Though you may have only recently realised the talents of Michael Shannon thanks to his work on “Boardwalk Empire” and in mainstream movies like “Premium Rush” and “Man of Steel,” he has been acting for over two decades with some of his best work only being seen by small arthouse crowds.
Shannon will be the first to admit he doesn’t have a problem with that. “I’m not primarily profit-driven, necessarily,” he recently told Business Insider in New York City before the presidential election, though he also says there are some movies he will now stop doing.
Counting movies that were shown at film festivals this year, Shannon will have appeared in 10 movies before 2016 is over, a handful of them independent projects that will receive (or received) limited release.
One of them is “Frank & Lola” (opening December 9). A dark and twisted love story set in Las Vegas in which Shannon plays a guy who uncovers the troubled past of his girlfriend (Imogen Poots), it’s the kind of low-budget film the actor has built his career on, but he admits the effort is greater than the pay.
Shannon is never shy to speak his mind (look at what he said after Trump won the election), and in his conversation with us, he revealed why he’s come to his career decision and why one day he might just stop acting completely.
Jason Guerrasio: What interested you in “Frank & Lola”?
Michael Shannon: When I went out to LA for the Oscars the year I was nominated [for 2008’s “Revolutionary Road”] I met with [director] Matt [Ross]. He got a hold of me through my agent and we talked about “Frank & Lola.” That was a long time ago. I thought maybe that had fallen by the wayside but finally through great perseverance by Matt he managed to get it together and I just have a huge admiration for people that are that tenacious. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’m usually more drawn to the people involved. I mean, the story is fine. I like the story. I wanted to do something that I considered romantic. I felt this was a very romantic picture and not in a silly way. A lot of people ask me why I don’t make romantic comedies and I personally have never had a comedic experience in romance. It’s not funny. So I guess that’s why I don’t do it.
Guerrasio: You say you were impressed by Matt’s hustle to get the movie made. You were in a few movies this year that either just played on the festival circuit or won’t get very wide releases. In some way do you do these movies because your name now can get them made?
Shannon: Maybe. I don’t really think it does to that extent. There are some people who say, “I’ll see anything you do.” So if that’s honestly the truth then yeah, maybe so. But directors insist, they say, “You really need to do this, I can’t think of anybody else.” And I think, “I can. I can think of somebody else. But ok, whatever you say.”
Guerrasio: I feel that is a testament to you being a working actor, constantly on the grind. You aren’t going to get studio movie paychecks regularly. Do you have a number in your head of the movies you have to make a year to be financially stable?
Shannon: No. No. Honestly, I would prefer to work less than I do. I finally reached the tipping point. It’s bizarre because for so many actors there’s a real hunger to work and so many actors don’t get opportunities. I try to always remember that and be mindful of that, but at a certain point. I mean, I didn’t make any money making “Frank & Lola” or “Wolves” [which played at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival]. And I told myself basically when I did “Wolves,” I’m not doing this anymore. I’m done. From now on the conditions are going to be different.
Guerrasio: Because for you and your family, you have to make money.
Guerrasio: You’re at a point now where you can actually make some money in this business, is that the thinking?
Shannon: I’m not primarily profit-driven, necessarily. But what I’m angry about, and I’ve gone on record saying this, is I think that financiers get away with murder. They realise they can get something for nothing and they won’t settle for anything else. There’s something called a Schedule F. If I work for a Schedule F contract that basically means I’m doing the movie for free because by the time I pay all my commissions and taxes there’s barely anything left for me to live on. This whole notion that you do work that you love for very little money and then you go out and do something you hate to make money —
Guerrasio: One for you, one for them —
Shannon: I find that disgusting. I’m not going to do that. Because honestly I could very easily just not do this anymore and not miss it. So I just started making demands, because why not, I don’t have anything to lose. [Laughs] And then there’s the film thing versus the theatre thing. I’ll do the theatre for free any time. I still go back to Chicago and work at my little theatre company there and it’s on the house. But with movies, movies are a grind, man.
Guerrasio: Especially the lower-budget movies you work on.
Shannon: Yeah. When we were shooting “Frank & Lola” we’d be in a casino. There was one week where we were shooting in a casino all night long. It was in the Wynn. We had to shoot at night because that’s when it was slow and quiet. And you get to the point where you’re so tired and things just get sketchy and most of the time a day on the film set you’re not acting. I’d say maybe 10 per cent of your day is spent acting. The 90 per cent is spent trying to figure out how you’re not going to lose your goddamn mind.
Guerrasio: So when you say you don’t have any issue walking away from acting, how serious are you about that?
Shannon: There are certain people I will always respond to, but I certainly don’t need more names in my Rolodex. If I just did whatever Jeff Nichols (“Loving”) told me to do and Ramin Bahrani (“99 Homes”), Liz Johnson (“Elvis & Nixon”), I would be fine with that. And if Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch happened to call once in a while. I always drop what I’m doing for Werner Herzog. But I need to keep it contained now.
Guerrasio: I’ll ask actors sometimes what else they would do if they didn’t act and many don’t have an answer because they say they don’t know how to do anything else.
Shannon: I have other interests. I’ve always had other interests. I’ve always been interested in music and frankly I have a lot of concerns about the world and sometimes I think that acting is not contributing in a meaningful way. I can’t say exactly what I would do instead but something more helpful.
Guerrasio: Like what?
Shannon: Well, Greenland is melting. The fact that it’s not the most talked-about issue, period, it really blows my mind. But I live in Red Hook and we had Hurricane Sandy there and it’s bounced back and everyone’s feeling good and there’s even more business but I’m like that’s going to happen again. There’s no way that’s not going to happen again.
Guerrasio: Let’s end on a fun one. Which role did you enjoy doing more, the Mr. Green character in “The Night Before” or Elvis in “Elvis & Nixon”?
Shannon: They were different kinds of fun. Mr. Green, it was a lot of fun to showcase my improv. Because I did a lot of improv in Chicago. I took Elvis dead serious. I worked my butt off. It got fun after it stopped being scary. It was scary for a while.
Guerrasio: Does the fear end during shooting or not until after?
Shannon: During shooting. It’s about repetition. Show up enough days in a row and put on a costume, you just stop worrying about whether you’re pulling it off or not, it just doesn’t matter anymore. You go, “Well, in this particular movie I am Elvis Presley and there’s not much anybody can do about it right now.” [Laughs]
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