Shannon’s Canon: Oscar-nominated actor brings star power to Riverrun Festival

by Mark Burger

The selection of actor Michael Shannon by the RiverRun International Film Festival to receive the “Emerging Artist” award could hardly be bettered.

In little more than 10 years, the actor has distinguished himself in big-budget big-studio blockbusters (Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II and Vanilla Sky) and in smaller, more independent-minded films (Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Bug and Shotgun Stories, the latter directed by UNCSA School of Filmmaking alum Jeff Nichols), culminating in his Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor for Revolutionary Road (2008) as the schizophrenic but strangely insightful John Givings, in which he held his own, and then some, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates (who played his mother).

Shannon is a true actor, imbuing his roles with a presence and an intensity, effortlessly bringing to life a wide range of complex characters. Among Hollywood stargazers, it’s a widespread opinion that his is only getting brighter.

“It’s great that a small-city festival will take the time to recognize these fine actors and talents who don’t necessarily have a high profile and aren’t necessarily household names,” said Kevin Thomas, longtime film critic for the Los Angeles Times and a RiverRun juror at the 2008 festival. “Michael Shannon is a wonderful and distinctive young actor. I think it’s just terrific!” Andrew Rodgers, executive director of the festival, believes that Shannon “is close to becoming a household name around Hollywood,” and that his “broad spectrum of fascinating performances definitely sets him apart as an actor. Shannon is a powerful performer, full of a vibrancy that makes every character seem completely real. His commitment to his craft, along with inexplicable energy and strength that radiates from his performances, makes him an obvious choice for RiverRun’s Emerging Master award.”

The actor will presented with the award 6:30 p.m. Monday, April 11, in the Babcock Theatre of the ACE Exhibition Complex on the UNCSA campus after which will follow a Conversation with Michael Shannon, in which he will discuss his career and clips of his films will be shown.

“I like parts where I can use my imagination,” said Shannon in an exclusive YES!

Weekly interview, “to combine that sense of play, pretend and imagination with some philosophical or spiritual substance, to give people something to think about.”

He hesitates in using the word “educate,” then settles on “enlighten” in terms of what he looks for in a project, something he hopes will “start a dialogue or elicit a reaction.”

Shannon joins the company of previous Emerging Artist recipients Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) in 2009 and UNCSA School of Filmmaking alumnus David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) last year.

“I just look at the last couple of recipients and it’s company I’m honored to be in,” Shannon said. “Ramin has done some extraordinary work, and David Gordon Green is emerging as quite a filmmaker, [so] I was pretty flattered.”

Having worked with such acclaimed filmmakers as William Friedkin (Bug), Oliver Stone (World Trade Center), Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), Werner Herzog (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done — which screened at RiverRun last year) and Martin Scorsese (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), what, collectively or individually, did Shannon glean from the experience?

“Wow, that’s kind of an overwhelming question,” he said. “Well… it’s not like a class. You’re there to do your job. They say that 90 percent of directing is casting… [so] you use your own instincts. Whey they do give you direction, it’s simple. They don’t smother you.”

Next on the big screen for the actor is the psychological thriller Take Shelter, which reunited him with Shotgun Stories’ Jeff Nichols and is due for release in the fall.

Shannon believes that Nichols ranks right up there among the filmmakers with whom he’s worked. “I feel Jeff is very distinctive in the way he makes films,” he said.

“I feel that he’s special. No one else really approaches filmmaking the way he does. He’s wise beyond his years.”

He’s also begun the second season of “Boardwalk Empire,” in which he stars as the obsessive agent Nelson Van Alden — think Eliot Ness with heavy emotional baggage — nemesis of kingpin Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) in Prohibitionera Atlantic City.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Shannon said. “He’s kind of a sad character. I love Steve, and I’d never done anything quite like it.”

Thus far, Van Alden and Thompson haven’t interacted much, “but we’ll butt heads at some point, I am sure,” he said with a chuckle.

Not every film’s a winner, of course, such as last year’s Jonah Hex, a big-budget DC Comics adaptation that bombed with critics and audiences alike despite a cast headed by Josh Brolin (in the title role), John Malkovich and Megan Fox. The film was severely reedited before release, leaving Shannon with little more than a cameo appearance.

“Yeah, they kind of cut me out of it,” he mused good-naturedly, “but Josh said I was the victor.”

Shannon first became interested in acting while in high school. “It’s not really a sexy story,” he jokes. “It wasn’t as if extraterrestrials came down and got me.”

Never much of a film buff, he said he was more interested in music than acting. He stills plays in a band, but sighed that he’s been too busy acting to play as much as he’d like. (Film audiences might disagree!) Recently, Shannon completed an extended off-Broadway run of Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made, in which he delivered a tour-de-force turn as a fast-talking, hottempered, increasingly desperate Broadway producer trying to get any project off the ground.

“It’s a play I’m very fond of,” he said, having played it before in Chicago, adding that he relishes the opportunity to return to stage between big- and small-screen gigs.

“I think it’s just a matter of what you like doing,” he said. “I certainly don’t think you have to do it if you’re an actor. For me, I really enjoy doing theater.”