “I’ll just throw away everything I believe in and just become a cold-blooded killer.” I don’t know if that’s what Terry wants, but I have a feeling that he will always be trying to return to a place of faith and redemption. It’s not going to be easy, but I feel like, if that’s totally abandoned by the show, then I don’t really understand the point of the character, or why the character’s on the show. There needs to be a constant yearning to get back to that place of righteousness. If he just becomes another thug, the show doesn’t really need that. There are plenty of thugs. But, I could be totally wrong. He might wind up being that. In Episode 1 of next season, I could blow away 10 dudes. I don’t know. You never know. That’s the thing about it.
Do you think that, if Van Alden is able to focus back on trying to bring down Nucky and some of the other players in this game, that maybe that could pull him away from some of the dark things that he’s feeling?
SHANNON: I think what Van Alden really needs right now is some sort of guidance. I think he could really use somebody because his boss is, for whatever reason – whether he’s corrupt or just completely inept – not a leader. He’s not leading Van Alden anywhere. And, these new agents that he’s working with are very young and not much help. Van Alden could really actually use someone to inspire him and instruct him, somehow. I think more than anything, he’s just lost. I feel like he’s so thoroughly burned, in his pursuit of Nucky and Jimmy, that he really learned his lesson. I don’t know if he really even thinks about Nucky Thompson much anymore. If he does, it’s a dead issue, which is weird because the show is ostensibly about Nucky Thompson, mostly. So, to have a character on there who’s not really tied into that is kind of unusual. But, I don’t think he thinks about going after Nucky Thompson anymore. I think he’s thinking about all these other things.
How surprised were you, both this season and last season, that they greenlit the next season so early?
SHANNON: It was a pleasant surprise, but it wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s a little different than network television. When HBO buys into something, it’s usually because they love it and they believe in it and they’re willing to ride with it, even if it’s not a smash hit, right out of the gate. Boardwalk seems to be popular. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I know that, when I walk down the street or when I’m at the airport or whatever, people are watching it. I can tell because they tell me they’re watching it. So, it wasn’t a huge surprise. They don’t seem to be quite as neurotic as the networks seem to be. Networks just don’t want to waste a single penny on anything. The second they think something is not going to be insanely popular, they just kill it. But, if HBO puts something on the air that they really believe in, they give it some time.
SHANNON: I’ve always been happy just to be working. It doesn’t really matter for me how many people are familiar with my name or my picture, or whatever. I enjoyed living in Chicago and doing plays for little or no money. I never actually thought that I would leave Chicago, originally. I wasn’t one of those people that had a plan to pack up the van and drive out to Hollywood. I didn’t want to. I knew other people that did that, and a lot of them wound up unhappy, so it frightened me. To get to this point, kind of surreptitiously, is really incredibly fortunate for me. I got this without even necessarily chasing after it. I just kept doing work that I believed in, and it led me to this place. I’m always very reticent to buy into any of the hype because it goes away in the blink of any eye. You make one wrong move and you can find yourself back in obscurity. It’s not something I’m really paying a lot of attention to. I’m not looking at my star meter, or seeing how many people are talking about me. I don’t know. I just keep working on things I like, and hope for the best. I hope people enjoy them.
Are you prepared for the onslaught with Man of Steel?
SHANNON: Honestly, no. I’m not prepared for that, in any way, shape or form. It gives me shivers. I’ll do the best I can. It’s funny because it used to just be that you do the work and the work spoke for itself. But, when you get on a project like that, obviously it’s like half the job is being a cheerleader for the team. You’ve got to go around, stirring up the pot, as it were. But, it’s hard to do that when they tell you, “Oh, and by the way, you can’t say anything about it. You can’t tell anybody anything about it. The only thing you should say is that it’s really great.” So, it’s really great, I’m having such a great time, and everybody is great. But, I can’t tell you anything else, so that gets a little frustrating after awhile.
SHANNON: I find it funny actually because, if I didn’t tell you anything about Superman, but I asked you to tell me what happens in Superman, I bet you could probably tell me the whole story. It’s like saying that I’m not supposed to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s kind of silly. People come and take pictures on the set, and they leak them out on the internet. Every time I go to a red carpet or something, there are people that have those pictures of what they think I’m going to look like in the movie. They have me in a Fu Manchu, black SS uniform that’s pretty mind-blowingly awful, and it’s completely inaccurate, but I go ahead and sign them anyway. When I sign the picture, I say, “This isn’t what it looks like. You’re wrong.” Whoever thought that they cracked the case is way off. I still have so much left to do. Most of my stuff is in November, so I haven’t really done that much. I’ve done a few little scenes, but the majority of what I’m doing is yet to come.
Aside from Man of Steel and Boardwalk Empire, do you have any other projects coming up that people should look out for or check out?
SHANNON: Let’s see, I’ve got the two films out right now – Take Shelter and Machine Gun Preacher. I’m really excited about people seeing Take Shelter because I think that’s pretty good. Machine Gun Preacher is all right, too. I did a movie called Premium Rush with Joseph Gordon Levitt, which I think is coming out next summer. But, right now, I’m just shooting Man of Steel. Man of Steel goes all the way up until February, and then Boardwalk Empire starts in February, so there’s not a lot of downtime there. I’ve been trying to see whether The Iceman was going to happen or not, but it’s in a bit of an unstable place right now. That’s a movie about Richard Kuklinski, the hit man that lived in Jersey and kept what he did a secret from his family for a number of years, and had a double life. They did a big series about him on HBO. It’s a great script, and I hope it happens, but I’m just not sure right now.