Michael Shannon's versatility can't be explained by a Daniel Day-Lewis- or Robert De Niro-like mutant ability to transform physically. That's a bit of a nonstarter for a 6-foot-3 fellow with as distinctive a look as Shannon's. Yet he's hardly shackled; the actor slides freely into the skin of the disturbed veteran, the inquisitive photographer, the desperate father, the real-estate shark and, in "Nocturnal Animals," the laconic lawman with his own reasons for seeking extralegal justice.
"He's seen so much over the years," says Shannon of Bobby Andes, his West Texas detective in "Nocturnal Animals," whom he has described as "hard to surprise." "He's dealt with a lot of gruesome crimes. In order to cope with that kind of darkness, you develop a lot of calluses, I think, psychically."
There's a grim dedication at the heart of Bobby that gains even more fuel as we learn late in the film of his cancer diagnosis. Yet in Shannon's hands, Bobby isn't given to histrionics as he labors to resolve a particularly horrific work of savagery. Instead, there's just a quiet determination to see justice done this time. Shannon received his second Oscar nomination for his portrayal.
"He'd like to go out thinking he'd helped somebody. I don't think he has a lot of energy, physically. This is really his last hurrah," says the actor. But he forges on to help Jake Gyllenhaal's bereaved-husband character Tony, even throwing aside the laws he has sworn to uphold.
"Put it this way, he can't really be punished any more than his body is doing. What are you going to do to him, put him in prison? He doesn't care. He doesn't have a lot of time anyway."
Another actor might have dialed Bobby up to blast. He could have been a man with a badge and a gun refusing to go quietly into that good night and making sure we all heard about it. Shannon has played men with such high-revving engines — witness his slick Gordon Gekko wannabe, Rick Carver, in last year's excellent "99 Homes." He has played some whose demons have pushed them to the point of breaking wide open, as in HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" or as his unfiltered truth teller in "Revolutionary Road" (for which he was also nominated).
When Bobby interrogates gang member Lou, he gets uncomfortably close to the suspect, demanding information about gang leader Ray. Lou feigns ignorance: "Who?" Bobby shoots back with cool derisiveness, "Who? What, you an owl?"
It's a small moment of extreme directness, not raising his voice but literally pressing the suspect, swatting away evasions. There's nothing precious or clever about it; it's just real and calmly urgent. And the line was improvised.
Bobby deteriorates before our eyes, but he's got the bone between his teeth and won't let go.
"From Day 1, I felt pretty locked into [the character]. It's pretty mysterious. I can't really say why or how. Maybe it's because the writing's so good. When you've got really great writing, it makes it easy," says Shannon. "This was such a great read and it was so vivid from the get-go, I just seemed to find it pretty easily."
Perhaps the most surprising description Shannon gives of the "Nocturnal" mission is of adapter-director Tom Ford's emotional commitment.
Coming from the fashion world as he does, one would expect Ford's movies to be precisely designed and constructed. But it's the deep feeling Shannon says the filmmaker has for the characters that may be the secret ingredient to their effectiveness.
"He writes the script as well — it seems all the characters are aspects of himself, his own personality. It winds up being very personal for him. He has so much passion for these people," says Shannon. "He's got a very immaculate sensibility, he's very clear about what he thinks but is also very open to the input of the other artists he's working with."
Which added to the enjoyment of Shannon taking an iconic figure — the western lawman — and putting his modern-day spin on it.
"Oh yeah, those characters are fun. They're imaginary. They welcome any kind of interpretation you put on them. Right now, I'm playing a real person, trying to be accurate," he says of playing George Westinghouse as Thomas Edison's (Benedict Cumberbatch) rival in the now-shooting "The Current War."
"With [fictional] characters like that, you can let your subconscious dictate where you go. It's kind of liberating."