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The Monster Inside: Michael Shannon on "The Shape of Water"

Few actors deserve their own talk show more than Michael Shannon. The legendary actor has the rock star presence of someone like Elvis (who he portrayed in last year’s “Elvis & Nixon”), the ideological transparency of a figurehead not beholden to just playing “nice” when promoting a project, and an active yet unfussy interest in recognizing all shades of the human soul. I’d love to see him interact with violent dictators just as much as animal trainers with baby tigers. 

That explains in part why it’s a unique pleasure to pick Shannon’s brain over the course of an interview, and why our previous interaction (talking about 2016's "Nocturnal Animals") created some controversy. When I asked him to explain to me why he thinks Donald Trump was recently elected, Shannon reasoned, in one select passage, “This county’s filled with ignorant jackasses. The big red dildo running through the middle of our county needs to be annexed to be its own country of moronic assholes.” The interview was then written about in other publications, and I had the strange amusement of having my name (next to his) printed in right-wing blog Breitbart

In co-writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s political fairytale “The Shape of Water,” Shannon embodies a type of Trumpian nightmare and creates one of the auteur darkest villains yet. His government character Strickland is an American man in 1962 with a sociopathic presence in the workplace and at home, who seeks to humiliate all of those below him and appease all of those above him. Strickland’s misogyny and racism provides a key counterpoint to the wave of civil rights working through the film, but is enough to make him a horrifying monster of power from any era. He reaches a type of destiny when a gorgeous, delicate sea creature appears in the lab that Strickland is overseeing. Under specific orders, Strickland seeks to destroy it, despite its scientific worth and beauty. 

I spoke with Shannon last month about our previous interview, what he learned from working with Guillermo del Toro, his thoughts on the recent sexual harassment allegations that have come to the surface in Hollywood, and more.

Last year, I interviewed you for "Nocturnal Animals," and some of the comments you made about Trump voters being "moronic assholes" were then covered in other publications, including Breitbart. I was curious as to your side of it, I don’t know if you see the ripples after such statements. 

No, I don’t. I don’t see any of it. 

[Shannon looks at the Breitbart article for roughly ten seconds

So they published this like I was supposed to be ashamed of what I was saying? Because it’s not really slanted that way, enough. Everything I said is right, I don’t understand. They need to make it clearer that they're criticizing me. I just read it and it’s all true. I don’t take any of it back. 

I think it’s that people would be insulted just by seeing that association. 

Well, they are stupid. People that read Breitbart are stupid. That’s like, a fact. That’s not even my opinion. That’s a fact. That Breitbart thing is hysterical. You can’t just reprint what I said, you gotta say “convicted felon Michael Shannon,” put a slant on it. I indicted myself? They didn’t realize how fair and true it was?

Also in that interview, you had said that on the set you had "learned" from Guillermo. So I’m curious, what did you learn? 

Oh, the dreaded question, “what did you learn?” 

We can do other non-dreaded questions. 

No, it’s a tricky question. It’s like … a lot of what an actor learns isn’t necessarily something you put into words. The words are somebody else’s job, someone else writes the words, the screenwriter. And acting is more about experience. I hate saying this to a writer, but I think humans have the misconception that our most effective means of communication with one another is language. I don’t necessarily believe that to be the truth. I think we communicate with each other in other ways. And sometimes the words are just a pre-text for communication. 

So anyway, what I learned from Guillermo … I was always by Guillermo’s side, between takes. I was always standing next to his station, his video village over there. Because Guillermo would never stop working, he was always editing the movie. Like, between takes he would go look at shots and start doing a cut with the playback guy. And I had never seen a director do that before. Like, he was so down the rabbit hole. This movie is all ... it consumed him. There was nothing else on his mind. That’s what great directors do. That’s how you become a great director. Your devotion and your dedication has to be that extreme. Like most great directors he has an amazing eye for detail, there’s not any part of the frame that he takes for granted. He has an ability to focus on many different things at the same time. And he has a wonderful sense of humor. He’s fun, he’s fun to be around. Most of the directors I’ve really loved, I’ve not only enjoyed working with them, I’ve just enjoyed being around them. And he would definitely fall into that category. 

Does Werner Herzog fit into that category? 

Oh, yeah, yeah. Herzog definitely. Herzog, Nichols, Ramin Bahrani, Liza Johnson, Tom Ford I really like. These are people who ... it’s a very social thing, directing. You’re creating almost a society for the proliferation of your film. And they have to understand how different people who do different things operate and have different demands or different ways of communicating. It’s like you’re an ambassador between all of these different departments in ways of creating. 

You mention writers have the words and you have the experience. So what experiences were you bringing to such a character? 

It all started with Guillermo. Guillermo wanted to capture the quintessential, 1960s uptight American dude working for the government. Who really believes in the cause, wants the boss to like him, wants the best car and the nicest house and the greenest lawn. Just wants it so bad, you know? Because, it was providing this false sense of security and safety and strength. And how that ultimately was just hollow, how hollow that was. And that Strickland was the archetype of that, the American anxiety. On the surface, I guess when you’re watching the movie, it’s easy to notice that Strickland can be capable of cruelty or whatnot. But Guillermo always couched it in a more complicated scenario. 

It’s funny you mention this because this is one of the most monstrous characters you’ve played. You’ve played some really terrible men in movies, but just by the way that Strickland interacts with the world and treats women … 

Well yeah, there is that. I think Strickland is an important character, I think he’s an important character to look at right now. In the light of day. I’m quite happy to take it on the chin for the team. Although I enjoy my job, and I’m not going into it like, “oh this guy’s mean, or, this guy’s nice, or this guy’s whatever.” I just try and tell the story. I’m excited because I’m a part of the story, the same way all the other characters. All these characters were very important to Guillermo, you know? Now, you could have done a different version of the movie where maybe she didn’t have a neighbor, or she didn’t work with somebody else or there wasn’t a scientist. But for Guillermo, it’s like, these six characters are essential and there’s a reason. And I know who I want to be these people

You said “take one on the chin” earlier … because you’re playing this kind of character? 

Well, y’know. I have to confess a certain type of fatigue over the years of hearing about my, y’know, ability to whatnot. Because for me, I don’t look at it that way. And I’ve even crossed the threshold where I’m even tired of trying to deal with the question. 

What’s the question we’re talking about? 

“You’re so good at being whatever.” Mean, evil, crazy, however people want to phrase it that day. But it’s like, no. I’m an actor, I play characters, and I’ve gotten to the point where people will give me a bag of money in exchange for doing that. And that’s the way I look at it. Which took a long, long damn time [laughs]. 

You’ve been doing a lot of strange comedy stuff too. Or like when you played Elvis. That was such a surprising, dynamic thing, but an actor’s choice. 

I’m like bring it on. The way I look at it is, I want a challenge. I want a challenge and I want the opportunity to convey, perhaps a message of sanity or harmony or give people something to chew on. And that Elvis story just blew my mind. And I hadn’t thought much about Elvis before that. But the more time I spent researching and learning about Elvis, I really fell in love with the guy. Sweet man. Sad and misunderstood. And I was hanging out with Jerry Schilling, one of his closest buddies. And I said, “Jerry, no one’s gonna think I’m Elvis.” And Jerry said, “Look, there’s a lot of people that try to sound like my friend and look like my friend. But there aren’t a lot of people that understand my friend. And he’s like, I want you to understand my friend. I think you might be able to do that.” I said, “well, if you put it that way, well, OK. I’ll try.” 

People see you, Michael Shannon, as Elvis, too. 

It was a producer’s idea. I had worked with her on “Bug,” and she was hellbent on it. She did not take no for an answer. And I’m very grateful for her, I did not say yes the first time she asked me to do it. Or the second. 

You had mentioned with this movie and this character and the “light of day" ... I was wondering what thoughts have been in your head with the news of these people coming forward with sexual allegations in Hollywood. 

Well, it’s horrifying. I have two daughters, you know? And the thought of some dude doing that to one of my daughters makes me homicidal. Not only do I feel bad for the women, I feel bad for the fathers in that situation. And I think about, y’know, for all the women that stood up for themselves and said no, and got the hell out of there, what about those that didn’t? Because Harvey, if he was doing it, at some point someone must have said yes. And those are the people I feel super goddamn sorry for. But the double standard here is appalling. Harvey Weinstein is out here in front of a firing squad right now, and Donald Trump’s still President of the United States of America. Donald Trump is on tape claiming the exact same thing. So what the hell is going on? I don’t get it. I’m confused. And people are like, “It’s Hollywood.” I’m like, “Fuck, this is everywhere. Every goddamn industry. It’s in the waste management industry, there’s sexual harassment. It’s all over the damn place.” If there’s anything the last election proved to me, is, as racist as this country is, it’s a hell of a lot more goddamn sexist than it is racist. And it’s pretty damn racist. So that’s saying something. 

What do you feel, about your place as a man in this industry? 

Lead by example. Be the person that you would hope other people to be. And keep your family close. I just want to keep my daughters close to me at all times, so that these heathens don’t have anything to do with them.

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the former Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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