Michael Shannon was nominated for an Oscar today for his superb supporting role in Sam Mendes’ otherwise glossily imperfect period drama “Revolutionary Road,” so the world’s about to be paying him a lot of well-deserved attention. But if you’ve seen him act before, on the screen or on stage, you’ve already noticed him. Shannon’s established himself in the past few years as the guy who can walk away with a film under the noses of established stars — see “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” see the aforementioned Mendes film, or better yet, see the edgier lead roles he’s taken in indies like “Bug,” “Shotgun Stories” or “The Missing Person,” which had its premiere at Sundance this year. Directed by Noah Buschel, the film finds Shannon playing John Rosow, a private eye in the most noir tradition who’s hired to follow a man who turns out to have been reported dead during the September 11th attacks. Delving into this mystery forces Rosow to confront his own trauma related to the attacks, and to return to the city he’d tried to leave behind. I sat down with Shannon in Park City on Monday to talk about the film, New York and his award chances.
How did you get involved with “The Missing Person”? What did you like about it?
I’m friends with Amy Ryan, and she was in a film that Noah made called “Cassady,” about Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. One afternoon, me and Amy were having coffee, just shooting the breeze and she said, “I gotta go. I was in this movie and the director wants me to see a cut of it. You could probably come, if you wanted.” I like the subject, because I guess all boys have a fantasy about being Jack Kerouac, so I went and saw it on a little editing bay and thought it was incredible, one of the best movies I’d seen in a long time. Neal was having a reading of the screenplay of “The Missing Person,” and he asked me if I would just do it. It was a lot of fun, and a couple months later, he’s like, “Well, I think we’re going to make the movie. You want to do it?”
Did you model John Rosow on the classic noir detectives? There seems to be a lot of that in him, from his suits to his gin-drinking to his ability to take whacks on the head without apparent brain damage.
A lot of it was from the outside in — originally in the script, John’s hair is white, so a big point of contention for a long time was about how we were going to turn my hair white, because it’s basically impossible. Even if you pour Clorox all over your head, it still only gets platinum blond. I got the spray-on stuff, and that just looks silly. It was poetic and whatever, but I said “I don’t think it’s going to work.” So we went to a salon in the East Village and there’s this person who makes $200 to cut somebody’s hair standing there, she’s like, “So what do you want?” And [Noah say], “I want Steve McQueen.” As she’s cutting my hair, I’m looking in the mirror, and started the whole process for me. When I had the haircut and I had the suit, it just clicked. I didn’t go out cruising around with detectives. I know this is probably frustrating to hear because it’s not very enlightening, but I usually find most of the inspiration is just in the writing of the script — that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do [“The Missing Person”], the script was so freakin’ good, you’d have to be a moron to mess it up.
A lot of people say “Oh, you’re like Elliott Gould in ‘The Long Goodbye.'” I’m like “I’ve never seen ‘The Long Goodbye,’ but that’s great.” It was very low budget and there were no amenities, as it were, so after 10 hours of sitting around smoking cigarettes, you get to that point naturally.
How stylized would you say John is? I was actually going to be one of those people to bring up Elliott Gould, because they do seem awfully similar — John doesn’t seem to know about cell phones that can take pictures, for instance, he seems a little out of time and place.
The thing about the character that’s revealed throughout the course of the movie is that he’s not so much a detective as he is…I know this is going to sound corny as hell, but he is the missing person. To me, the whole beginning of the story… it’s almost like he could be dreaming this whole thing, that he’s really just some drunk laying in his bed imagining that he’s a detective. Obviously, he’s desperately searching for something to fill the gigantic hole in his heart, [because] his wife worked at the World Trade Center and died there. The style of it is for me is very much like this could possibly all be an illusion to begin with.
9/11 has worked its way indirectly into a lot of films, but there still aren’t many that have taken it on directly. You’ve acted in two of the ones I can think of — “The Missing Person” and “World Trade Center.” What’s your opinion on those who’ve made the claim that it’s too soon to deal with it on film?
To me, that’s insulting to the passage of time. To say that Vietnam is more palatable now because it was a few decades ago is just as distasteful to me as saying that something isn’t palatable because it just happened yesterday. These things will always be tragedies. I was just at Machu Picchu in Peru and there were all these people walking around in little tour groups with their guides, taking pictures and looking at the mountains, and I just kept thinking [the Incas] met the most gruesome end imaginable, entire civilizations wiped out, and we’re walking around taking pictures of it. I think what’s important is not so much letting enough time pass so that things don’t hurt as much, but making sure that they still hurt 20 years from now. It shouldn’t be any less…painful maybe isn’t the right word, but it shouldn’t become more palatable because time has passed.
It seems that a lot of the characters you’ve played have undergone some terrible trauma and are still trying to put themselves back together after it. What is it about that type of role that appeals to you?
Well, that’s what life’s all about, isn’t it? Everybody’s constantly being destroyed and rebuilding themselves, some more drastically than others. One of the reasons I got into acting to begin with is that I was trying to figure out how life worked. It was interesting to me to try and follow how other people, real or imaginary, would deal with problems, because I was trying to deal with my own problems. “Revolutionary Road” is seen as kind of relentlessly downbeat, but ultimately I think it’s very uplifting, because you’re getting to watch other people struggle with things that you may struggle with yourself. When you see a struggle that you may be having personally put on a big screen and in a roomful of people, then it makes you feel less crazy or alone, because you’re seeing that other people are dealing with it too. You get to see in this imaginary scenario how people might try and answer some questions or deal with some problems. So I think it’s the most constructive thing that can be done with films, really.
Do you get offered a lot of standard roles? Looking over your filmography, you seem to have a high percentage of ambitious projects with great directors.
I’m still not at a point where I’m calling the shots or anything — I do tend to find myself where people want me. There are certain things that I’ll say right off the bat I’m not even interested in, but it’s not like I’m getting scripts in the mail and saying “Not this one.” But, I’ve been really lucky and I’ve had the whole spectrum. Films like “The Missing Person” and “Shotgun Stories” really excite me because they’re from brilliant young writer/directors who have infinite potential and I get to be in on the ground floor. I think 23 years from now, Noah’s going to be the kind of director that people will go to MoMA to watch a retrospective of, and hopefully “The Missing Person” will be in it.
One of the things I liked about the movie is its fondness for New York, for, say, the cab driver playing his music loud and smoking out the window. As someone who lives there, are there aspects of the city you particularly love?
I love my neighborhood. I live in Red Hook in Brooklyn, which used to be apparently practically uninhabitable because it was so dangerous, but now it’s getting very gentrified.
Yeah, IKEA, exactly. I like it because it reminds me of the South a little bit. It’s quiet and not very crowded, it’s just a very easy place to live. I’ve had a lot of fun on Manhattan, it’s an amazing place on earth to go to, but I don’t think I’d want to live there. The thing about New York is, more than any other place I’ve ever been, you run into people on the street that you would never imagine you’d see, old friends, people just like there for a day or two. I find that all the time when I’m walking around Manhattan, running into people that I had no idea were even there.
I feel obligated to ask you an Oscary question — the announcements are on Thursday. If you get a nomination, do you have a pithy quote ready for when The Hollywood Reporter or Variety calls you to ask for a reaction?
Oh man, I don’t know. I’m pretty unprepared for that. It’s something that people have been talking about for a long time, but there’s this avalanche of awards leading up to the Oscars and I’ve been shut out of all of them. So I’m going to need to see it to believe it. I’ll probably say: “Yeah, I’m really happy. Thank you.” And then, you know, go back to my life. [laugh]
[Photos: Michael Shannon in “The Missing Person,” Visit Films, 2009]