In what seems like only a few short years, the actor Michael Shannon has quickly become one of the best, most reliable, most expressive and chameleon-like actors working today. He is an actor of intense presence who is often the most memorable thing about the pictures he stars in. In the past seven years he has moved from scene-stealing bit parts to completely owning the films he has appeared in as an unconventional leading man. His awkward lanky frame and intimidating features would not see him cast as a typical Hollywood leading man (he would have made the perfect Lurch in The Addams Family). But who is Michael Shannon?
He was born in 1974 and raised in Lexington, Kentucky. He would draw on his southern upbringing to imbue many of his more offbeat roles with a certain kind of menacing redneck intensity. He kicked off his motion picture career with a tiny role in Groundhog Day. He played one half of the happily married couple who receive a pair of tickets to Wrestlemania from Bill Murray’s grouchy weatherman. Now do you remember him in it?
Shannon plied his trade in Chicago theatre for many years, honing his craft. After his big screen debut in Groundhog Day, he would have small roles in bigger films like Tigerland, Pearl Harbor and Vanilla Sky. Even in these meagre roles, especially in the likes of the overrated Tigerland, Shannon’s memorable, yet brief performance as an army instructor who attempts to apply jump leads to a frightened soldiers genitals, was a performance that stayed in mind long after the film had ended. He had a presence that posed the question, ‘who is that guy’ and ‘what other films has he been in?’
In 2003, he starred in 8 Mile as Greg Buehl, the loser boyfriend of Eminem’s glamorous trailer trash mother. This was the point where critics and filmmakers alike began to take notice of him and what he could bring to a role. The character he portrayed was so deeply unlikeable, it generated the sympathy needed for Eminem’s character through their many arguments. Shannon had a knack for portraying unlikeable characters very well and became an interesting screen presence. Behind those bulbous Gollum-like eyes, one never knows what he is thinking. There is an unpredictability to him that makes his performances compelling. One never knows how he will react, which is exciting. His intense stare hints at a volcanic temper that bubbles beneath the surface to menacing effect.
In 2006, Shannon was cast in the lead role in William Friedkin’s Bug. He excelled as an unhinged soldier holed up in a grotty Oklahoma motel with Ashley Judd and a bug infestation. After watching him play in the stage version of Tracy Letts’ Bug, Friedkin was convinced that the relatively unknown Michael Shannon was ready for his first leading role in a motion picture. Although well received by critics, the picture was not a commercial success. It did revitalise Friedkin’s career somewhat as he had been in relative decline as a director for many years.
He followed this performance by playing another unhinged former soldier in Oliver Stone’s decidedly mediocre World Trade Center.
Even in a poor film like this, Shannon’s laconic performance was the most memorable aspect of the film. In 2007, first time Director Jeff Nichols cast Michael Shannon in Shotgun Stories. Set against the backroads and cotton fields of Arkansas, Shannon excelled as a man caught up in a family feud with his half brothers after the death of their father. Jeff Nichols has made five pictures. Michael Shannon has been in every one of them and not it would seem just as a good-luck charm. They are forging a working relationship that is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro’s screen partnership. In Mud, Take Shelter and most recently Midnight Special, Shannon conveys a sort of otherworldly determination to these often desperate characters that is often compelling to observe.
He does not play conventional villains; rather he paints them in shades of grey. His General Zod in Zach Snyder’s much maligned Man Of Steel is not a straightforward villain. He is not evil, but justly motivated by doing what he sees fit as being right for the future of his people. Shannon invests Zod with a sense of humanity, tinged with menace that is far removed from Terence Stamp’s effete Zod in Superman 2. Once again, Shannon proved to be the best thing in that particular film, as he had been in so many other forgettable pictures.
He received his first Academy Award nomination in 2008 for Revolutionary Road . In a spellbinding six minute cameo as a disturbed former maths prodigy, he manages to act Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates completely off the screen. Once again, his limited presence in a difficult film to like, proved that he could steal a picture from under the noses of any A-list actor. He surely would have won that year had it not been for Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight. This role helped to solidify his acting career and soon major roles would come calling
From 2010-2014, Shannon invested the role of Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, so convincingly that he became the most memorable character in a show littered with impressive portrayals. By 2014 he had his second Academy Award nomination for his supporting role in the excellent 99 Homes. Shannon portrayed the corrupt property agent Rick Carver, who evicts multiple families on a daily basis in recession hit Florida. He could easily have slipped into a typical caricature villain, however, Shannon manages to make Carver likeable and charismatic in a nuanced way that lesser actors would surely struggle with.
With no less than ten pictures in the pipeline, including this month’s release of Elvis and Nixon where he will portray the King opposite Kevin Spacey’s Richard Nixon and Jeff Nichol’s second film this year, Loving; 2016 is the perfect year for audiences to discover how broad his range is and just how comfortable and adept Michael Shannon is at playing the decent man or the indecent bastard.
Top 5 Performances
5. 99 Homes (2015)
As the vulture like property agent Rick Carver, Shannon conveys a type of dark charisma that almost makes you sympathise with his greedy plight.
4. Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
His portrayal of morally conflicted F.B.I. agent Nelson Van Alden was the main reason to tune into this often painfully slow, yet occasionally gripping prohibition era drama.
3. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (2009)
Shannon was oppressively intense as a man experiencing mystifying events that lead him to murder his mother with a sword. A difficult film to enjoy, but made palatable by a great performance by Shannon. This was the second picture he made with Werner Herzog after Bad Lieutenant. They have reunited for Salt & Fire to be released later this year.
2. Revolutionary Road (2008)
As a mentally disturbed former maths genius, Shannon is electrifying in a frenetic performance that lasts a mere six minutes of screen time. His character and the impact he leaves resonates throughout the rest of the picture. The film really comes alive when he is on-screen.
1. Take Shelter (2011)
Jeff Nichols’ second feature is his best so far. Michael Shannon has never been better as a man with a family history of schizophrenia, who is plagued by apocalyptic visions that may or may not be figments of his imagination.