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Michael Shannon on General Zod, the NSA, and the genius of David Letterman

With Michael Shannon’s role as General Zod in Man Of Steel, his reputation as an onscreen psychopath is about to get global recognition. The Kentucky native has been acting for more than 20 years, but with this superhero adaptation and The Iceman, Shannon’s having a banner year for large film roles, not that he cares very much about the attention. The theater owner and Boardwalk Empire star is more than content to act in arthouse films and Eugène Ionesco plays and isn’t particularly interested in clamoring his way up Hollywood’s celebrity ladder. Catching him right before he left for London for more Man Of Steel press, The A.V. Club talked to Shannon about playing a supervillian, begging to be on Late Show With David Letterman, and what scares him.

Michael Shannon: You want to hear something weird?

The A.V. Club: Of course.

MS: Somebody called my manager and claimed they were with British Airways and said that my flight tonight had mechanical difficulties, and that they would switch me to an earlier flight. But this was not someone who actually worked at the airline. It was some person, and I don’t really know who they were. I had never heard of that happening before.


AVC: Do you really have a flight tonight? How would someone know that?

MS: I do. We’re all going to London tonight to continue the massive celebration for our film Man Of Steel. The Rolling Thunder Revue as I like to call it.


AVC: Is this the biggest press tour you’ve ever done?

MS: Actually, it’s pretty tranquil, considering the enormity of the film. I think I have a lot lighter load than someone like Zack [Snyder] or Henry [Cavill]. They’re going all over the world. But that’s the good thing about being me: Not everybody wants to hear from me, just a select few.


AVC: You were good on Letterman.

MS: I had to beg to get on Letterman. I was in The New York Times Magazine, and I said I really wanted to be on Letterman and it worked.


AVC: Why did you want to be on Letterman?

MS: I think he’s kind of an avatar culturally. He’s the apex of entertainment as far as I’m concerned. I think he’s much funnier than all the other guys doing it combined.


AVC: You got to talk about Groundhog Day, which seems right up his alley.

MS: It was weird because I mentioned Chris Elliott, and it didn’t really inspire anything. I think he really wanted to talk about Bill Murray. He really likes Bill Murray.


AVC: It seems like they might love each other.

MS: Yeah. I mean, Bill Murray is on the same level: Dave Letterman, Bill Murray. But David Letterman just got a Kennedy Center honor, for Christ’s sake. Led Zeppelin, Buddy Guy, Dustin Hoffman, and somebody else. Did you see that?


AVC: No, but it makes sense. He’s a legend. He should get one.

MS: He should get a medal from the president.

AVC: Getting back to Man Of Steel, did you feel any pressure taking on the role of General Zod? Is there any danger going into a major franchise to play a villain?


MS: I don’t know what the danger would be. Sometimes we did some fighting that was kind of dangerous. I guess we could have punched the other one in the head. But that never happened. I feel a lot more threatened by things like the Keystone Pipeline and the Koch brothers and things like that than things like being in a comic-book movie.

AVC: Have you always wanted to be in a comic-book movie, or was this just another job?


MS: There’s nothing I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t think of anything in my life that I’ve always wanted to do. I just wind up kind of doing stuff. This is just another bead on my necklace. But it certainly was thrilling to get the call. I’d say, originally, I was stunned by the whole idea of me being in this movie and playing this part. And I’m still stunned by it when I’m watching it. It’s a stunning experience. Something doesn’t register when I’m watching it.

AVC: You have an action figure now.

MS: There’s a variety of them, actually. That’s what’s weird: that there’s more than one. You have options.


AVC: Did you give one to your daughter?

MS: Well, they sent them to me, and my child saw them. I can’t say she, personally, is terribly interested in them. She’s more into the My Little Pony and Tinkerbell thing.


AVC: She’ll like them later.

MS: Yeah, maybe. Like when she’s in her 30s.

AVC: How do you prepare for playing a comic-book villain? Because it’s kind of an over-the-top villain, do you have to ramp up your acting?


MS: I don’t know. I feel like answering this question is potentially setting myself up. I basically try to forget that it was based on a comic book. Zack’s whole premise was—and I know this could potentially sound arrogant—but this wasn’t his intention. He just said, “We should approach this like no one’s ever done this before.” We kind of came up with the story ourselves. Not to disrespect anything that came before it, but that’s the only way we’re going to make something interesting. If you’re just going to do a shot-by-shot remake, I can say fairly honestly that is something I wouldn’t have been interested in.

AVC: You’ve played real-world bad guys like The Runaways’ Kim Fowley and made-up ones like General Zod. Is there a difference between playing someone who actually exists and someone who doesn’t?


MS: The differences abound in the differences in parts. I don’t see a lot of similarities between Kim Fowley and General Zod. Not only based on their realness and their non-realness, but in the matrix of their personalities. I guess they both have a militaristic attitude and enjoy discipline in very different ways to very different ends and they’ll stop at nothing to accomplish their objectives. So I guess the biggest similarity in them is their willfulness.

AVC: You’ve been in a couple of funny clips online recently. You did a piece for MTV where you talked to Josh Horowitz about cute stuff, and you read the notorious Delta Gamma sorority letter for Funny Or Die. Do you think you get asked to do that stuff because people think you’re this intensely serious guy?


MS: If only people knew how non-serious I am. I’m getting less serious every day. Seriousness is a hard thing to hold onto, particularly in this day and age.

AVC: Why do you think that is?

MS: It’s just so oppressive. Every day things happen in the world and I think, “Really?” It’s actually getting worse. I didn’t think that was possible. At a certain point, your capacity to endure that kind of torment based on current events just snaps, and you say, “Well, I’m just going to try and have fun,” because I know this whole thing is blowing up in smoke.


AVC: You’re in a new movie that David Wain wrote and directed, They Came Together.

MS: Yeah, but let’s not get false impressions here. If I’m in that movie, it’s only for maybe 30 seconds. I did it mostly as a favor to Paul [Rudd] because we are about to do a play together on Broadway. He said, “I got this real funny bit at the end. Would you mind doing it?” And I did it. But I don’t want people thinking it’s like the launching of my comedy career.


AVC: Do you want to do more comedy?

MS: Yeah, sure. I don’t know. As far as I can see things, and this may make me sound like a lunatic to other people, I feel like I’ve done a lot of funny stuff or stuff that’s made me laugh anyway. For example, my character in Revolutionary Road I find very funny. I find things that he says pretty amusing, and it’s one of the reasons I wanted to play the part. When I read the book, I was laughing, but that’s my sense of humor. There are other things that a large percentage of the population finds amusing that I don’t.


AVC: Van Alden on Boardwalk Empire is kind of funny.

MS: There are some very funny instances and some not-so-funny ones. But even the legendary baptism scene, in a way, isn’t really funny but it’s kind of absurd. And one thing I’m a big fan of is the theater of the absurd. That’s what I come from, that’s what I love to do more than anything. What I love about absurdity is the words “comedy” and “drama” get thrown out the window and it’s just life, which is absurd.


AVC: The whole NSA wiretapping thing is even a little funny, if you think about it.

MS: You know what’s funny about it? I’ll tell you what’s funny about it: They tell us we got to cut the budget; we have to have budget rollback. We’re going to cut the budget on air traffic control, and every once in a while your plane is going to be delayed for three hours. But we do have the money laying around to hire people to read your emails and listen to your phone conversations. That just doesn’t make any friggin’ sense at all.


AVC: It’s also weird that there’s even an expectation of privacy at this point. People put all their information online and then are surprised when someone has access to it.

MS: People are morons. I don’t do any of that social media stuff. I have people telling me all the time, “You should do Twitter, you should do this, you should get on Facebook.” Are you insane? I’m not doing any of that crap. I stay the hell off that thing. Every once in a while, I send a business email, and that’s it.


AVC: That probably also helps you out. Your fans don’t know you outside your characters, so you can just totally embody a role in someone’s mind.

MS: Inevitably people will get tired of me. People get tired of everyone except Jimmy Stewart. I’m not saying Jimmy Stewart would get tired of me, I’m just saying people will never get tired of Jimmy Stewart.


AVC: Right. Nobody ever got tired of Paul Newman.

MS: Yeah, nobody ever got tired of him, although he seemed to be tired by the end.


AVC: At the end, it seemed like he just wanted to do race car stuff.

MS: That’s the only thing that would keep him awake, being in a race car.

AVC: So Boardwalk Empire is coming back this fall. They’ve put you in Chicago now, which is great.


MS: I hope people aren’t looking for me there, because we don’t actually shoot there.

AVC: They were talking about doing a Chicago spin-off for a while. Is that still happening?


MS: I haven’t seen Terry Winter in two years. [Laughs.] I don’t even know if he even exists anymore. He’s not a frequent visitor. I get very little information. I don’t even get full scripts. I just get my scenes. I report for duty. It’s like being in a secret society: You get a call to be on the corner for such-and-such and so-and-so at 6 o’clock. Then you do your scene and leave. It’s not a very participatory experience.

AVC: You started out doing, and you’re still doing it. What is it about the stage that keeps you interested?


MS: Theater is the best. That’s where you get the work done. You just really get in there and figure something out about a story or a character or life or the world. That’s where magic stuff happens. I’m doing a play at The Red Orchid Theatre this summer called Simpatico by Sam Shepard. I’ve been working at this theater for 20 years, and I’m doing it with all the people that have been around since the beginning that started the theater. We’re all going to be in it together and, for me, that’s 20 years of life we’ve shared together that we’re going to channel into this play. It’s pretty exciting.

Most of the time for movies and stuff, with the exception of [Jeff] Nichols, who I’ve worked with a few times, you just don’t know people too well. Everyone is cordial and nice and some people are very genuinely friendly, but once the movie is over you never see them again.


AVC: How much of your work are you actually handpicking at this point?

MS: I don’t know. This whole notion of the acting career as a monopoly where you rise to power… it doesn’t really work that way. I don’t ever really feel powerful in any way. Occasionally, I’ve read a script, and it doesn’t really do it for me with the subject matter. Believe it or not, I’m starting to be a little bit more cautious about playing things like criminals or thugs because I am getting tired of people thinking that’s what I do; because it’s not. I’m starting to watch out for that but at the end of the day, it’s not like Citizen Kane or something and you become king of the world. It’s kind of the same thing it’s always been: You just figure out what you want to do and you do it.


AVC: Do you get recognized more now? Do people come up and ask you about the end of Take Shelter?

MS: Take Shelter has a little bit of a following. The big ones have always been 8 Mile, Bad Boys II, Boardwalk Empire, and now Man Of Steel. The other ones have respectable followings, but those are the four that people have just en masse seen or want to see.


AVC: Do people really come up to you and say, “You were in Bad Boys II?”

MS: I was in the grocery store the other day, and a guy who works there walked by and said, “Hey, you got your ear back.” I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I looked at him like, “Do I know you? Did something happen to my ear that I’m not aware of?” Then I realized five minutes later that he was talking about Bad Boys II. Because in Bad Boys II I get my ear shot off.


AVC: It’s weird that people would think that you would immediately know what they’re talking about.

MS: I don’t really think about Bad Boys II much unless people say things like that or in interviews. When I’m at home and cleaning the house or something I’m not like, “Man, that was cool when I did Bad Boys II. That was really interesting.”


AVC: Are you still playing with your band, Corporal?

MS: We have a huge gig in Chicago this summer. Everyone who is like, “Man, I wish I could see Corporal. I want to see them play,” we’re playing at Cabaret Metro on July 29 and we’re giving a lot of advance warning here. We’re putting up posters and the whole nine yards here. Ben Nichols from Lucero is going to play, along with his keyboardist, and I think Scott Lucas and my favorite Steely Dan cover band will play, too.


AVC: What’s your favorite Steely Dan cover band?

MS: They’re called Steely Danish. I think with Steely Dan you have an interesting opportunity if you’re in the cover band because when Steely Dan comes out, they don’t play their songs. They play jam sessions. They don’t sit there and play their greatest hits. And as much as everyone adores Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, in the back of their minds they’re like, “Can you just play ‘Hey Nineteen,’ for Christ’s sake?” But they’re not going to do that. The Steely Dan cover bands—the good ones—it’s pretty much like seeing Steely Dan, which is exciting.


AVC: Ben Nichols is [Take Shelter director] Jeff Nichols’ brother, correct?

MS: Yeah, I pulled a few strings.

AVC: You said there’s been nothing in your life that you’ve always wanted to do. Is there anything you’d like to do in the near future?


MS: No. I’m sticking to my guns. I’m doing another movie with Jeff Nichols, so that’ll be pretty exciting. I keep doing his movies. Oh, and I’m going to do this crazy play by Ionesco because he’s my favorite. I did this play in Chicago years and years ago called The Killer, and I’m going to go do it in New York. It’s a little 40th birthday present for myself. I want to be doing the play when I turn 40. I got it set up in my mind: August 7, 2014, that’ll be my birthday party.

AVC: Do you know what time you were born? Are you going to be on stage right at that minute?


MS: Nah, I was born in the morning and I don’t want to do a show at 9 a.m. But it’ll be the same day.

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