At this year’s Toronto Film Festival, I was able to speak with Michael Shannon about co-starring in director Marc Forster’s Machine Gun Preacher. The movie is based on the real-life story of Sam Childers (played by Gerard Butler), a former drug-dealer who turned his life around and now dedicates it to saving kidnapped and orphaned children in Sudan. It’s a hell of a story and one that I’m glad got told. Watch some clips here.
During the interview Shannon talked about being at TIFF, what the last few years have been like as he’s started landing very high profile roles, making Machine Gun Preacher, the kind of research he does, if he prefers a few takes or dozens, Boardwalk Empire, and how he got cast as General Zod in Man of Steel. In addition, he talked about The Iceman - which is the story of Richard Kuklinski, who was a hit man in New Jersey who kept his criminality secret from his family. Hit the jump for the interview.
As usual, I’m offering two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio or the full transcript is below. Machine Gun Preacher opens in limited release this weekend.
Michael Shannon: Well, it just started. I just arrived this morning, but I am anxious to see what is going on. I haven’t even looked at a program yet. I know there are a lot of great movies here that I really want to see. But I’ve been having a good time getting to see Gerard [Butler] and Michelle [Monaghan] from Machine Gun Preacher. I haven’t seen them since we shot so it is nice seeing them again.
How has it been like for you for the last couple of years? It seems like there has been a lot of buzz about you and you’ve obviously landed a few high profile gigs. How has it been like for you in the inside to go from lucky to be getting a part to being offered high profile gigs?
Shannon: It has been pretty surreal. For instance, getting Man of Steel – I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would get an opportunity like that. But it has been a really slow progression. I mean, I have been acting for over 20 years and I started in the smallest little theater that you can possibly imagine and then I very slowly built myself to this point. So it is never like there is this real sharp change or something that really startled me. It has just been very gradual.
I have spoken to a number of actors that joke around by saying, “Maybe this year will be the year that I get health insurance” but I think we are passed that. To get a little generic, how did you get involved with Machine Gun Preacher?
Shannon: [Director] Marc [Forster] reached out to me and to my agents. He said that he really wanted me to do this part and it was a pretty crazy summer and I was doing a lot of projects, but I said I would take a look at the script. I was just really taken by the relationship between Sam and Donny. A lot of times the characters I play tend to be kind of loners or they don’t have best friends or best buddies. So it was nice to get an opportunity to play somebody that had that relationship with somebody and not be so lonely.
I’m a huge fan of your work and it seems to me that you manage to disappear into your roles. What is the process like for you when you are getting ready for a role? How much are you rehearsing before your start date? How much do you get ready, look at your character, and figure things out?
Shannon: Before I get together with the rest of the people that I am working with I feel like there is only a limited amount that I can do because for me, like in this instance, is so much about the relationship. I can research certain aspects of it and look into the drug use or look into motorcycles and things like that – the kind of surface aspects of it. But the thing that is always important to me is the relationships. I feel like until I get around with the actual people that I am going to be working with there is only so much that I can do. I certainly don’t want to have too many pre-conceived notions before I show up because then you might be cutting yourself off from the real lessons of what is going on. I just look at it as a real group activity when you are making movies. There are so many different artists doing so many different things, and they are all interconnected. So I like to see what everybody else is going to bring to the table before I make up my mind too much about anything.
What is the most research you have done for any of your roles?
Shannon: I would say that it is probably Kim Fowley in The Runaways. I knew when they called me in for the meeting on that they showed me a tape of him and he was one of the most idiosyncratic people that I have ever seen in my life. He is not a household name or anything, but the people who do know him know who he is, and they know him very well. It was just a lot to wrap my head around while trying to get into his body, voice, and his personality. So that was more than anything else I have ever done. That was a case where I was really studying somebody. I was watching lots of footage and there was one interview in particular that I would watch over and over again. I would have it every day when I was on set and if I went back to my trailer I would just pop it in and put it on. Fortunately, I never got tired of watching it because the guy just cracks me up and he is so smart. So that was actually a really fun thing to do.
A lot of the actors that I talk with prefer the Clint Eastwood method of say two or three takes. Then others, especially after working with David Fincher, talk about how they love the 90 takes and how that allows them for so much creative freedom. What is the comfort level for you? How do you feel about the too few versus too many takes?
Shannon: Well, I think it really depends on the director. I have talked to people that have worked with Mr. Eastwood and they say that one of the reasons why he is able to do that is because he creates such a calm, relaxed, quiet environment where you can really concentrate and that he just has a very general way with the actors. I mean, if you are only getting two takes and you are on a crazy set where there is a lot of noise and distractions and it is hard to focus – that is frustrating. But I don’t mind two takes if there is a healthy respect with the work going on with the actors. I have to admit that I am from a theater background and I really love repetition. I never get tired of a character as long as the writing is good. There is this play Killer Joe that I did, there is actually a film of it coming out in the festival here, and I did like 400 performances of it. To me, that was one of the most satisfying experiences of my career. It is like starting out with a big slab of marble and then chipping at it real slow until you get something really beautiful and meaningful.
Shannon: Yeah. I like the story that I hear about The Shining and what Kubrick would do. That is a guy that I would have loved to have worked with. That was a big loss. But, yeah, I would love to work with Fincher too.
He does okay movies.
Shannon: Yeah. He sure does.
I definitely want to ask you about Boardwalk Empire. How much fun do you have doing that show?
Shannon: Oh, it is a blast. That writer’s room is mind blowing with having Terrance [Winter], Howard [Korder], Steve [Kornacki], the whole staff, and the new writers they brought on this season. Every script is a surprise, but it never seems arbitrary. Just the way that they are able to continue to find ways to go deeper and deeper into the psyche of the character and to keep making the situation more and more complex is a pretty big gift. If you are going to be on TV for however many years, you want to make sure that you have writers that are giving you something to work with, and I got that in spades.
I, of course, have to ask you about certain other high profile project. I know you can’t talk about the story and I am not even going to ask.
Shannon: The Smurfs movie?
The Smurfs sequel actually.
Shannon: Yeah. I can’t talk about it.
Shannon: He reached out to me and he asked me to come out to Pasadena. I went and met him at his house. He lives in Pasadena in the hills and the view from his house is stunningly beautiful. He basically sat there and he ran through the whole…it was almost like he was pitching it to me, which I found to be a little bizarre. I felt like the tables should be turned and I should be on my hands and knees trying to get the part. But he was like, “Yeah, doesn’t it sound great? Then this is going to happen! And then this is going to happen!” I said, “Yeah. That all sounds wonderful.” Then we stood up and shook hands. He took me down and showed me some artwork, storyboards, and stuff. I just remember that the whole time he was pitching the movie there were these hummingbirds behind him in the window flying around. It was one of the most surreal mornings. It was in the morning too right at the beginning of the day. I had just flown in the night before and I was little jetlagged. So it was just very…but then I went back when it was going to go further. I did a test with Henry [Cavill] and we did a scene together. That was intense and my palms started sweating a little bit. After the test, a couple of weeks went by and I was at the grocery store with my family when my phone rang. It was a private number and I didn’t even know who it was. I answered it and he says, “Hey, this is Zack. Want to be General Zod?” I was like, “Yeah. Let me just get these cookies over here. Who is this again?” The whole thing was a real trip.
Shannon: It is surprising that people are snapping photos and stuff and then putting them on the internet. For me, it is like, “Why would you want to do that?” It would be like knowing what your Christmas presents were before Christmas morning. It is taking all of the fun out of it. I know it is a long wait. The film isn’t coming out till 2013. I just keep promising everybody that I will talk about this film a lot after this film has come out. I will give you my number and you can call me up. We’ll have a long conversation about it, but for right now I have to zip the lips.
Obviously, Man of Steel is going to be shooting for a really long time, but are you thinking about stuff after that?
Shannon: I am. I’ve been involved with this script called The Iceman. It is about Richard Kuklinski, who was a hit man in New Jersey. He kept what he did a secret from his family for several years and it is just a really interesting double life that he lived. That may be my next project. It is hard for an independent film to say with absolute certainty unless you are on there on set and even sometimes when you are there on set there might not be any film in the camera. But I am hoping that will be my next thing.
Do you read online sites and reviews or do you try to stay away from that?
Shannon: Yeah. A lot of times people will send me stuff. They will find something and they will send it to me and then I will take a look at it. Every once in awhile I will go on IMDB for 10 or 15 minutes and look around. But I am not a huge gearhead. I don’t even have my own computer. I use my girlfriends.