Actor Michael Shannon has built an impressive resume after his film debut in Groundhog Day.
He gained widespread attention in 8 Mile and went on make movies such as Man of Steel, The Shape of Water, Midnight Special and Loving. He’s been nominated for Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards twice, for Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals.
Also, he was nominated for three Screen Actors Guild Awards for the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Other television roles have been in Fahrenheit 451 and The Little Drummer Girl.
Shannon founded A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago and has also worked with Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Northlight Theatre.
If that’s not enough, he even sings in a band called Corporal, writing a song called “Obama.”
His movie, The Current War: Director’s Cut, depicts the story of Thomas Edison ( played by Benedict Cumberbatch ) and George Westinghouse ( with Shannon in the role ) battling it out in the electricity business. The movie originally stalled when released in 2017 at the Toronto International Film Festival after bad reviews and disagreements with the Weinstein Co.
Shannon talked about this project while in town for the Chicago International Film Festival.
Windy City Times: As a kid, did you ever want to invent something?
Michael Shannon: That’s a good question! I wasn’t very science-oriented, when I was a kid. It wasn’t my best class. I think I have always been more artistically inclined, as opposed to that.
WCT: When did you make The Current War?
MS: We shot it about three years ago.
WCT: Now it has a renewed life, thanks to the new cut.
MS: Thank God! There was a period when I wasn’t sure anybody would ever see it, which made me sad because it’s such an important story. That would have really bummed me out.
Our director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon was very tenacious and didn’t give up. Founder of 101 Studios, David Glasser, was very kind to bring the thing back to life.
WCT: What did you think of the differences in the two versions of The Current War?
MS: Clearly, the version coming out now is what Alfonso wanted. The version that was shown at Toronto in 2017 was a hodgepodge of some of Alfonso’s ideas with some other people’s ideas. It wasn’t as effective because it wasn’t one coherent vision, which is what a great film really needs.
WCT: How did you study the character of George Westinghouse?
MS: When I met Alfonso, he gave me a book called George Westinghouse. I read it and it didn’t have every single detail. It talked about what a great person was.
Like any part, I had to use my imagination. There was no one that was an authority on him. It’s very hard to find anything about Westinghouse because he destroyed a lot of his personal writings. He didn’t want to be glorified and just wanted to do his work.
WCT: You aren’t in any scenes with Benedict Cumberbatch until the end of the film?
MS: No, but that was a fun structure to play with. They shot most of the Edison side of the story first. Then it was my turn when they shot the Westinghouse side, until the end where they shot that final scene. It was a very rewarding dessert after a long meal!
WCT: So, it was shot in order?
MS: Yes. We were able to bring the experience of doing the movie into the scene. That would have been a bummer if they shot it out of sequence.
WCT: In the past, were you a fan of mystery films, like your new movie Knives Out?
MS: I haven’t watched one in a while. I was really curious to be in one. No one had ever asked me to do one. They are their own particular thing. It sure was a lot of fun to make it.
WCT: The cast is crazy good!
MS: Even if we hadn’t made the movie and just shown up to hang out, that would have been amazing. We got to make a great movie, on top of it. It was a fast shoot.
WCT: Does a theater background come in handy when that happens?
MS: You just have to be prepared. You learn that in the theater. There are some people that never do theater and are still prepared, but theater can feed into the film work.
WCT: I saw your last live theater show in Chicago.
MS: Victims of Duty is one of my favorite plays. We had actually done that play about 25 years ago, so we were revisiting the material. That is where I learned to act, in that little room there with Red Orchid.
WCT: Last time we talked at a nightclub, you said that you had a movie coming out for the LGBT community called Freeheld. Now that I have seen it, I saw how your character, Dane Wells, went on such a journey of acceptance in that film.
MS: Yes. Dane is a real guy. I got to meet him. He was very gracious to spend with me and talk to me. He’s a totally decent human and it was a great experience for him to have. It opened his eyes and his consciousness a bit.
WCT: Have you ever played a gay character?
MS: I did in the John Waters movie Cecil B. Demented. I was in love with Jack Noseworthy, but he wasn’t in love with me, because he was straight. That’s funny because, in real life, I’m straight and he’s gay.
WCT: How was the experience of working onstage with Audra McDonald this year in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune?
MS: I was so sad when that finished! I adored doing it. Going out onstage with her every night and telling such a beautiful story was unforgettable.
Terrence McNally was around and it meant a lot to him that we did it. He came up to us on opening night backstage and he said, “I finally got to see my play!” He’s a beautiful person.
WCT: Audra is very kind.
MS: Oh, yeah—and down to earth, considering she’s won more Tonys than anyone ever!
The Current War is currently playing at theaters. Knives Out opens Wed., Nov. 27.