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If you're 6 foot 3 and solidly built; if your head is square, your brow heavy and your jaw strong; if your natural speaking voice is deep and halting, and your eyes read as if you're looking miles inside yourself; and if, even in repose, your manner suggests some psychic pain, well, then you're going to get cast in the kinds of film roles that Michael Shannon does: the Psycho, the Heavy, the Cop, or some combination thereof.

Theatre is more open-minded. Shannon, a 37-year-old actor from Lexington, Ky., has been a fixture on stage in Chicago, London and New York, where he's played a variety of types and worked with luminaries such as Joseph Papp, Tracy Letts and Philip Seymour Hoffman. His performance last year in the off-Broadway, one-man show Mistakes Were Made – as a frantic C-list agent trying to hustle a dubious production into life – was a tour de force that had other actors lining up for tickets. (The night I saw it, Greg Kinnear and Laurie Metcalf were there.)

In any medium, once you've seen Shannon, you can't forget him. "Yeah, I'm a big guy," he said during an interview in September. "I can't really control that. I can't get smaller." He delivered each word separately and with some effort. But the tiniest smile flickered at the corner of his lip, betraying a sly sense of humour that would sneak in often in the next 20 minutes.

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Fortunately for Shannon, one of his troubled characters – the mentally ill neighbour in 2008's Revolutionary Road – shared the screen with Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Unsettling the couple by speaking truth about their sanitized lives, Shannon revealed depths of pain, anger and humour, and netted an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. His stock zoomed upward.

"The great thing about an Oscar campaign is that you meet a lot of people along the way to the big night that you never thought you'd meet in your life," Shannon said. (Wish you could have heard the deadpan spin he put on "big night.") "But the effect happens subliminally. It's not like people phone you and say, 'Well, since you've been nominated for an Oscar, I thought I'd give you a call.' You wake up a year and a half later and think, 'I haven't stopped working in a year and a half.' "

A trio of those projects are out now: Shannon plays U.S. federal agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, whose second season about dirty dealings in Prohibition-era Atlantic City began recently. In Machine Gun Preacher, which just expanded its run in Canada, he plays Donnie, the biker-gang best friend of the title character (Gerard Butler). And he's Curtis, a respectable family man, in the new drama Take Shelter, which opened in select cities yesterday.

Okay, so Van Alden is a God-fearing bundle of repression prone to flagellating himself, who's in the middle of a guilt-riddled, turgid affair with a showgirl whom he impregnated. Yes, Donnie is a violent drug dealer who gets hooked himself. And yes, Curtis has a family history of schizophrenia, and is plagued by visions of imminent apocalypse so disturbing that he's not sure whether he should protect his daughter and wife (the lovely, ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) from the world or from himself. But what's great about these psycho/heavy/cops is, they are lead characters; their stories are the main story, not hulking in the background. And Shannon invests them with a humanity that brings us deep inside their pain and makes it universal.

"I guess I'll say this," Shannon offered about the dark nature of his roles. "The world, for me, is a very complicated place. There's a lot going on that I consider troubled. The Buddhist philosophy that life is suffering always made a lot of sense to me. I don't wake up every morning crying, but I think the modern era is taxing. Maybe that rubs off on the choices I make or the way I work. Maybe people cast me the way they do because I'm honest about who I am. I've never felt the need to manufacture any sort of different personality. But I had an acting coach years ago who said, 'Acting isn't casual.' You don't kind of show up and get a little bit upset about something. The stakes are supposed to be high. I feel like I'm following those instructions."

The stakes couldn't be higher than in Take Shelter – either Curtis's mind is crumbling, or the world is ending. In writer/director Jeff Nichols' hands, both are equally credible, almost to the final frames. "Jeff has so much discipline as a filmmaker," Shannon said. "He rolls it out in a methodical way. Some movies about apocalypses are over the top. Everybody grabs a gun and goes off to shoot the aliens. It's not what the actual experience would look like. It's much more sober than that."

Shannon had starred in Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories, and the two became friends. "Jeff wrote Take Shelter because of some anxiety he was having about starting a family. Going from a young man to being a man," Shannon said. "He sent it to me because I was going through that transition, too." Shannon and his partner, actress Kate Arrington, have a daughter, Sylvia, now 3.

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"It's hard to imagine it before it happens, just how deep that connection goes," he says. "My favourite thing is reading to her. I love to read a sentence and get to the last word, and she'll say it." They live in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and can see the Statue of Liberty from their window. "I can unwind there," Shannon said. "I don't know if I could live in Manhattan all the time. I get too jittery."

Shannon has another trio of psycho/heavy/cops coming up, in ever-higher-profile films. The cop is a dirty one who terrorizes a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in Premium Rush, due next year. The heavy is villain General Zod in the Superman reboot Man of Steel, now filming. And the psycho is real-life hit man Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman, opposite James Franco.

As well, Boardwalk Empire continues. Ironically, Shannon had signed on thinking that Van Alden would be a break from his usual pain. "When I went in for the original meeting, I assumed they'd want me to play a gangster," he said. "[Series creator]Terence Winter said, 'No, we want you to play the good guy. He's not corrupt, he's passionate about what he does, he's very righteous.'" Oops, sorry. By the end of season one, he was stripping down and pulling out his knotted whip.

But Shannon's okay with that. "To me it's infinitely more fascinating to see Van Alden struggle and fall apart than it is to just arrest the bad guy at the end of every episode," he said. Someone's got to go down those dark alleys. Might as well be someone who can illuminate them.

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