Mr Intensity lightens up on the boardwalk

Michael Shannon receives Deauville Talent Award

by Richard Mowe

Michael Shannon on the seafront boardwalk in Deauville where a beach cabin was named after him and he received a festival Talent Award
Michael Shannon on the seafront boardwalk in Deauville where a beach cabin was named after him and he received a festival Talent Award Photo: Deauville Film Festival
It is understandable why Michael Shannon holds the Normandy resort of Deauville in particular affection. Two of his films, which he accompanied, have won the festival’s grand prize - the psychological thriller Take Shelter, by Jeff Nichols in 2011, and Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes in 2015. In the latter he played memorably the role of a charismatic but ruthless real estate tycoon.

Shannon who has more than 100 cinema and television appearances to his credit as well as numerous award-winning theatre roles, relishes the fact that he cannot easily be typecast.

A particular influence has been writer-director Nichols. As well as Take Shelter he also appeared in his drama Loving in 2016; coming-of-age tale Mud (2012) and their first venture together Shot­gun Sto­ries in 2007.

He’s back at the Festival to receive a Deauville Talent Award - and to have a beach cabin named after him. The Deauville tradition embraces such legendary names as Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse.

Michael Shannon joins the starry ranks in Deauville’s beach cabin “hall” of fame
Michael Shannon joins the starry ranks in Deauville’s beach cabin “hall” of fame Photo: Deauville Film Festival
Having joined the gallery of luminaries on the blustery boardwalk he settled down for a reflection on his career. He is bemused that he is perceived as being a fiercely intense actor. “I don’t have that intensity in my private life. I don’t think that I am intense … I do a lot of dishes and laundry. I guess when you’re in the business of make-believe your desire is to do it with as much intensity or focus as possible. I have heard the description so often yet I am still mystified by it. For me it is all about focussing on what you imagine the person you are portraying is gong through or experiencing. So from that point of view intensity is just doing the job,” he said.

His criteria for choosing roles tends to rest with the director: “I have to believe the filmmaker knows how to make a great film so it really comes down to the people that I will be working with. I am susceptible to people saying that they want me to do this film with them so badly that they cannot imagine anyone else in the role but me. I am a bit of softie but I am trying to stop that because it does not always turn out so well.”

His working relationship with Jeff Nichols began when one of the director’s teachers at film school had worked with him at a Sundance film-makers lab. Jeff saw some of my scenes and asked how he could get a hold of me. When he did he sent me script for Shotgun Stories and I agreed to do the film. It was as simple as that. Jeff was just out of film school at the time yet his dedication was amazing. He did not have the money to get it finished and it sat in a bunch of film cans in his dad’s garage until he found enough money to get it finished. I found it impressive to watch the way he dealt with people, and knew how to get what he wanted.”

Michael Shannon plays an elite rowing coach in coming of age drama Swing due for an autumn release
Michael Shannon plays an elite rowing coach in coming of age drama Swing due for an autumn release Photo: Vertical Entertainment
Set in Southeast Arkansas, where Nichols spent much of his adolescence, Shotgun Stories is a small town tale of three brothers, Son (Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon), who are thrust into a feud when the father who abandoned them as children dies suddenly, and Son’s actions at his funeral incur the wrath of their four half brothers.

The script fuses together elements of classic tragedy, traditional American storytelling and epic cinema. The film emerges as poetic and powerful displaying Nichol’s flair for creating vivid, original characters and intense and thoughtful narratives. Shannon and he went on to make Mud and Midnight Special together as well as Take Shelter.

After three years acting on the Chicago stage, the Kentucky-born Shannon’s bow into cinema was the small but memorable turn as the guy who gushes over the WrestleMania tickets he’s been gifted in Harold Ramis’s Groundhog Day made in 1993.

Shannon has evolved as a quietly potent force in numerous films, plays, and television shows, including the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. On the big screen, he has served as a vivid, versatile presence in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (2001) and Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile (2002), as well as dark dramas such as Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008).

He worked with William Friedkin on an adaptation of Tracy Letts’s theatre play Bug about an unhinged war veteran who holes up with a lonely woman in a spooky Oklahoma motel room. The line between reality and delusion is blurred as they discover a bug infestation. “I was grateful to him for allowing me to follow it through from the stage to the cinema. I was the only one of the cast who had done the play, and we didn’t have much time to rehearse. I had been used to doing it and working on the film felt like leaving a bunch of friends from the theatre and joining a group of strangers on the film. I was amazed how quickly Ashley Judd got into her character. And I appreciated the way that Friedkin did not try to open it out too much for the cinema. It was exciting to do because it became much more three dimensional.”

Shannon’s theatre work has been impressive. Notably he has been admired on Broadway, co-starring along­side Jes­si­ca Lange, Gabriel Byrne, and John Gal­lagher Jr in Long Day’s Jour­ney into Night. Pro­duced by the Round­about The­atre Com­pa­ny and direct­ed by Jonathan Kent, the revival of Eugene O’Neill’s land­mark 1956 dra­ma led Shan­non to a 2016 Tony nom­i­na­tion for Sup­port­ing Actor. Pri­or to that, he appeared oppo­site Paul Rudd, Ed Asner, and Kate Arring­ton in Grace. In 2018, he direct­ed the world pre­miere of Trai­tor, Brett Neveu’s adap­tion of Hen­rik Ibsen’s play Ene­my of the Peo­ple.

Later this autumn Shan­non will be seen in Michael Mailer’s roman­tic, com­ing-of-age dra­ma, Swing, based on a screenplay from Vojin Gjaja, a former officer in the US Army who was an oarsman at Columbia University. Set in in 1999, it centres on a group of friends and crew teammates in their last year at an Ivy League college whose lives are changed forever when an Army veteran (Shannon) takes over as coach of their dysfunctional rowing team. Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton and Alex MacNicoll also star along with Ash Santos, Lilly Krug and David James Elliott.

And he has also just finished shooting the Brad Pitt starrer Bullet Train directed by Deadpool-2 director David Leitch. It follows five assassins on a high-speed bullet train who realise their assigned targets are related." The film is based on the book Maria Beetle by Japanese writer Kōtarō Isaka.

There’s another high profile project just waiting in the wings, as yet untitled and directed by David O. Russell who has not made anything since Joy in 2015. Besides Shannon the illustrious cast comprises Robert De Niro, Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, Chris Rock, Rami Malek, and Anya Taylor-Joy. Plus Zoe Saldana, John David Washington, Mike Myers, and Timothy Olyphant alongside Andrea Riseborough, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Alessandro Nivola.

Despite the company he keeps Shannon manages to remain level-headed. He said: “I feel there is a risk of buying into your own hype, thinking just because people pay a lot of attention to you that you're somehow more special.”

The Deauville Film Festival finishes later today.

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