Michael Shannon’s talent for playing the maligned (and psychotic) just earned him a shot at leading man.
by Cassie Walker

Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp

Michael Shannon at the Heart O’ Chicago Motel

“You’re not one of those picky people, are you?” Michael Shannon asks. He shoots me the look. The I-could-kill-and-stuff-you-under-a-mattress-and-no-one-would-be-the-wiser look. He wore it as the child killer in The Pillowman at Steppenwolf. There it is again, scaring the wits out of his costar Ashley Judd in the psychological thriller Bug, which opens in movie theatres in December.

To be fair: Shannon immediately softens, concerned that I’ll catch a cold from a damp walk down Wells Street (and forgetting, at least for the moment, my few critical words about Pillowman). Bug has a Chicago nascence, and the 32-year-old actor sounds thrilled that this script, penned by his fellow actor Tracy Letts, could transition him into a leading man. Since filming wrapped last year in pre-Katrina New Orleans, Shannon has logged parts as a steely-eyed marine in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center and as a maniacal interloper in next year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Still, Bug could be his big break.

Shannon travels a lot these days, but, for now, his “home” remains A Red Orchid Theatre in Old Town. He hangs out there, takes calls there, and cleans the bathrooms. He sleeps in an attic nearby. “I don’t like when the theatre gets frumpy,” he grumbles. “We don’t have a janitor, and people in show business are slobs.”

Whatever happens with Bug, Shannon’s heart belongs, first and foremost, to the stage. (His 2007 calendar revolves around two plays, Lady, which opens in January at Northlight, and a new Letts play premiering next summer at Steppenwolf.) He spent his teen years shuttling between his mother in Lexington, Kentucky, and his father, an accounting prof at DePaul. At age 16, he dropped out of his third high school in four years, Evanston Township, to act. Around that time, director Dexter Bullard cast the scruffy youngster in the plays Fun and Nobody, which also starred Tracy Letts, nine years his senior. “That was the seed of the whole tree,” says Shannon, almost disbelieving. “If I would have somehow not got cast, or not heard about it, my life would be different.”

Shannon knows his life would be different, too, if he up and moved to Los Angeles. He lived there for two years; he came right back in 2001 after the première of Pearl Harbor (in it, he plays a lieutenant). “I was sitting in this really fancy hotel, looking out the window at the beach in Hawaii. Everything was beautiful, and I picked up the phone and I called Guy [Van Swearingen, the founder of Red Orchid], and said I had to come back. If I don’t stay doing theatre, I’m going to float away, like some balloon.”

At the time, Van Swearingen was casting the Chicago première of Bug, which Letts had written in the mid-1990s with Shannon in mind. “Michael is my good-luck charm,” says Letts. “He is one of the few actors that, to this day, I look at and say,
‘I can’t do what he’s doing right now.’ This is a source of some frustration and envy on my part.”

Under the direction of Bullard, and with Shannon in the main role, the dark script-about Peter, an ex-soldier, who convinces his lover that microscopic invaders have tainted the blood of them both-finally won over critics. It vaulted to New York, where, one night, director William Friedkin, of Exorcist fame, saw it and began the push to make the movie. “He kept insisting that I play Peter,” Shannon recalls. “[The studio] would say, What about Billy Crudup or Kevin Bacon?”

By now, the rain has forced us into a café. I’ve noticed that random passersby take notice of Shannon; is it that he’s six feet four and a bit of an oddball, or has he crossed the line to recognizable movie actor? I start to ask. As if on cue, the waiter interrupts. “I saw you at Steppenwolf in The Pillowman. You were great.” “Cool,” Shannon mumbles. And for a moment he looks pleased.