Actor Michael Shannon first met director Jeff Nichols through the latter’s film school connections. North Carolina School of the Arts professor Gary Hawkins had a project at the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmaker’s Lab some years back called “Down Time,” which featured Shannon. Nichols saw it, loved the actor’s work and knew he had to write a project for him.
Out of that came “Shotgun Stories” — the 2007 Arkansas familial drama that netted the director awards recognition at festivals and at the Independent Spirit Awards — and it was as simple as a phone call and a “let’s do this” (no deals or payment terms were laid out) to get it going. More importantly, it was the beginning of a collaboration Shannon very much appreciates.
“The first time I read ‘Shotgun Stories,’ I was like, ‘Oh, I get this,'” the actor says. “‘I know what he’s trying to do.’ We’ve always kind of had an unspoken understanding. You just luck out, to find people like that.”
Nevertheless, when Shannon first showed up on “Shotgun Stories,” he says Nichols probably didn’t know what to expect. It was the young filmmaker’s first film and Shannon had been in his fair share of projects already, while most of the rest of the cast consisted of friends and unseasoned actors.
“He wasn’t sure, like, what I was going to do or if he was going to embarrass himself,” Shannon says. “Jeff would do a lot of, ‘What do you think we should do? Should we rehearse?’ And I’d be like, ‘Nah. I don’t know. We’ll be alright. Let’s just hang out.'”
Indeed, Shannon confesses to being extremely low maintenance on a film set. “I’m kind of like a dog,” he says. “‘Oh, you want me to sit? You want me to roll over?’ But in ‘Take Shelter,’ I watched him go through that experience with Jessica [Chastain]. Jessica is, like, super frickin’ intelligent, and she would ask questions. Jeff would be like, ‘Uh, that’s a good question. Uh, wow, Jesus, let’s go think about that.’ I think what Jessica was like on ‘Take Shelter’ is what he thought I was going to be like on ‘Shotgun Stories,’ like he thought I was going to show up and be like, ‘Have you considered the Stanislavski method?'”
And so the relationship has developed accordingly in the four years between the movies. Nichols is more self-assured. Shannon’s process is even more in tune with the director’s and they are moving right into their third collaboration, the Matthew McConaughey-starrer “Mud.” But in “Take Shelter,” Shannon got a lot of room to stretch, delivering one of the year’s absolute powerhouse performances.
The film is more “formal” and “delicate” a thing than “Shotgun Stories,” Shannon says. So naturally the approach was going to be a bit different. But it all started from a personal place for the director.
“The period after he finished ‘Shotgun Stories’ I think was a period of great anxiety for him,” Shannon says of Nichols. “He wasn’t sure what was next. ‘Shotgun Stories’ had enjoyed some success in its own way, but he wasn’t even sure he had another thing to follow it up with. Meanwhile he was getting married and he was like, ‘I’m supposed to be a man now and I still feel inadequate or something. I’m gonna start a family,’ you know? And he started writing ‘Take Shelter.’ He told me that the first time he gave it to me to read it, which he gave it to me as a friend. He wasn’t saying, ‘I want you to do this movie.'”
The reason Nichols was somewhat wary of casting Shannon in the role of a man on the verge of losing his mind amid a series of nightmares is that he was very clear that the film wasn’t about some crazy person, that the character, Curtis, is an everyman dealing with unusual problems. “He knew, ‘What if I put Mike in this part and people just think right off the bat: freakin’ lunatic,” Shannon says. “He didn’t want that to happen.”
One day, though, Nichols had Shannon on the phone and overheard the actor talking briefly with his young daughter. It revealed a side he didn’t really know about and it was in that moment, Shannon says, that revelation of a certain paternal energy, that Nichols decided he wanted him in the part.
“There was a lot of synchronicity,” Shannon says of the role. “Curtis’s father passes away not too long before the movie starts and my father had passed away. That’s an interesting part of a man’s life, I think, particularly if you have your own family that you’re raising. But I think more than any character Jeff’s written, Curtis is a version of himself, probably. I mean it’s poetic and it’s extreme. Jeff doesn’t have these dreams or anything like that, but it’s a manifestation of something he was experiencing.”
In the film, Shannon stars alongside “it” girl of the year, Jessica Chastain. Chastain had just finished work on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” when Sarah Green, Malick’s producer and a producer on “Take Shelter,” got her involved with Nichols’ project. After she finished she was off to film “The Help,” but in the time she had on set, Shannon was really impressed.
“Sometimes I’d think, like, ‘I’m working with Meryl Streep in ‘The Deer Hunter,'” he says. “This is someone that, 20 or 30 years from now, it’s like, ‘You worked with her?’ She’s so smart and she has such a big emotional life. She’s like pulsating with feeling and she has a big heart, you know? She’s very vulnerable and sensitive, but in a good, smart way. Some people can’t deal with that so well, but she does.”
Shannon hasn’t had a chance to see “The Debt” yet, another film featuring Chastain already in the marketplace this year, but in “The Help,” he was particularly moved. “She broke my heart,” he says of her performance in the film. “In ‘The Tree of Life,’ I don’t know, it’s odd to me that she’s not a mother. I’m sure she will be some day, but she’s just got that maternal energy down cold. Her main concern wasn’t, ‘Me, me, me.’ It was always, ‘Where’s Tova [Stewart],'” the young, deaf actress who plays Chastain and Shannon’s daughter in the film. “She was always playing with Tova and doing sign language with her and making sure she was okay.”
It’s tricky, he says, for actors to show up and just start acting like a family. But a production lacking amenities and instilling a bit of intimacy (all of the scenes in the family home were shot in a house outside of Grafton, Ohio) makes it a little easier to get into that flow.
“When we were at that house, we’d do a scene and then we’d go hang out upstairs and, you know, play Scrabble,” he says. “The three of us were always together cultivating this family unit. It was almost like we were just living in the house and every once in a while we’d go do a scene. I think that really contributed to the authenticity of it.”
Shannon was nominated — rather surprisingly, some would say — for an Oscar in 2008 for his work on Sam Mendes’s “Revolutionary Road.” Since then he’s maintained his usual even keel with film projects, though he will be seen in a completely new way (and hopefully find a massive new audience) next year in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel.” Nevertheless, for an Oscar nominee, doors begin to open and options are there to be had.
Paul Thomas Anderson is the first name out of his mouth when asked what filmmakers he’d like to work with. Lars Von Trier is also on the list, as is David Lynch. Lynch was involved with Werner Herzog’s “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?,” which starred Shannon. The actor was at least able to have a cup of coffee with the director after finishing the film. (“It was awesome. It was like one of my favorite days ever. He just talked about transcendental meditation.”)
Actors on the list include Daniel Day-Lewis and Vincent Cassel, and he says he’d have loved to have been in on Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” biopic in some way. (Who wouldn’t?) But as for the film and the character at hand, Shannon says both he and Nichols had a certain breed in mind.
“I think we have in our consciousness this southern/midwestern American man who on the surface seems able to deal with everything and underneath can’t really deal with anything,” he says. “He can go to work and he can get his check and he can do this and that, but when he starts having bad dreams, he’s completely ill-equipped to fathom what the hell’s going on.
“When I read ‘Shotgun Stories’ or when I read ‘Take Shelter,’ there’s men that I think of. I used to have this stepdad. After my dad, my mom married this dude, his name was Mike, too. So he was Big Mike and I was Little Mike. They had a few kids together and they were together for a while. But I always think of Big Mike, because he’s that type of dude. He can’t talk about anything. He can work and he can throw the ball around and he can go for a run, but if you sat down and went, ‘Hey, Big Mike. Why the hell are you here? What do you think’s going on in the universe,’ he’d be like, ‘Uhhhhhh.’ It’s like iconic. It’s an archetype. That’s the word.”
“Take Shelter” opens nationwide this Friday, September 30.