You may not have heard of Michael Shannon, but it would be impossible to walk away from the Eisenhower-era marital drama Revolutionary Road without being shaken by his blistering performance as John Givings, a recovering psych-ward patient who might just be the sanest inhabitant of a Connecticut suburb where desperation and malaise seem almost universal.
Shannon, whose acting career began 17 years ago in a Chicago-area production of Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset, has already earned best supporting actor nominations from the Chicago Film Critics Association and the International Press for his latest role, which teams him with two of the most widely recognized actors on the planet, Titanic co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. For the 34-year-old Kentucky native, though, the chance to perform in the big-screen adaptation of a Richard Yates novel Shannon considers near and dear to his heart would have been impossible to resist even without such heavyweight co-stars.
On Revolutionary Road, the 1961 novel that Yates intended as “an indictment of American life in the 1950s”:
“The first gift my girlfriend ever gave me was Revolutionary Road, which is a rather unusual gift to give to your significant other. When I say it’s incredible, that really means something because I’m not a very vigorous reader. I usually get about 20 pages in and I get distracted, so all my books usually wind up on a pile somewhere. But this one was like lightning, I couldn’t put it down.”
On his approach to a story populated almost exclusively by characters consumed by misery and self-loathing:
“I try to take the bleakness out my performance, to the extent that I can. My character is probably the least unhappy of the lot, so that was a small blessing. But life is a puzzle. We’re always second-guessing ourselves, doubting our decisions, wondering if we’re doing the right thing. It’s like that Talking Heads song, ‘Once in a Lifetime.’ If you can distance yourself from the emotional reality of Revolutionary Road, it won’t be such a punishing experience, but the reason why the story resonates today is because it’s about feelings we all understand.”
On working with DiCaprio and Winslet, reunited on screen for the first time since 1997’s Titanic:
“They don’t act like movie stars, they just act like people who are extremely passionate about the work they do. They go out of their way to make you feel like you’re on a common ground with them, which is gracious but also intelligent, I think. They make everyone around them feel comfortable enough to give their very best performances, and they need those performances to flesh out the movie they’re trying to make. On top of that, they’re just incredibly sweet people.”
On the possibility of being nominated for an Oscar:
“It’s like going to an amusement park for the first time. It’s exciting, sure. At the premiere, all these people were coming up to me, shaking my hand, wishing me luck, and I appreciate that. But I’m reluctant to buy into something until it’s actually happening. When I’m sitting in the Kodak Theatre staring at a room full of celebrities, I might believe it then. Let’s just say that if I’m invited to the Oscars, I’ll be sure to RSVP.”
On working with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who recently directed Shannon in a New York stage production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Little Flower of East Orange:
“One of the reasons Philip Seymour Hoffman is such an incredible actor is because he’s so rigorous with himself. He’s never satisfied and he’s always pushing himself to go deeper into his characters, and he applies that same mentality to his directing. He expects the actors in his play to take things as seriously as he does, so it’s a challenge. You’ll think you’ve figured something out, and he will say, ‘That was OK, but it could be a lot better.’ You want to strangle him, but you know he’s right. It would be one thing if he wasn’t an actor, then you could say, ‘Well, what do you know?’ But he happens to be one of the greatest actors in the world, so you can’t fall back on that.”