The Chicago indie musician and social-media scamp Ryley Walker recently tweeted about bumping into actor Michael Shannon. It happened at the Chicago music bar the Empty Bottle, where Walker bummed not one, not two, but three cigarettes off the actor. The two didn’t know each other, and while Shannon doesn’t remember the incident, he’s not surprised. “It seems like a small thing to give up, you know,” Shannon says, speaking with The Globe and Mail during the Toronto International Film Festival. “Somebody wants a cigarette. I just have a hard time saying no.”
Maybe that’s Shannon’s problem, saying no. He’s one busy dude, to say the least. To say the most? Excessively so.
Shannon, a native Kentuckian who makes his living playing soulful stoics, made his major film debut in 1993 with Groundhog Day. Since then, one wonders if he’s woken up a single morning without having to make his way to a film set. His filmography bulges, with nine features listed under 2016 alone. More recently, he’s had major roles in Pottersville, 12 Strong, The Shape of Water and television’s Waco and Fahrenheit 451. The former Boardwalk actor stars opposite Benedict Cumberbatch in historical drama The Current War (which premiered at 2017′s TIFF). It’s rumoured he will join Daniel Craig and Chris Evans for Rian Johnson’s next picture, Knives Out, and even when we don’t see Shannon, we hear him: That’s unquestionably his voice on the audio version of Leonard Cohen’s final book of poetry The Flame, where he recites the attention-grabbing Kanye West Is Not Picasso.
On the agenda for our interview is his imminent release, What They Had, which opens Oct. 19. In a graceful family drama about a senior mother suffering from memory loss, Shannon plays the son in an ensemble cast that includes Hilary Swank, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner.
“This film kind of fell into my lap,” says Shannon, freshly bronzed from a well-earned vacation with his family in coastal North Carolina. “I had heard the project was close to coming to fruition, but they needed to cast my role quickly or else the film would fall apart.”
What They Had comes from the first-time writer and director Elizabeth Chomko, who drew on her own family’s history for a lightly humourous story about familial bonds and duty. “Her desire and passion for the project were so palpable,” Shannon says. “Her longing to get this up on the screen was very moving to see, and it was for all the right reasons.”
Asked about the reasons for his own career choices, the 44-year-old thespian admits that early in his career, he was desperate for work. After that, there was the Hollywood lure of the big-time. “I feel like I went through a period where I did a little too much,” Shannon says. And now? “I’m actually more tuned into finding pictures like What They Had that have substance, meaning and weight. They have to have something, you know?”
Shannon has that something as well. Although he’s loose, casual and unshaven in person, on screen he broods with the best of them, with a hurt quality often competing against a quiet menace and an enigmatic intensity. Substance? Meaning? Weight? All accounted for, and catnip to filmmakers,
“There’s a mystery to Michael’s process, but his instincts are spot on,” says Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who directed Shannon in The Current War. “He’d request more takes, and in doing those extra takes, he would discover something I didn’t even know was possible.”
When it comes to picking the right roles and navigating his career, Shannon points to Daniel Day-Lewis as an actor whose muse-following path he admires. “He finds the right things to do,” Shannon says. “He doesn’t mess that up.”
I point out that it’s easy to be selective when one gets only the best parts to choose from.
“That’s true,” Shannon says. “But Daniel has shown an enviable restraint, and I’m trying to take a lesson from his playbook.”
All that said, taking on too much work is probably not the worst thing Shannon has to deal with. Indeed, other actors would kill for his full dance card, and the man doesn’t take his success for granted.
“It’s hard to justify doing this for a living,” Shannon says about the disproportional fame that comes with a star Hollywood actor’s life. “I mean, you’re not curing cancer.”
Curing cancer or handing out cigarettes by the threes – too many films or not enough. Surely there are happy mediums to be had.