Michael Shannon is at the top of his game. This fall, the 38-year-old makes his Broadway debut in Grace and reprises his role as Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (Sundays, starting September 16). Not bad for an Evanston Township High School dropout. Here, the Oscar-nominated actor opens up to Chicago.

You once told us that you had to perform plays regularly, otherwise you might “float away like a balloon.” Do you still agree?
I don’t know. The stage is a routine. It keeps you grounded, like a metronome. I find that soothing.

Do you feel the same way about your TV gig?
There’s nothing routine about Boardwalk Empire. It’s like being in some secret society where they call you up and tell you where to go: “Meet us at the corner of such and so.”

You most often play conflicted characters, like your Oscar-nominated role in Revolutionary Road. Are these choices deliberate?
That’s kind of my MO. People lump them together, but I’m like, Here’s another completely different person I get to play. I don’t pick my roles by genre; that’s kind of silly.

Are you ever going to be the lovable guy who falls for Jennifer Aniston in a romantic comedy?
I actually auditioned for The Good Girl. The last hurdle was reading with Jennifer. I guess she hated me, so no, that’s not going to happen. It’s not like I’m crossing projects off a list. The people who make the decisions are the ones with small imaginations.

Your next major role is General Zod in the new Superman movie, Man of Steel. What can you tell us?
They don’t want me to talk about it. It follows a certain historical context. Superman still comes from Krypton, he still wears a cape and flies. The real X factor here is [director Zack Snyder]. There’s no other director who makes movies that look like his movies.

You’ve come a long way since living in an attic next to the Red Orchid Theatre.
When I was living in the attic, I had spent two years in L.A., doing three Jerry Bruckheimer movies. It was my choice to take a break from [Hollywood], because it can be a real head trip. I just wanted to come back and remember what real life was like.

In this season of Boardwalk, Van Alden can’t enforce Prohibition anymore. If you couldn’t act anymore, what would you do?
I’d just go play music. Nothing would make me happier. I’m on the razor’s edge. [But] everyone would think I was ridiculous, and ostensibly I’m having a lot of success right now, so I guess I should stick with it.

Bug: Shannon plays a mentally ill drifter.
Revolutionary Road: His Academy nom
Take Shelter: A father fears the apocalypse.


Photograph: Victoria Will/AP Photo