Round about midnight

Michael Shannon on Midnight Special and expanding his horizons.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Michael Shannon is to star in Long Day's Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne.
Michael Shannon is to star in Long Day's Journey Into Night with Jessica Lange and Gabriel Byrne. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At the Warner Bros. 21 Club tea, honoring Jeff Nichols' very special Midnight Special, hosted by Michael Shannon with Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent) and Nichols, I spoke with Michael about Sam Shepard, Joel Edgerton, Paul Sparks, Erin Benach's costumes, Werner Herzog's Salt And Fire, Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, and Tribeca Centerpiece World Premiere Liza Johnson's Elvis & Nixon, where he plays Elvis Presley to Kevin Spacey's Richard Nixon. Shannon starred in Nichols' Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud and upcoming Loving.

Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) with Roy
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) with Roy

The Place Beyond The Pines director Derek Cianfrance, whose The Light Between Oceans, starring Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz is due out in September, moderated a panel discussion earlier at the event organized by Peggy Siegal.

In the sublime supernatural family thriller Midnight Special, Roy (Shannon) is a former member of the Third Heaven Ranch, a cult headed by Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard). Roy's son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) has very special powers and has to be re-united with his mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), before embarking on a nebulous important quest. We first meet Alton, Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from everyone - the cult, the police, FBI and NSA.

In a spectacular race with time, often in the dark, they go on a road trip unlike any other, while the true story slowly unfolds like a gigantic flower nobody knew existed. Not knowing is just as important as knowing here and that goes for characters and viewers. Trust is the big issue and Roy knows it.

Michael Shannon as Roy: "... the character is lead by his heart."
Michael Shannon as Roy: "... the character is lead by his heart."

Anne-Katrin Titze: One thing about Jeff Nichol's movies is that there are real heroes. You get a chance to play someone good, in a way. Is that some of the appeal?

Michael Shannon: Yeah, I think somebody with integrity and somebody who basically is being led by their heart, that's always beyond whether they're good or bad people. I mean, Roy has moments in the film where he does some questionable stuff - you know, tells Lucas to shoot the state trooper. I just find it very moving that the character is lead by his heart and can't help but follow his heart. It's a very simple thing to say but it's a hard thing to do.

AKT: I see Eugene O'Neill sticking out of your pocket. What is it?

MS [pulls out the book to show me]: Well, this is why I wasn't going to be able to be here. I'm rehearsing.

AKT: Long Day's Journey Into Night?

Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard)
Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard)

MS: Yes. They didn't need me at rehearsal today, so I ran over here. They're working on a scene I wasn't in so I was able to sneak out. So, yeah, this is what I'm working on right now. It'll be on Broadway. We'll start previews April 3.

AKT: I noticed the interesting choices for the costumes in Midnight Special. You are wearing this denim shirt with a zipper - well, you are wearing a denim shirt today, too - but that particular one in the film felt perfect, I don't really know why. It is holding you together, it is as American as can be.

MS: Right. It's almost like his suit of armor in a way. It's like he needs it because he has got so much underneath it. It's like a cloak or something. As Jeff was saying [earlier], the costume design was impeccable. This woman Erin [Benach], she's, I think going to be Jeff's designer for a while now, as long as she's available.

AKT: The denim also distinguishes you from the cult men. It's the only thing that makes them different from the non-cult people - they look like men with really bad taste in shirts. The women are the ones who really have to wear the Amish dresses and pompadour hair. I really loved the details - you can go with them in your own head, but you don't have to and just trust. How much did you discuss backstory with Jeff?

Lucas (Joel Edgerton)
Lucas (Joel Edgerton)

MS: I mean, it was on a need-to-know basis. Just in terms of points that there had to be some common agreement about. The history between Roy and Sarah. The history between Roy and Lucas. It wasn't feverish. We weren't trying to come up with every single detail every single day. We just kind of got the architecture of it.

AKT: Did you know Joel Edgerton before?

MS: No, I'd never worked with any of these actors before, really. I've worked with Paul Sparks [Agent Miller] but we don't have anything together in the movie.

AKT: And with Sam Shepard.

MS: Well, Sam was in Mud, but I didn't have anything to do with him either.

AKT: With Joel Edgerton, it is so believable that you were old, old pals. That you've grown up together.

Roy and Lucas: "Me and Joel just hit it off right away."
Roy and Lucas: "Me and Joel just hit it off right away."

MS: Me and Joel just hit it off right away. Honestly, we really bonded through our sense of humor. As serious as this movie is, between takes we had a good time and made each other laugh. That's a great way to establish a relationship quickly - is through humour.

AKT: You have all these driving scenes together. Men driving in the night.

MS: Men driving, yeah. Joel is that kind of guy. He is such a charming and easy person to be around. It's true, we've had a lot of luck. If any of us had not gotten along we could have really gone south.

AKT: Gone south!

MS: Yeah, exactly. But there were no conflicts, personality wise.

AKT: Besides Eugene O'Neill, what's coming up for you?

Midnight Special poster at 21 Club
Midnight Special poster at 21 Club Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MS: Well, this is what I'm doing till July, so it's the next four months. I have some films coming out. This Elvis Nixon film is coming out in April.

AKT: At Tribeca, right?

MS: At Tribeca. Then I did this Tom Ford movie, Nocturnal Animals. I think it will come out in the fall. I got some other indie films that are kind of bouncing around out there. I got another movie that I did with Werner Herzog that might come out this year. In terms of what I'm shooting next, I'm not really sure.

AKT: How is it working with Werner Herzog?

MS: Great. I've done it three times now. I hope to do it again. I learn a lot every time I work with him. He is so intelligent and he has just so much knowledge. He is so well-read and he really knows the world. He has taken me to places I never probably would have gone, had I not worked with him.

AKT: Is that how you choose your roles? Going places where you haven't gone before?

MS: That's part of it, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a way of expanding your horizons. I always say, I learned a lot more from acting than I ever did going to school. I've gone places and met people and considered experiences that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Coming up - Jeff Nichols, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon on what's in a name and Derek Cianfrance on his upcoming film.

Midnight Special opens in the US on March 18 and in the UK on April 8.

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