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You Can't Play a Symbol: Michael Shannon on "Nocturnal Animals"

In one of his busiest years as a prolific actor ("Midnight Special," "Elvis & Nixon," "Complete Unknown" and "Loving") Michael Shannon captivates again throughout writer/director Tom Ford's thriller, "Nocturnal Animals." Within the film's narrative, about an art gallery owner (Amy Adams) who revisits a painful relationship through a brutal manuscript by her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), Shannon is a supporting character, a detective with nothing left to lose in the symbolic story's murder mystery. But Ford is keen to how special Shannon's presence is, giving the Oscar-nominated actor an iconic introduction in the film that dwarfs those of his leading co-stars. In Shannon's typical fashion, the pulpy character of Bobby Andes becomes a fascinating role of astounding subtlety and charisma, as Shannon creates tension and dry comedy of equal magnitude through stone-cold glares and sparse dialogue. Within an already wide-ranging filmography, it's a definitive moment for the singular American actor. 

RogerEbert.com spoke with Shannon over the phone last week to discuss the film, how he makes sense of the past week's election results, how being an actor is like being a student of life and more.

Thanks for talking, Michael. Happy Friday to you. 

[Pause] Really? [Laughs] Not so much. It’s not one of my happier Fridays ... now that the Orange Man is running the world. 

And Leonard Cohen just passed … 

I think Leonard Cohen died rather conveniently after Trump was elected president. I think he killed him. 

Can you make sense of any of that for me—how Trump was elected? 

Yeah, I’ll tell you how to make sense of it: This country’s filled with ignorant jackasses. The big red dildo running through the middle of our country needs to be annexed to be its own country of moronic assholes. You can call it the United States of Moronic Fucking Assholes. 

Do you think those assholes started off that way, or that people are inherently good and lost? 

I don’t know how people got so goddamn stupid. But it’s really weird, because it’s like the last eight years, now it feels like a lie. Like, this has been festering underneath the whole time. Racists, sexists. And a lot of these people, they don’t know why the fuck they’re alive. They know it. They’re doing drugs, fucking killing themselves. Because they’re like, 'Why the fuck am I alive? I can’t get a job, I don’t know anything about anything, I have no curiosity for life or the world.' So this Trump thing is like getting a box of firecrackers, or something. It’s like, 'Well, this will be fun for a little while, this’ll kill some time.' Because, y’know, the jackass will be amusing on television, stay stupid shit. Make everybody clap. Hillary would have been too boring, I suppose. It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened. It’s the worst. This guy is going to destroy civilization as we know it, and the earth, and all because of these people who don’t have any idea why they’re alive. 

Do you think this idea of purpose comes down to education, or finding a job that they like? 

I don’t know! I mean, yeah, to a certain extent I agree with Trump. Yeah, NAFTA was fucked up and people need to have jobs. People need to have a way of supporting themselves, they need a way of having self-respect, pride and dignity. You take that away from them, this is what you get. 

Earlier, I was successfully chasing some post-election blues by watching your segment on "Delocated" where you sit in a bush with comedian Jon Glaser.

[Laughs] Hey, you know I’m on “Jon Glaser Loves Gear” too. I’ve known Jon Glaser since he was a young pup, we used to do Non-Equity Theater in Chicago together. I saw him in like a shitty old theater doing plays for free. Back in the day. 

And in this movie, you got the biggest laughs certainly from the screening audience I saw it with. 

When I saw it in Toronto, people started laughing just when I came on the screen. 

How does it make you feel? 

[Coughs] Like a bad-ass!

You had that Charlton Heston, “Touch of Evil” vibe with the mustache. 

Now I’m starting to freak out, though. Do you think Bobby would vote for Trump? I hope he wouldn’t. 

I don’t think he’d vote. 

You know what, you’re right. He’s such a nihilist at this point that he wouldn’t vote at all. He has one kid ... but he doesn’t even talk to them ...

When it comes to creating a character like Bobby, do you think about backstory, about what they’re thinking about? Or do you just go with what is on the page? 

Yeah, I don’t get all OCD about it. It’s like, some things are pretty clear just from reading the script, you know? And the guy’s been a detective for a long time, seen it all, spending his life trying to get crazy lunatics off the streets. And then having mixed results, and he’s dealt with a lot of disappointments and heartbreak, and now he’s kind of hard and not easy to talk to. But he can’t help but be moved by what happened to Tony, it’s very moving. And he tries for one last time to give somebody some hope, and give some justice for this foul play. 

I’m kind of stuck on how you felt like a bad-ass and that people were laughing when you were first shown in the movie. 

When we shot this shot, we were on the set and Tom [Ford] was like, 'I am going to give you the greatest introduction that you’ll ever give in your life. This shot is so amazing. And when people see this shot they are going to freak out.' At least at the screening I was at, he was right. 

I was watching it, and I was waiting for you to show up. I wasn’t sure if you were just going to drop into frame or something, but you got the hero’s welcome. 

I just feel so lucky that I got to play this part at all. And there’s other dudes that could have done it. 

I don’t know about that. Not the way you did it. I sincerely mean that, too. 

I don’t know, what about that … Christian Bale? Will Smith. [Giggles] 

When you’re working with Tom Ford, who has a unique background as a fashion designer first, what does he give you as a director when you’re coming up with the character? 

Honestly, he gave me a lot of freedom, you know? I think he trusts me, to handle it. And he kind of said that 'It feels like you know this guy better than I do.' It’s a mystery to me, I’m not exactly sure why, because in all honesty I have nothing in common with Bobby Andes. I don’t know why it makes sense to me. But the look of it was huge, and that was when he is really front and center, Tom. Stetson cowboy boots, that costume. We did a neat trick where we made the clothes slightly larger throughout the film, not to give anything away, but that had a nice effect, I thought. I mean the guy, he cut my hair, and the mustache, everything. I get a lot out of that. I get a lot out of the look of the character. I know it seems kind of superficial, but we all judge people by the way they look, we make assumptions about people based on the way they look, and we imagine who people are based on the way they look. In acting, you can’t help but mimic that. 

It seems like it gives you the person, you’re in the skin. 

Yeah, that’s the thing. I couldn’t show up in my street clothes and do that. I’d look ridiculous. I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that look. And the way they photograph it, Seamus [McGarvey] is a brilliant DP.  

With the scenes that you have with Jake Gyllenhaal, you have a complete opposite approach to acting in general. I think this is your first time working with him? 

Yeah, but we’ve known each other a long time. We’ve been wanting to work together for a long time, so it was kind of cool that this came together. 

How do you collaborate especially in the scenes where he is completely firing on all emotional cylinders? 

Yeah, the guy, Jesus. It was hard to watch. He really went for it. He spent a lot of time being really emotional, one way or the other. Every once in a while he would use humor to try and lighten the load a little bit. Every now and then he’d say, “Can we do the fun scene today?” I’d see him smiling. Sometimes he wondered, like, how much further into despair could I possibly go? I mean, for me, if that happened to my family, there would be no bottom to it. It would be endless. I would probably blow my brains out, I don’t know. 

There’s this complete darkness that’s very striking tone-wise and emotionally. 

And it’s all feeding into the real life, where all of these characters are symbols. People ask, ‘Well, did that inform how you played it?’ I’m like, ‘No, not really. You can’t play a symbol.’ But it is true that you really help a character tell this story to the woman he loves. 

When you’re doing something like this, or even a Seth Rogen stoner comedy like 2015's “The Night Before,” are you taking it from the same perspective of, “I’m going to do my part and let them add the context?” 

Yeah, with "The Night Before" that was alien territory to me, I had never done one of those kind of movies. But I do have a history with improv, being from Chicago, a lot of improv there. And I love improvising. I think I do a little improv in most of the things I’ve worked on. But it was a blast, "The Night Before," but it was very different, though, from doing “Nocturnal Animals.” On "The Night Before," they’re changing up the scene between every take, throwing in new ideas. Just waiting to see what sticks. I had never done that before. They’re just trying to find the absolute funniest thing that can happen, which can be a very oddly nerve-wracking task. It’s much more nerve-wracking than doing a drama, or whatever. It’s a very anxious process. 

There’s an element in “Nocturnal Animals” of art influencing life and vice versa. Is that something you often think about? 

Yeah, it’s all interconnected, definitely. The way I look at it is that being an actor is being a student of life and the world. The life you live is your primary tool when you are approaching your work, the experiences you have, the observations you make, that’s your main ammunition, you know. 

So if you’re a student in the last few movies that you’ve done, what are you learning from them? 

Well, it’s like, I don’t know if I’m learning E=mc 2 or anything, more just constantly more about what I’m doing and the effect that people have on one another, and in the world by virtue of their actions. This last movie I did with Guillermo del Toro [2017's "The Shape of Water"] was a learning experience to work with him, just to know him better, to know more about him. I’ve been fascinated by his movies for years. So to be able to sit next him everyday, and hear him tell stories and watch his process, was very fulfilling. But what I mean is like, the life you live is what’s going to help you understand how to illustrate the lives of the characters you play. It’s like, the main reason … when you see me playing Bobby, you’re seeing the manifestation of a lot of thoughts and ideas and experiences that I’ve had. I’m not creating something out of nothing, it’s the culmination of my life and my experience turned into something else. 

And it's particularly interesting then, if the life you’re living is as an actor. 

Yeah, well some people wonder like, ‘All you do is act, are you going to lose touch with quote-unquote reality, if you’re insulated?’ But, so far so good, I guess. I don’t mean to sound cocky, but I guess the one thing I always try to do, I always resist the notion that I’m sort of star or something. I still walk down the street, take the subway, try and stay in the real world as much as possible. It’s so you don’t become some insulated pompous asshole who doesn’t have the slightest idea how the world works. Like Donald Trump. 

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