Michael Shannon On Trump, Boardwalk And 'Midnight Special'

The actor's odd new film has him discussing God, while Donald Trump has him thinking of porta potties

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Within twenty seconds of meeting Michael Shannon he is giving me his view on the existence of God.

You could put this down to the film he is here to talk about – a sci-fi thriller about a child with supernatural powers called Midnight Special – or you could put it down to the fact that, by all reports, Shannon can be a little 'intense'.

In any case, his response when I ask him just what the hell Midnight Special is about:

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"Ultimately, the search for harmony. I think harmony is very important. I think harmony is the key to [long pause, deep sigh] benevolence. To [longer pause] whatever might be holy about existence.

"I mean basically I have this theory religion is a very simple thing. So what God is - God is everything. Everything that exists: that's God. God is everything. But the problem is everything is fragmented. And there's chaos, and division. And the way to right that wrong is to find the unity of things.

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"And that… that is a theme I think the film explores."

Shannon in Midnight Special, out 8 April

It's important to try and get across what Shannon is like in person. First off: his face. I have been slightly obsessed with Michael Shannon's face since watching the entirety of Boardwalk Empire, the HBO show that made him famous. Some actors are blessed with a face that can say more with a twitch or a grimace than a hundred pages of dialogue (Bill Murray, Peter Dinklage) and Shannon is one of them. It is a magnificent face, and my favourite of his expressions is this small, strange smile he does that spreads up his mouth then stops dead at his eyes, which are in a very different, distant place altogether.

I hope to see it in the flesh, but in person it is difficult to get a proper look at Michael Shannon's face because for the duration of our chat he looks me in the eye only once and spends the rest of the time closing his eyes, putting his head or face in his hands, repositioning himself in his seat and – occasionally and somewhat startlingly – taking huge gulps from a glass bottle of water that was intended, I am pretty sure by its size, to be poured out into something else.

After Midnight Special – which is a slightly ponderous affair that Shannon, as ever, is excellent in - his next project is a comedy called Elvis & Nixon in which he plays Elvis. One of the most impressive things about his Boardwalk performance is that his put-upon, violently tempered police agent-turned-gangster Nelson Van Alden is so damn funny. Do people rate him enough for being able to do comedy?

"I do it in the most unlikely of places, I suppose," he half-shouts (he has a naturally loud voice).

"That is the truth about Boardwalk Empire: Van Alden was cultivated, in the writing, to become a comedic character. I would say the same of my character in Revolutionary Road. I think that's a funny part. When I read the chapters [of the book it was based on] with [his character] John Givens in them, I laughed out loud. So that's my idea of what's funny. I mean, I don't mind that I'm not in conventional comedies, because I don't watch them and they don't really make me laugh."

The 2008 adaptation of Richard Yates' deeply troubling family drama was a critical highlight in Shannon's film career, which, before Midnight Special – his fourth collaboration with precocious director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) – hasn't included many lead roles. Is there something you get, as an actor, out of working on a character in a long running TV show that you don't from films?

"No," he responds, for the first time, without a moment's hesitation.

"I mean, full disclosure: I did Boardwalk because I walked in and Martin Scorsese was sitting on the sofa and I thought 'Oh my God it's Martin Scorsese'. He directed the pilot so I thought: this is my chance to work with Martin Scorsese."

Here Shannon takes another wild swig from his glass bottle, reminding me of a man who has made a resolute decision to get as drunk as humanly possible, only on hotel branded sparkling mineral water.

"Also, the studio was like a mile from my house," he continues, "and I knew I'd make some decent money so I could feed my kids. But as an artist? It was not like, 'oh thank God I'm finally on a TV show'. Honestly I get most satisfaction as an actor from doing theatre."

I am aware that it might sound as though Shannon is in a bad mood, or is in some way a little rude. He is neither. Although every question I ask – even, say, what he particularly likes about being on stage - seems to present him with a philosophical quandary, he never makes me feel bad for this. He is polite and he is funny, in a droll way I imagine people from Kentucky to be.

For example, I ask him how he deals with being famous.

"I kind of ignore it," he says. "I do what I want to do. I take the train to work in the morning. If someone recognises me, that's great. There's not much to say about it. There's no in depth conversation. They just go: "Oh, you were on TV!". And I go [in a Southern drawl] "Well yeah I was!". The end."

"The one thing that drives me crazy is that everyone has these iPhones now, which means everybody wants a picture. That gets old. Now everyone has these phones with thousands of pictures on them that they never look at, and they all want a picture. But even that's not hugely awful, I just don't like getting my picture taken with strangers."

It doesn't sound it, but in person this is pretty funny. He is also funny when I ask about Donald Trump and the presidential race currently gripping his country (in 2012 Shannon's band, Corporal, released a song in support of Barack Obama being reelected).

"I don't think it would be a good idea for him to be the president of the United States," he says after another pause that seems to last a lifetime.

"I mean it's kind of clownish how obvious the problems are and how obvious they have been for a long time, and how we just keep managing to not doing anything about them. I don't think he is going to be the one to fix things, obviously. But I don't know who would."

Hilary?

"No. No. No she's not going to fix anything. She's a… she's a… [deep sigh] It's very hard to get excited about any of them, really. I don't even know why anyone would want to be President of the United States. It doesn't make any sense to me. It's like signing up to clean a porta potty or something."

My time is up, so I lean forward and take Michael Shannon's hand for a farewell handshake he probably could have done without. And there it is, finally: he looks at me, with that confused squint and knowing smile and eyes that are somewhere else entirely, and I leave not sure of anything except that Michael Shannon is not like anyone else I have ever met.

Midnight Special is out 8 April, Elvis & Nixon is 24 June

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