In “Take Shelter,” actor Michael Shannon plays Curtis — a dad and working man who starts having shadowy and frightening visions of disaster and torments himself wondering if he’s merely insane or, worse, right. Directed by Jeff Nichols (who collaborated with Shannon on the excellent indie “Shotgun Stories”), “Take Shelter” has received raves at Sundance and Cannes … but it’s also a film that with, no hedging or over-explanation, can play at Austin’s genre-based Fantastic Fest. We spoke with Shannon in L.A. about the film’s apocalyptic themes, his unlikely fame thanks to “Boardwalk Empire,” his 9/11 movies “The Missing Person” and “World Trade Center” and if he’s truly ready to step into Terence Stamp’s shoes playing General Zod in Zack Snyder’s now-shooting “Superman: Man of Steel.”
You and Mr. Nichols had done such great work with ‘Shotgun Stories.’ When did he broach the idea of this story with you? It plays with genre and expectation with a lot of ways that ‘Shotgun Stories’ didn’t.
Shannon: I think people imagine that after ‘Shotgun Stories’ he wrote another script for us to collaborate on. It didn’t really work like that. He was very spent after ‘Shotgun Stories.’ It took him a long, long time to get that film finished and out. He had this period where he didn’t know what to do next, and he was anxious and didn’t know if he was going to make another film. He was also anxious about getting married and starting a family, and out of that anxiety came this story. It started for him out of a very personal place, from a very personal experience he was having. The first time I read it, he didn’t present it like, ‘I want you to play this part.’ He just wanted somebody to read it, someone who knew him and appreciated his aesthetic. He wanted some feedback. I read it, and I told him that I thought it was really lovely. Then we didn’t talk about it for a long time. One day out of the blue he called and said that he’d gotten some financing and that he wanted me to play Curtis. They were starting in two months or something. When it happened, it was very sudden. That’s when I signed on.
Obviously, we have something we can’t talk about at too great length for fear of dispelling some of the joys of the film, but even in that two-month time, did you do any research into revelatory experiences?
Shannon: I tried to come in a blank slate, because I feel like at the beginning of the movie, Curtis is a blank slate. He’s an Everyman; he’s a normal dude, and he’s working his job and he starts having these dreams. He doesn’t know what to do; he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, and he doesn’t understand why it’s happening. He knows it’s a thing with the mother, her background and whatnot, but I think he’s been consciously avoiding dealing with that anyway and trying to be as solid a guy as he possibly can. I didn’t want to know more than Curtis did. I felt that I might run the risk of condescending to him or being condescending in my performance.
It’s a comparison that’s been made before, from everything from your introduction at the Oscars by Mr. Walken and the fact that you’re both in the category of American leading men over six feet tall, but I was really thinking of ‘The Dead Zone’ during this film, as well as ‘Close Encounters.’ Was that part of the attraction of it?
Shannon: I love ‘The Dead Zone’; that’s one of my favorite movies. That’s a good call. For me, one of the main draws was that I was going through a very similar experience to Jeff. He was getting married and starting a family; I was starting a family too. It goes by very quickly, but in the film you hear Curtis say that his father passed away a couple years ago — my father passed away a couple years ago, too. It was life synchronicity; it was something that I could identify with and, I thought, I could bring a lot of my own personal experience to.
The scene at the church supper: It’s an hour and 10 minutes into the film before Curtis even tells another person what’s going on, and then even after that you have the church supper sequence like something out of ‘The Hurt Locker’ where you go off. How do you maintain that intensity throughout a shoot?
Shannon: The shoot itself was intense. We shot this movie in four weeks, so when the budget’s low and you don’t have a lot of time, it can be hard work some days. You build this incredible momentum, like you just show up and you live the story because you don’t have the time to sit around and contemplate everything. You go and you’ll do two or three big scenes a day. The day we did that Lion’s Club scene, the church supper scene, we were shooting two scenes that day. The scene we shot in the morning — which is actually in the film without dialogue, as part of a montage — we were shooting a scene where all the guys from work go to the bar because it’s raining and we can’t work. You see a shot of us sitting around a bar drinking beers, whatever. We were basically improving and cracking each other up, goofing off. We went from that to the supper scene, because it was the same location. Days like that are so surreal to begin with that it gives you the momentum to go there.
When you have a film like this, which is something so resolutely American and small and told in such measured tones, for all of its apocalyptic imagery and sense, this is a super-small film. Right now I can drive through L.A. and there you are (in ‘Boardwalk Empire” billboards) looming behind Steve Buscemi in period garb. Is there a conscious effort to try to turn some of that energy to get people to look at ‘Take Shelter?’
Shannon: Definitely. I would hate for it to sound like I’m using one project to try and benefit another. I love all the work I do in equal measure. I’m doing something like ‘Man of Steel’ right now, and I’m having a blast doing that. It would be lovely if, because of that work, it helped me get financing for some of these smaller films.
If the people from ‘Take Shelter’ could plaster you up that ominously all over L.A., I’m sure they would. …
Shannon: I think one of the reasons Jeff didn’t say right away, ‘I want you to play Curtis,’ because at the time they wrote the script, it would have been probably hard from the beginning for the budget if I was playing Curtis. It sucks when you’re in that situation: You try a few things to make it so that you’re a viable option, and it seems like I’m heading in that direction, hopefully.
You two certainly have this mutual level of respect — is it, to a certain point, faith? Do you know he’s going to have good stuff for you to do?
Shannon: Oh, yeah. I would have been in ‘Take Shelter’ regardless. I would have played one of the guys at the bar. I want to work on everything that Jeff works on. He’s actually working on his next movie (‘Mud,’ with Reese Witherspoon) right now — he might even be shooting already. I might — fingers crossed — be able to do a cameo in that. I don’t want to sit one out.
I do just want to ask about one other film on your resume, with recent events: Do you wish there had been more of an audience for ‘The Missing Person?’
Shannon: Oh yeah. To me, that is tragic, what happened with that film. I’m not going to lie: I think Strand Releasing really dropped the ball on that one, big time. Part of the problem with that release is that — depending on where you saw the movie — sometimes it was so dark that you could hardly see the image on screen. They didn’t make any cranks; it was all just digital projection, but if you’re going to do that, you really need to know what you’re doing. I remember going to the premiere in New York and everybody scratching their heads saying, ‘Is it supposed to be this dark?’ Me sitting in the audience going, ‘No, it’s not,’ and trying to figure out what was going on. They didn’t blow any wind into the sails on that movie, that’s for sure. It seems like it’s having a life on DVD and DirecTV or whatever.
Whenever I think of buying a brown suit, I think of that film.
Shannon: I loved that script. When I read that script, I thought, ‘This is the most interesting examination of 9/11.’ I’d worked on ‘World Trade Center,’ which is much more fact-based, this-is-what-happened, and it’s a very beautiful and inspiring story, what my guy did, Dave Karnes, going in there and finding those guys. But ‘Missing Person’ was very dear to me. It was hard: That was low-budget, and we really had to grind it out. I was so happy with the final product, and then when it didn’t get out as much, it was criminal, I thought.
The other thing about ‘World Trade Center’ — it’s a great performance — I don’t think Dave Karnes ever blinks. All I could think is A) this guy is really selfless, and B) the e.e. cummings line about ‘How do you like your blueeyed boy, Mister Death.’ When you read something, do you know if it’s going to be a movie where you’re going to look off to the horizon a lot with that thousand-yard stare?
Shannon: When I read that, I’m not going to lie: I was incredibly intimidated to do that part. I think any actor in their right mind — being honest — would say I’m absolutely nothing like this human being. I don’t have one thousandth of the courage or strength or determination that he has. When Oliver said, ‘You’re the guy,’ I kept saying, ‘Are you sure?’ I had to do it. Somebody had to play the damn part. I watched all the interviews with him on the morning talk shows and stuff. It’s funny because once I was in my Marine uniform, we were down in the Wall Street district shooting one of these great shots where I’m walking down one of the narrow streets by myself. It was a beautiful shot. There’s this janitor across the street from the building. I was in my fatigues, and he shouted across the street like, ‘Hey, no man, no.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He said, ‘Your sleeves, man. You don’t have those right. I’m a Marine; you’re not a Marine. What are you doing?’ He came over and fixed my sleeves like, ‘You’re supposed to roll them up to here. There’s supposed to be like this; you’re supposed to be like that.’ I was so embarrassed. I was like, ‘I’m sorry. This is how the costume person did it. I don’t know.’ Once he got me sorted out with my uniform, I was good to go.
A couple months ago, I was driving in LA, and crossing the street was this older gentleman in gray linen shorts and a pink polo and a gray sweater. I thought, ‘That older gentleman looks great,’ and then I realized it was Terence Stamp. I said, ‘That older gentleman looks great because he’s General Zod.’ That’s nearly 30 years after the fact. Are you ready for 30 years of being General Zod?
Shannon: I don’t know. I can’t imagine my performance is going to be as iconic as his. I’m just starting shooting, so it’s hard to sit here and anticipate giving a legendary performance. I just try to take it one day at a time and not get overwhelmed by the hugeness of it on each scene as we go. I’d be perfectly happy to be remembered for anything 30 years from now. If somebody remembers my first name 30 years from now, that would be a great thrill.