Michael Shannon Says Acting Is Only Getting More Difficult, Reveals He Almost Turned Down ‘Bad Boys 2’
Michael Shannon might be the busiest actor of the year. In 2016 he starred in 10 films, including his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice corpse cameo and two unreleased films from the Tribeca Film Festival. Shannon continued his ongoing collaboration with director Jeff Nichols in Midnight Special and Loving, he played Elvis Presley opposite Kevin Spacey’s President Nixon, portrayed a hilarious Texas sheriff in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, and reunited with Werner Herzog for Salt and Fire. And after all that, he even found time to put together the best red carpet outfit of all time.
Shannon works so much that when I sat down to talk with him last month, he’d just gotten off a red eye from Toronto after wrapping one of his five films expected out next year. In his latest and final release of 2016, Shannon plays Frank, a Las Vegas chef who falls for a woman with a mysterious past. Frank & Lola begins as a quiet romance between Frank and Imogen Poots’ Lola before switching to a tense psychosexual drama about jealousy and betrayal.
The actor told me about filming Frank & Lola back-to-back with Elvis & Nixon, an experience he called “pretty f–king weird,” and why he almost turned down his role in Bad Boys 2. Shannon also revealed he doesn't like being photographed and said, despite his 24 years of experience and overflowing resume, acting has become more difficult for him over time.
You’ve been in so many films this year and played a lot of intense, energetic characters, from Nocturnal Animals to Midnight Special and Elvis and Nixon. In Frank & Lola your character feels much more stripped down and naturalistic.
Yeah. Well look, at the end of they day, he’s a cook, you know? That’s what he is. And from what I’ve seen their primary focus is food, making food. So they don’t necessarily have to be super verbal you know? I mean, it’s a hard life. It’s a hard job.
Were you familiar with a chef’s lifestyle before this film?
Just to the the extent that I had worked in some restaurants and I spent some time with a friend of Matt [Ross’], the director, who’s a very successful chef, and he kind of showed me the ropes. It’s not like I’m a complete and total expert on it, but I’ve certainly been around it.
There’s a relatable vulnerability and human quality to Frank and his jealousy that I don't think is reflected as much in the louder characters you’ve played. Did you understand him more as an everyday kind of guy rather than compared to the big personalities you've played?
I don’t know. I feel like all my characters are human beings. I’m not playing, like, a minotaur or something. They’re all people. They’re different people, and they operate differently and they think differently.
So it’s hard for me to answer that question I guess. I’m always approaching any part I play as an inquiry into the identity of the character, whoever they happen to be. But I guess maybe what you’re thinking or saying is that he’s not a tremendously complicated person, which is probably true.
He is a very simple guy.
Yeah, so maybe that’s what you’re responding to. I mean, he’s very pure. He loves cooking and he loves Lola. It’s very simple, and then he gets hurt and then he flips out.
That response can easily be sensationalized or hyperbolic in movies, but the ways you reacted with jealousy and suspicion in this film are more subtle.
Well that’s good to hear. It’s always hard for me to comment on that because I’m not in the audience, you know? I can’t say, yeah I was so subtle in that movie. It’s just not my prerogative I guess. I just show up and do the work.
Do you watch your films later?
Oh yeah, I watch ’em. I saw this movie and I don’t have any problem. I’m always curious to see how they turned out because you know the work is very hard. I think it’s a lot harder than most people realize. Every shot is a battle. I mean this movie, we shot it very quickly. Imogen [Poots] and I, we had a real natural kind of chemistry, which is weird because I didn’t know her from Adam before we started shooting the movie. We shot that part in Vegas in like, three weeks. Which is crazy. We shot all the Paris stuff in one week, which was even crazier. So maybe it’s like Japanese sand painting or something, you just do it really fast.
When you say every movie is difficult, is it the same for you when shooting indie movies compared to big studio movies? Is it still the same level of difficulty?
Honestly the weird thing about acting, for me anyway, maybe it’s different for other people, I find the longer I do it the more difficult it gets. I feel like any human being on earth could probably be in a movie. I saw American Honey recently and the girl, Sasha Lane, she’s great. But could she play Ophelia? Can you keep showing up and doing it over and over and over again, and every time you show up you’re supposed to be somebody else? You feel like you’re going to run out of possibilities.
That’s the way I look at it. I’m trying to create a whole different person each time. So, it’s like excavating yourself. I just finished a movie last night in Toronto. It was very hard. But also, I think the harder it is usually the more likelihood that it’ll be worthwhile to see it, to watch it because it shouldn’t be easy. It should not be easy to make a great movie, and it isn’t.
Is there a role that’s been the hardest for you?
They’re all difficult. Honestly, playing Elvis was a very demanding thing to do. It took me a long time to wrap my head around that. But eventually I started having fun with it once I got on the set and settled down a little bit.
It’s hard to stand in front of a camera. I don’t really like having my picture taken to begin with. People are always like, “Can I take a picture?” I’m like, “No. I don’t want to.” Then I realize how absurd that is because I’m getting it taken 24 frames-per-second at work. But it’s a very unnatural thing, you know?
I read you shot Elvis and Nixon in Vegas right before Frank & Lola. What was that like making those back-to-back?
No, I shot it in New Orleans. What happened was, we shot the Vegas part of Frank & Lola for like three weeks. And then I went to New Orleans and shot Elvis and Nixon. And then after that we went to Paris and did that part of Frank & Lola in Paris. So that was very trippy. That was pretty f–king weird.
What was it like to navigate between those two?
It was surprising. I was surprised when I got to Paris how quickly I clicked back into it. Because I had really been just eating, breathing, sleeping Elvis all the time for five weeks. So I was a little anxious, like what if I don’t remember what my voice sounds like or whatever. But the second we got over there and plugged back into the story, I was like “Oh yeah...” It wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated it was going to be.
You bring a lot of humor to Nocturnal Animals. The scene in the police station with Karl Glusman is so great. Was any of that improv or was it all in Tom Ford’s script?
The owl [scene], I think I had said that out of my imagination. But it was mostly the script. Tom worked really hard on that script. It’s based on a book. Tony and Susan. Tom is pretty meticulous guy and filmmaker. We pretty much stuck to the script. There’d be a little thing here or there. There was some – well see, I don’t like to say. It’s a secret.
I love that character. It’s my favorite of yours from this year.
I love Bobby. He’s a cool dude. He’s a good fellow, he’s very sweet. He’s kind of a curmudgeon, but very sweet because he really cares. He winds up caring about Jake [Gyllenhaal’s] character in spite of himself. He doesn’t want to, he really doesn’t want to and he can’t help it.
I enjoyed you in Loving. I read that you shot that part in one day.
Yeah, it was totally manageable. It wasn’t like we were rushing around. It made sense. It would have been silly for it to take longer. I was sad I didn’t get to spend more time on that set. I always like being around Jeff and Joel [Edgerton]. I really liked Ruth [Negga] a lot.
She’s great in that.
I hope she gets nominated. And Joel, and Jeff.
Last question, has there ever been a role you hesitated taking or that you needed convincing to take?
Oh yeah. [Laughs] There’s been a few. I remember when I got the offer for Bad Boys 2 to play that silly man in the KKK. I read the material and I thought, “This is humiliating. I don’t want to do this.” But my manger at the time said, “Michael you can’t pass this up. This is one of the biggest franchises in the world. This movie will make half a billion dollars at the very least and everybody on Earth is going to see it.” I’m like, “Yeah but then they’re gonna see me wearing a white robe.” So I was really on the fence about it. But it was all in good fun at the end of the day. The fact that it was so silly made it very clear that I was not a role model in any way shape or form.