A Killer Role — Michael Shannon Brings His Dark Side to Theatre For a New Audience

By Stuart Miller
10 May 2014

Michael Shannon
Michael Shannon
Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Michael Shannon chats with Playbill.com about returning to the play The Killer at Theatre for a New Audience.

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Michael Shannon starring in a play called The Killer? It sounds like a natural fit.

A couple of caveats: Shannon is not the killer. He plays the lead, Berenger, who has found a utopia. Additionally, one reason Shannon suggested this piece to Theatre for a New Audience artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz is that absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco "had a very child-like spirit in his writing, something that as artists we forget very quickly."

Don't worry — those caveats come with caveats. Shannon, 39, says he "is always looking for the distance in the character's journey" and Berenger goes from "profound joy and discovery... through a labyrinth of different feelings and experiences to come to this sinister, lonely place."

That sounds more like the brooding actor who radiates intensity, anxiety and ever darker emotions on stage (Bug, Killer Joe, Grace) and screen ("Revolutionary Road," "Boardwalk Empire").

"He has a deep understanding of the play," said director and Tony nominee Darko Tresnjak. Shannon first starred in The Killer 16 years ago in Chicago at A Red Orchid Theatre, a company he co-founded. "It's the only time when a play closed [that] I wept because I wasn't going to get to do it anymore," Shannon said.

This part might be vintage Shannon but he doesn't see himself as typecast. "I approach every role as a unique person with a different set up in their minds and hearts," he said. "Nelson Van Alden ['Boardwalk Empire'] and Peter Evans [Bug] are completely different people. They both may cause anxiety if you're around them, but that's irrelevant to me."

Shannon said he's "not in the business of trying to scare people" and added that one of his most placid roles, the stage manager in Our Town at the Barrow Street Theatre, was, to him, one of the darkest. "That play is much more frightening than Bug if you really listen to it," he said, because the show has "all these dead people wishing they were still alive" and everyone in the audience leaves the theatre realizing how lucky they are to be alive and how they should appreciate what they have, "yet, two days after you've seen it, you're out on the street, getting mad at people, flipping them off, saying, 'Where's my latte?'"

Darko Tresnjak
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In person, the 6'4'" Shannon seems a bit reserved yet a far cry from his characters. He plays in a rock band called Corporal that recently performed in New Orleans. And he has a wry sense of humor and an ample dose of self-awareness — he has parodied his reputation several times through Funny or Die and after an answer to a question ends with him on the topic of all the children suffering around the world he smiles and says, "that's me, Mr. Upbeat."

Still, it's obvious what draws him to those characters when he acknowledges having a "pretty intense world view" and follows up with, "Life in general is pretty treacherous."

That stems from a childhood which sorely lacked stability. His parents split early and each remarried five times, moving him numerous times, mostly around Lexington, KY and Chicago. In Chicago, as a teen, he began channeling his angst into acting, impressing with his raw compelling talent before he developed any technique. He was on his own and had "completely lost interest in school. The Chicago theatre scene wound up being my education."

One of his first connections there was with Tracy Letts, who later wrote Bug and Killer Joe; he has also worked repeatedly with Craig Wright, turning Mistakes Were Made into an Off-Broadway tour-de-force and making his Broadway debut in Grace.

"To me it all boils down to the writing," Shannon said. "As an actor, with Tracy and Craig, it's like being their servant, they are such masters — though it's not like I'm doing their laundry." (However, he did he joke that he'd be willing to do a load for them between matinee and evening shows.)

Before rehearsals start, he talked about his relationships with and love for partner Kate Arrington and his two daughters (one just born in January) while sipping wine and noshing on hummous at Blue Ribbon in the Village. As he talked about how playing with his daughters "has reinvigorated my imagination," it almost sounded like he's softening around the edges.

"I don't think I'm mellower," he reassured. "What would I have to offer then? An Evening the Mellow Mike Shannon?"

He switched to an emcee patter, saying, "Hey guys, how's it been? Did you have a nice day today? Me too. I'm feeling totally mellow." He then scowled and added, "Who would want to watch that? God forbid I got mellower."