Spike Lee was the mentor of Kyle Bell in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative 2020 - 2022. Photo by Arnaud Montagard / Rolex
Michael Shannon
Photo by Vera Anderson

Michael Shannon: “There’s no reward other than knowledge”

Short Profile

Name: Michael Corbett Shannon
DOB: 7 August 1974
Place of birth: Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Occupation: Actor, stage actor

Michael Shannon stars in Echo Boomers, out now on Video on Demand.

Mr. Shannon, has your passion for acting changed over the 30 years you’ve been working?

Yeah, it has. Early on, I had a lot of emotions, I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I just needed that release for the energy that was inside of me. But over the years you get less interested in that, and more interested in just a little more complicated version of what the craft is, and storytelling, and how you can psychologically kind of build a person from the ground up… And build their whole inner workings, and their kind of switchboard, as it were. The way I started, I wasn’t getting paid, there was hardly anybody coming to see the performances, and so you really just focus on the work for the work’s sake.

That was in the Midwest, right?

Yeah, so it was more of a slow build. You were doing a play, telling a story that meant a lot to you, and you could experiment as much as you wanted, there was nothing at risk really because you were lucky if there were ten people in the audience a lot of times. And I know it sounds kind of insane, like, why would you do that if you are not making a living and you are not even getting an audience, why would you do that? But it’s almost like a monastery in a way. Like, you are a monk and you are just devoted to something because you love it and you are passionate about it and you want to learn how to do it, and that’s it. There’s no reward other than gaining knowledge! And I think that makes very strong actors.

“If you build those muscles, then you can do this for a long time.”

It sounds like you really learned things the hard way.

(Laughs) Sometimes people ask me, “How do I get to do what you do?” And I always say, “Well, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to do it the way I did it…” So you are probably looking for a quick way to do it and I can’t help you there, because I don’t know what that is! There are young kids that just kind of click into it, they find a part and they just soar. They are like meteors, boom! But then when they have to do it again and again and keep building character after character, they don’t have the tools. They don’t have the depth to do that, and so it fades. But if you build those muscles, then you can do this for a long time.

Are you still developing those muscles, even now?

I don’t necessarily need to walk around acting like my character all the time in order to do the job, but I do think a lot about every aspect of it and I am interested in every aspect of it. A lot of times when I am working right now, they will say, “Oh, the actors can go back and relax, we are going to figure out the shot,” and I will stay there and watch them figure out the shot because I am curious about that. I am curious about everything, I am curious about every aspect of it. I am not walking around trying to convince myself that I am somebody else all the time, I am just very cognizant of all the different components in the process and fascinated by them.

Do you think that work ethic is connected to a midwestern mentality?

Well, in the nineties in Chicago theater, we were always trying to blow each other’s minds. We were pushing each other as peers to see how far we could push the envelope, how could we surprise each other.

These days, do you find yourself missing the theater?

Oh, I miss it terribly. I haven’t done a play since Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, which was last year on Broadway with Audra McDonald. So, yeah, I miss it, it makes me very sad. It’s my favorite arena of the three — theater, film, TV. I got my first play in Chicago when I was 16, so that’s 30 years I’ve been doing it.

At the time, was acting something you pursued single-mindedly?

Actually, around about the same time that I was auditioning for plays in Chicago, I was also knocking on doors asking people to care about clean air and clean water! One of my first jobs was canvassing door to door for an organization that Ralph Nader started, PIRG — “Public Interest Research Group,” I think. It was all about air quality and water quality. I would canvass door to door and try and get people to sign up for a membership. I was like 16 years old doing this, and I just remember really being amazed by the indifference that I encountered going to people’s homes. Granted, nobody wants some stranger knocking on their door, but the people I did talk to, they just didn’t seem to care or they didn’t seem to think it was that big of a deal.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I got into acting, is that it gave me an opportunity to step outside of myself and forget about that anxiety for a while.”

Is that kind of activism still a part of your life?

I went to the big huge climate march in New York City with my daughter, and we went and saw Greta give her speech at Battery Park and it was a beautiful day. It was very emotional and I felt so much hope. So I do what I can and I think about the movies I make, projects I choose to do and how they might drop a pebble into the pond of the collective consciousness. That’s what I responded to when I read the script for Echo Boomers, as well, that this younger generation is really getting a raw deal. I think there needs to be a major shake-up.

Are you worried about the future?

I mean, I’ve always kind of had a vague underlying anxiety about the survival of the human species, even when I was younger! When I was a little boy, I got totally freaked out by the whole Reagan era Cold War, the nuclear holocaust was basically at the forefront of everybody’s mind. I was pretty occupied with that constantly, I just kept thinking, “We are all going to die, what’s the point?” I honestly think that’s one of the reasons I got into acting, is that it gave me an opportunity to step outside of myself and forget about that anxiety for a while. Growing up, I loved the Theater of the Absurd, I was finding obscure Eugene Ionesco plays, and doing those. They brought me great joy. I loved nothing more than to just really leave the audience scratching their heads saying, “What just happened?” That’s my favorite thing to do!

Which storytellers and filmmakers are bringing you joy these days?

Recently, I have gotten interested in collaborating with the director and helping the director to realize their vision, because I feel like they have the hardest job and the lion’s share of the expectation is on their shoulders. So I like to help them and I want them to be happy with the end result. I call it being like a genie in a bottle: you rub the bottle and I will give you three wishes, what do you want? That’s how I approach the work. Because particularly with film, it’s such a director’s medium, it’s their baby and it’s such a crusade to get a movie made, that I really just want to fill in whatever hold that they assigned me to fill in.