"I could just waste an entire day sitting by the pool," Michael Shannon said. He swirled a celery stick around in his Bloody Mary, snapped a piece off into his mouth. "I'm changing, you know? Getting older. I'm not as angsty as I used to be. Gotta loosen up, 'cause someday I'm gonna be dead, right?"
He sat back and surveyed the sunbathers. He never used to stay at fancy hotels like this. His go-to spot was always the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel, a 2-star hotel with a diner, Swingers, that's open until 4 a.m. He liked that it was called a motor hotel, and it had nice showers. Very reasonable. The owner remembered his name.
FOR THE RECORD:
Michael Shannon: In the Oct. 4 Calendar section, an article about actor Michael Shannon, who is in the new films "Freeheld" and "99 Homes," included a photograph of an actor portraying JFK on stage in Los Angeles in 2000. That actor was a different Michael Shannon.
But he can zone out at the Four Seasons pool, and he needs that right now. He's been working a lot — six movies in eight months. Two of those films, the lesbian love story "Freeheld" and real estate thriller "99 Homes," are out this weekend, which he hopes marks the beginning of an "altitude change" in his career.
"You know how sometimes, when you're on the plane and the altitude changes drastically, you feel like it really wakes you up?" Shannon asked. "In the process of being afraid, you feel very alive."
So yes, he's searching for that jolt that comes from taking on a challenge. But he's also actively trying to change his public persona. He's tired of being seen as the bad guy, the creep, the unhinged weirdo. During the four years that he played a tormented religious fundamentalist-turned-outlaw on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," strangers often walked up to him on the street to tell him how much they hated him. And that bothered him.
"It's hard not to take that slightly personally. But I don't know why, because it's not me — it has nothing to do with me," he said. "It's weaseled its way into my psychology, I'm not gonna lie. It would take a lot right now to talk me into playing a killer."
Shannon's characters aren't always murderous, but they certainly can be troubled: A mentally disturbed man who sees through the artifice of his neighbors' picture-perfect marriage in "Revolutionary Road." (That one earned him a supporting actor nomination at the 2009 Academy Awards.) A Midwestern father so disturbed by apocalyptic visions that he threatens his family in "Take Shelter." A rageful intergalactic warlord who shoots fire from his eyes in "Man of Steel."
"I think it will probably be hard for some people to understand, but every character I play, I love," he said. "I'm playing them because I'm trying to understand them. There's a lot of broken people walking around this world."
It's unclear if Shannon, 41, counts himself among them. Sure, he's eccentric — he collects weird socks, and was wearing some by the pool, bright neon yellow with purple leopard spots. And he's really tall, the kind of tall that sticks out, with a face that looks as though it's seen things.
But ask his colleagues about him and all you hear is how sensitive he is or that he's a walking teddy bear. He has two daughters with Kate Arrington, his partner of eight years and a member of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. And the reason he worked so much this year? It's because he doesn't like telling people no.
"I look at someone like Daniel Day-Lewis and I'm like, 'That guy's smart,'" Shannon said. "He does one incredibly great movie every three years. It's like, 'How does he do that?' He must swat people away like flies. That's hard for me, if someone has an ardent pitch. I'm a very sensitive person — like, a hyper-sensitive person. So if someone's sitting here with me and is like, 'It would mean so much to me,' I feel that. Like, 'Well, OK. I guess I should do it then.'"
'Magnetizes all eyes'
That wasn't the case with "99 Homes," though. Shannon had wanted to work with writer-director Ramin Bahrani since 2009, when he saw a short the filmmaker made about a plastic bag trying to find its way to the trash vortex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. That same year, the late Roger Ebert deemed Bahrani the "new great American director."
It wasn't long before Bahrani was approaching Shannon with a feature film proposition: a story about a callous real-estate broker who makes millions by evicting people from their foreclosed homes in Florida. The director asked Shannon to play the cunning businessman opposite Andrew Garfield, who was cast as a down-on-his-luck construction worker. Their collaboration has gone on to earn rave reviews, though Time's Richard Corliss ultimately deemed it a "showcase for Shannon, who magnetizes all eyes, like a cobra in the corner."
Bahrani was inspired to give Shannon the hefty part after the director met the actor at his home. Shannon had just returned from a vacation and was looking particularly "tan and handsome," the filmmaker said.
"I was like, 'How come I never see him as a leading man in a movie?'" recalled Bahrani. "So I rewrote the part a bit so that he'd be a guy who always wore suits, and tried to give him this seductive, sexy appeal."
Shannon, meanwhile, knew little about real estate agents. It's not a field he finds intriguing, he said. He's always been a nomad, even as a kid, when he split his time between his mom's place in Kentucky and his dad's in Chicago. Even now, he rents his place in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and doesn't have an emotional attachment to it.
Once, a reporter came to his apartment to do a feature on celebrity homes and he found the interview painful because he had so little to say. "I get up in the morning and I split," he explained. "And when I'm exhausted, I go home and sleep."
Playing a guy who cares about his appearance was odd too. Shannon is, by and large, known as a character actor — a reputation he's never taken issue with. "The notion that a leading man just has to show up and hang out and be handsome and charming? I'm not interested in that," he said.
That's not to say he isn't interested in romance — it's just a genre that's been more difficult for him to break into. A few years ago, he went out for a role in a romantic comedy that he really wanted. But when he was in the audition, he could tell he was a long shot.
"There was just a much more logical choice for the role," he said. "When they cast it, I was like, 'Of course. Because that's who does that.' I would have been risky."
He's finally making headway though. He plays the love interest in two of those six films he just wrapped, costarring with actresses Rachel Weisz and Imogen Poots. In June, Prada tapped him as part of its men's fall advertising campaign, highlighting his square jaw and lanky frame. And in "Freeheld," we get a glimpse of Shannon's softer side.
The film is based on the real-life story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a New Jersey cop with stage-four cancer who fought to have her pension given to her same-sex partner (Ellen Page). Shannon plays Dane Wells, Hester's partner at the police department and a self-described "straight, white, ex-Protestant, atheist cop." Despite his conservative background, Wells is the only cop on the squad who helps Hester fight the local government.
"After he met with Dane, Michael said something incredible: 'Just because Dane doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve doesn't mean he doesn't have one,'" said Peter Sollett, who directed "Freeheld." "In a sense, to me, that's also Michael Shannon. Just because he's not always laughing and exuberant doesn't mean he's not present and vulnerable."