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So Michael Shannon Walks into a Diner …

You can learn a lot about a man over three plates of eggs. Like why the best Chicago-bred actor of his generation doesn’t embrace movie stardom.

Michael Shannon
Photos: Scott Council. Stylist: Sam Spector; Stylist's Assistants: Chris Lee and Zachary Volosky; Prop Stylist: Josie Keefe; Groomer: Jordan Long/Exclusive Artists

So Michael Shannon Walks into a Diner …

You can learn a lot about a man over three plates of eggs. Like why the best Chicago-bred actor of his generation doesn’t embrace movie stardom.

We’re in a diner talking about another diner, and Michael Shannon is thinking of the address. Some intersection that doesn’t matter anyway. But this being Chicago, when people tell you where they ate, or what they bought, they do it geographically. Shannon is a Chicago guy. Street names, neighborhoods, intersections. He expects you to know. He spins his fork a little between bites, conjuring a map we cannot see. And he squints. “There’s another one of these places, on Halsted, right around Buckingham. In Boystown. Not that one. I mean the one in Edgewater. Maybe three, four blocks off the lake. I’ve eaten there. I used to eat there, anyway.” His eyes narrow, as if he were looking from some distance. “You know it?”

The two of us are sitting in the original Nookies, in Old Town, which isn’t much of a diner, really, because there’s no grill man and the counter is an afterthought. But it’s Sunday past noon, a sunny day on Wells Street at the front end of the warm season. Outside: light in the leaves, pretty nurses across the street, some old dude walking a French bulldog on a piece of spare clothesline. Inside: bouncy seats line the tables, and young parents abide. The whole place is dialed up to nothing but good news. When the door opens, you can hear the birds.

I tell him I don’t know much about the North Side. I live in Indiana. He answers with still more streets. It seems important to him to get it right. “Let me ask somebody,” he says, looking around. He eyes my plate, then his. The ruination of eggs. “You want some coffee?” he says.

In almost every way that can be judged, Michael Shannon is a knockabout guy, just a hands-in-the-pocket neighborhood fella wearing a hoodie, jeans, and craptastic sneakers, killing time in a diner on a day off. No one notices him. Which seems a little surprising in this neighborhood, in this town. Surprising because Michael Shannon cofounded A Red Orchid Theatre, which sits just blocks from here. Surprising because Michael Shannon has been a Chicago stage actor for nearly 25 years. Surprising because Michael Shannon, whether you recognize the name or not, is a legit movie star—one who, at 41, is about to get bigger, with a flurry of new movies over the next few months. But surprising mostly because it’s hard to forget that face if you’ve ever seen it in a film. The man looks like a Tom Waits song.

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A waiter stops by. He knows Shannon, though not as a movie star, or even an actor. But as a customer at one of the other Nookies locations. That’s the place Shannon was searching for. “I used to eat there all the time,” Shannon tells him, then looks northward, as if he can see it. “Yeah, yeah. That place still going good?”

The waiter shrugs. “I think it is,” he says. “But I’m over here now.”

Shannon pushes down with his face then, as if with the weight of his brow, a peculiarly serious grimace of self-consternation. “Of course you are,” he says. “Of course. So you’re here now. That’s great. Right?”

The waiter shrugs again. He has his troubles. Auditions, lost roles, apartment problems. For Shannon, a working actor from the age of 16, it’s familiar banter. He lets the kid talk.

 
Michael Shannon eating popcorn

There’s this supreme shock of hair on Michael Shannon, hurly-burly even when he pats it down. His eyes are dark and glaring. He’s always caught in a wince, looking as if things hurt a little to think about. Outside or in, after eggs or over coffee, no matter, there’s a bit of a squint. And it’s more intense when he listens, when his gaze narrows. He studies things. It feels like you’d better have something to say.

Michael Shannon. Mike, he tells me.

Star or not, however you define it, he is an actor. That’s inarguable. He considers himself the product of a series of mentorships with Chicago-bred thespians, directors, playwrights: Guy Van Swearingen, Dexter Bullard, Tracy Letts. He chats amiably about—and seems to remember clearly—every one of the scores of plays he’s performed here. His longtime partner is even a Chicago actress, Steppenwolf regular Kate Arrington.

Look at him. He looks a little spun, no? It feels that way when you sit with him. He’s played driven, pent-up guys for all these years. Men beaten by circumstance, maybe just the least bit cursed. Whacked. Somewhat struck, and scary of gaze. The ecstatic teenage WrestleMania fan in Groundhog Day. The skeezy boyfriend of Eminem’s mother in 8 Mile. The tilted, talented mathematician in Revolutionary Road, for which he received an Oscar nomination. The desperate but calculating villain General Zod in Man of Steel. The murderously flipped Prohibition-agent-cum-gangster in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.

Now he’s got four movies that could come out before the end of January: Freeheld (October 2), with Julianne Moore, the story of a dying police officer trying to get benefits for her domestic partner; The Night Before (November 25), a Seth Rogen Christmas farce; Elvis & Nixon (no release date set, but word is, January), with Kevin Spacey, about the Oval Office meeting of two 20th-century icons; and, most imminent and perhaps most important to Shannon, 99 Homes (September 25), a smallish film by the acclaimed young director Ramin Bahrani, which documents, in an utterly human fashion, the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis in Florida, and for which Shannon is already earning Oscar buzz. Also, to his admitted delight, Shannon returns to the Chicago stage in November for a six-week run at Red Orchid in Pilgrim’s Progress, a dark comedy about family holidays.

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What more could an actor want from a single autumn? Two socially important and passionately directed features, a frivolous comedy, and a double-edged biopic for which he shares top billing. Plus theater work. In the city he loves.

He lives primarily in New York these days—he and Arrington and their two daughters, ages seven and one—but he comes back to Chicago regularly. “When people see me, they’ll say, ‘How do you like our city?’ ” His eyes go wide. “They don’t even know I lived here. But I’d say half the times I walked onstage in my life, I was working A Red Orchid Theatre. This is where I was born as an actor. So I will always come back when I can.” He punches the air with his words. It’s hard not to feel it when Michael Shannon makes an assertion.

In 99 Homes, Shannon plays Rick Carver, a real estate agent who buys up foreclosures, ceaselessly and ruthlessly, in the collapsing market. Carver throws a young man (Andrew Garfield) and his mother (Laura Dern) out of their house before recruiting the son, in a genuinely Shakespearean turn, to work with him in throwing others out of theirs. “My character is villainous, but he’s not evil,” Shannon says. “He’s philosophical about what’s happening in that moment. Like my character says, ‘Don’t get sentimental about it. It’s just a box. Just a space. Don’t get too mixed up.’ ”

Shannon pinches an eye, as if he were smoking, though all he’s doing is eating toast. He offers a proclamation: “I don’t own property. I’ve always thought mortgages were a racket.” Though he is making a grimace, it’s a small one in the world of Michael Shannon’s face.

 
Michael Shannon in ‘Bug’ in 2001
At 27, in the 2001 staging of Bug at A Red Orchid Theatre, which he cofounded Photo: Michael Brosilo

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, where he lived with his divorced mother, Shannon moved to the Chicago area as a boy to be with his father, an accounting professor at DePaul. “I was going to Evanston Township High School, and I did Taming of the Shrew, and when that was over, I got a copy of this newspaper called PerformInk. You know, like with a k at the end. PerformInk.” He pauses to be sure I got that. “I think it’s out of business now.” He pauses again. I’m not sure why. “But it listed auditions, so I went into the city and started auditioning. I got a part in Loving Little Egypt at the Griffin Theatre. The drama teacher at Evanston Township came to me then and offered me a role. But I said, ‘I can’t. I’ve got this job in, like, real theater. I’m in this now. This is a paying thing.’ She told me I’d gotten in too fast, too deep.”

Shannon holds his gaze then, staring straight at me. It’s a little tic, the long pause, but I feel like there’s something extra I’m supposed to be seeing. He’s good with the eyes, because when he starts up again, I can see it: He was simply considering the teacher’s statement.

“And you know, maybe so,” he finally says, shrugging. “But you can’t picture that when you’re young. I just told her, ‘I don’t think so,’ and I went ahead. I didn’t have no plan. But Chicago turned out to be where I learned how to act, where I got my opportunities, where I met the people who would be the greatest influence on my life. When you’re 16, you can’t say you’re choosing all that, but at that age, I wanted to be in too deep.”

Shannon never graduated from high school, never went to college. “I got three great roles right away, and then I got nothin’. Nothin’.” He says it just like that, dropping the g. Maybe a little louder. Nothin’! Jackie Gleason comes to mind. “I thought I was done,” Shannon says. “But time went by.”

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He eventually assembled a laundry list of play credits, from Ionesco to Shepard, at nearly every theater in the city, in church basements, storefronts, warehouses, on main stages. He went on to work with Steppenwolf’s Letts, who wrote Killer Joe and Bug, both of which featured Shannon in their initial productions in Chicago and, later, in London and New York. “Tracy changed my life with his work.”

So when the waiter rambles a bit about the struggles of finding acting gigs, Shannon punctuates the kid’s woes with “yeahs” and “yups,” because he’s been there. He does not bigtime the kid, offers no sage advice, no promises. Shannon just lets him shoot the breeze in the best Sunday way. Kindly, attentively, but always with the grimace.

Afterward, we decide to meet up the next day. “Let’s do a real diner,” I say. “What about Johnnie’s?”

Shannon can’t place it in his head.

“On Halsted. Just above Randolph,” I try.

“Below Lake?” Shannon asks. “What’s across the street?”

I have to think about that. It may be a vacant building. “Nothing,” I say. “Nothing at all.”

Shannon’s eyes slide left, then his gaze falls downward. And the internal map clicks in. He knows it. The place that faces nothing. “See you there,” Shannon says.

 

The next morning, it’s breakfast under the fluorescents in Johnnie’s Snack Shop. It’s a meeting ground for cops and cabdrivers, men beginning one shift or ending another. They serve eggs in twos and threes at Johnnie’s. So that’s how we take them. Two for Shannon. Three for me.

“I used to have this girlfriend, she lived in Pilsen,” Shannon says. “And I used to walk there, straight past this place.” He looks a smidge achy today. And he hasn’t shaved. “It took, like, an hour, hour and a half, or longer. You know, I was basically going to 18th and Halsted. I would go from Belmont . . .”

He stops to consider his path, one eye squeezed. He is huddled up a little, shoulders low, facing the nothing across the street. It’s fun to be with him. He’s like a character actor who is a real character. Or a leading man who’s not sure he wants to be.

He walked there? “Ever hear of a bus?” I ask.

“I couldn’t afford a bus,” he snarls. “Not back then.” He takes a deep breath through his nose. “And, oh, I hate buses. I hate them.” He says it like he’s testifying against buses in a lawsuit. It seems a little irrational. “Only time I’ll go on a bus is with my daughter to school. It’s the only way to get there.”

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Every once in a while, Michael Shannon gets very big when you talk to him. He barks in an all-of-a-sudden gruffness that translates just a bit like anger. One side of his face torques up, the eyes go to slits, and he says “What?” or “What’d you say?”

Like when I ask him about his phone: “Every time somebody sees my phone, they have to make some smart-ass remark. So I have a flip phone. So what? Are we in some cult where everybody has to have the same phone?” This feels like my cue to stare dumbly at the back of my iPhone.

But he isn’t mad at all. It’s just a thing. Two old men enter the restaurant then, one of them holding on to the elbow of the other. Almost immediately and without a word, they turn and exit in the same fashion. Shannon raises his eyebrow, gives a slight head tilt, his own little toast to oddness.

“But Sylvie,” he says, turning the subject back to his older daughter. “I’ll go anywhere with her. Even on a bus.”

At some point, he slides his phone across the table for me to have a look. We’re talking about his work on Elvis & Nixon. He’s got a photo of something he wants me to see. The screen is about the size of a small packet of salt. It’s a picture of an orange blur. “Can you tell what that is?” he says.

Can’t really say. “A doorway? A bed, maybe, and the wall behind it?”

“Yeah. I was a little nervous when I took it,” he says. He looks at the screen. “They didn’t want me to have a camera, so I took it really fast.” He spins the phone back for me to take another look. “That’s Elvis’s childhood bedroom in Memphis. It’s not even a museum. Not really. It’s just the apartment in Memphis, open to the public, where they reconstructed his childhood home.”

It probably goes without saying that Shannon, a brooding presence even while having coffee, plays Elvis. And while Shannon doesn’t perform onstage in the movie, he does sing along to the car radio as Elvis. Shannon considers himself lucky for this. It’s not that he can’t sing. He can and has, as frontman for his folk-rock band, Corporal, for more than a decade. It’s just that he relished the layered challenge of this particular musical performance. “It is Elvis singing Creedence Clearwater Revival,” he tells me. “So I get to interpret them both, instead of just getting up for an Elvis standard, which is very tough to do without sounding like everyone who ever tried.”

He points back to the photo on the phone. “Look closely at the wall,” he says. “Can you see the pattern?”

Again, I can’t really say. “Is it wallpaper?”

Shannon squints out a “dammit.” “It’s kisses,” he tells me. Lipstick. “Women kiss the wall.”

He tsks himself, as if he shouldn’t have taken the photo. “I just did it really fast, like I was putting my phone away.” He nods a little, expressing the smallish mistake of it, and shuts off the phone. “No one can forget Elvis.”

 

Michael Shannon has a lot to do. A list. His datebook is a spreadsheet maintained by his manager, hours broken into 15-minute increments. The two get together every couple of months to go over it. “We’ll sit at a restaurant, and he’ll just unfold this big sheet of paper,” Shannon says. “This giant grid, telling me what I’m doing every quarter hour.”

This time, the grimace is no accident of Shannon’s face. He’s not a datebook kinda guy. “I just have to remind myself, it’s not like I’ve been kidnapped,” he says. “These are my decisions. I don’t want to be working every day of my life. I want to be with my family. That’s a decision I have to make.”

There is a preternatural calm to him. In some measure, it’s the same calm that grips his most explosive characters, whose violence lurks just beneath the skin. Though sometimes, as in the small but remarkable 2011 movie Take Shelter, where he plays a young father plagued by visions of an apocalypse, it is despair that you sense.

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Bring this up and he shrugs it off. Shannon isn’t sure what people see when they look at his work. Or him. “But I’ll tell you what they don’t see,” he says. “The least interesting part of acting is emotions. Happy, sad, angry? That’s just human refuse. Waste.”

He tries to explain. “Emotions exist for human beings because of the difference between what happens and what they want to happen. It’s that gap that makes you sad, or angry, or whatever.” At this point, Shannon grinds down on his own truths about his work. “Carver in 99 Homes isn’t angry. He isn’t malevolent. He’s not evil. He doesn’t have any passion for what he’s doing. He just exists within a system that’s badly broken.”

“What about General Zod?” I ask. “That guy seemed pretty angry.”

Shannon corrects me. “You can relate to General Zod,” he says. “He’s a guy who looks out the window of his ship and sees that his planet has exploded. They blew it up. They wasted it. The whole planet. And he’s pissed because he can’t do his job. I think most of us can relate to that. But that’s not his only emotional state. General Zod is a guy who wants to do his job.”

As Shannon turns back to his eggs, he wants to clarify something else, something from the day before. It seems big, and he sounds a little, I don’t know, sheepish or apologetic. “You know, we do own a condo in Chicago. So, yes, I do own property.”

“That where you’re staying?”

“Yes,” he says. “I mean no. I couldn’t find the key.”

 

Six weeks later, we meet again for breakfast, this time in a place called Fort Defiance, at the southwestern most reach of Brooklyn, in Red Hook, by the water. Shannon wants to show me his apartment, which is not far from here. “We can walk,” he says.

The guy knows his cities. “I love Brooklyn. Red Hook especially. But this is not my home. This city makes me anxious. New York is like an umbrella before you open it.” He makes a fist, clenches it a little. “Compact, tight, kind of ready to be sprung. New York makes me anxious in a way Chicago doesn’t. Chicago is more like an umbrella when you open it. It’s relaxing.” He spreads his fingers like a tent. “I never intended to leave. I followed the work. But in a lot of ways, I never really did leave.”

The man walks fast. He’s tall, 6-foot-4. And he’s ropy with muscle from being a runner, though that wasn’t always the case. “Years ago, David Mamet had me in to talk about a movie he was making on judo or some kind of martial arts. He asked me to fly out to talk about the screenplay. So I got out there, I sat down in his office, and he says to me, ‘Do you do anything athletic? Do you do any sports?’ And I said no. And he says, ‘Because I saw you in World Trade Center and it looked like you might be athletic. But sitting here I can tell you’re not athletic at all.’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ Then he said, ‘Well, there’s really no point in our meeting.’ Like, ‘Get outta here.’ ”

“Just like that?”

Shannon purses his lips, bunches up his cheek, nods. “That’s basically Mamet’s philosophy on acting: Stay in shape. And memorize the lines exactly as they are written. That’s how he is. Half genius, half full of shit.”

The streets of Red Hook were designed long ago to lead to the docks and the warehouses that front them. Houses aren’t the norm. There are a lot of vacant lots. The neighborhood once had a reputation for being a little dicey, but, Shannon points out, “it’s not like there are a bunch of crack vials lying around.”And while it’s not exactly a landscape of comfort either, things are thriving in Red Hook. Tomato plants growing on ancient porch decks, posters taped in every store window screaming what people should do for entertainment, music piping dimly from various doorways.

On our right as we near his place is a fence, and Shannon drags a single finger along it, like a child would drag a stick. We cross a huge empty tract into a parking lot and come to his building, a sprawling warehouse near the harbor. There’s a supermarket on the first floor, and a dock for the water taxi that stops here on the passage from Lower Manhattan to the Ikea store at the far end of Red Hook.

“We rent this place,” Shannon says. We’ve lived here for five years. But the owner’s too smart to sell. Not that I would buy.” He pauses. “I don’t think.”

His place is on the third floor. It’s a brilliant loft, windows from wall to wall, facing the lower end of Manhattan, with a view as far south as the Statue of Liberty. The sun falls in on a slant. It looks like the home of parents with two little girls. Reassuringly messy. Crafts projects, dolls stuck on little shelves, science experiments left in midstride. The walls are lined with bookcases. His family is on Fire Island at the moment, at the beach; they’ll be back tonight.

Shannon takes a text, standing there in his kitchen. It’s easy to see that something has set him off. He politely excuses himself and tries to retire to the bedroom to reply, but he doesn’t get that far. He’s working that flip phone, a really tiny thing, and he has to punch in the letters the old way, from the old-style keypad, a number of discrete, brutish moves, one at a time. He’s pissed, and he’s doing his very best not to show it. Thumb-thumb-thumb, pause, thumb-thumb-thumb-thumb. It looks like he’s wrestling with a sparrow. “This guy,” he says, as if speaking to the room itself. “This guy.”

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He’s being called in for a reshoot on an independent movie he thought he’d finished weeks before. They need more close-ups to complete the editing. He thumbs out some more words clumsily. He bites his lip, turns his head as if considering throwing the phone into the East River, which from here is a reasonable proposition. “I’m not afraid of the work,” he says. “I did Killer Joe 400 times. I did Bug 200 times. Plays require a lot of work, night after night. I like the work.”

“A movie is a lot of work,” I offer.

“I prefer theater,” he says, leaning against a counter, reading a new message, thumbing out one last response. “A play is like a soup. It cooks for days. It transforms. It keeps cooking. I mean, with a play, you get all the bay out of the leaf.”

He puts the phone down, and his face shows some relief. He’s wide open then. “A movie gets made once, in a very big kitchen, with a lot of other cooks. Good cooks, sure. Great cooks. But you make it that one time, and nothing ever changes. So, you have one shot in a movie. One shot.”

Another text bloops onto the phone. Shannon reads it, and just like that, his face is tense again with the energy of exchange. Eyes into slits. Lips curling upward. “This is just a movie that’s otherwise finished. It’s not a new performance. I don’t get to rethink anything I did previously, which is what I like about acting. This isn’t acting.” He looks up. “This is just a request to borrow my face.” And the thought of that makes him cringe.

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