Anyone can play a scene with a dead fish. But it takes a special caliber of actor to give that fish mouth-to-mouth resuscitation with any degree of credibility. Leave it to Michael Shannon, the only cast member of Revolutionary Road to warrant an Oscar nod. In September, Shannon returns to the stage in Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made at A Red Orchid Theatre. He’ll play a high-strung producer whose personal life seems to begin and end with a pet fish. We caught up with Shannon pre-rehearsal to chat about the oddball heart of darkness that defines so much of his work.
Q: If you want to do theatre, why not do it in New York? Why come back to red orchid, where the talent’s expected to clean the bathrooms and build sets in their off-hours?
A: I do hope to avoid cleaning the bathrooms this time around. That kind of work is valuable because it keeps you humble and grounded, but now I’ve got a baby. So that takes care of that little job.
Red Orchid is at a critical juncture. When you’re young and it’s all about you and your passion, you can work for nothing for 80 hours a week. You can only get away with that for so long. People get older, have families. They get exhausted. With Mistakes, I hope to reignite a sense of passion about Red Orchid in everybody. Including myself. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but where I am now careerwise, I can help put Red Orchid on the map. I’m going to try and do that.
Q: In Revolutionary Road you annihilate your mother emotionally. In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (a soon-to-be-released film directed by Werner Herzog), you annihilate her, period. Freud would have had a field day. Thoughts?
A: I don’t feel like I have more or less issues with my mother than anybody else I know. But then, I know a lot of actors. I think actors wind up in this particular pasture because they have some steam to blow off.
Q: Pillowman, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, Bug, Rev Road, Killer Joe—your resumé is a pantheon of scary guys. What scares you?
A: Art museums. I always think at an art museum, if you turn around fast enough, you’ll catch the paintings behind you moving. Especially big paintings of, like, Jesus getting crucified. Also ticks. I am terrified of Lyme disease. Which is one reason Brooklyn is a good place to live.
Q: You play a producer in Mistakes Were Made. Anyone you know?
A: Me. Felix reminds me of me. He’s being pulled in so many directions at once; he’s overwhelmed. I am so easily overwhelmed—which is why I love A Red Orchid so much. It’s been like my bunker, you know? I’m in this amazing position where a lot of people want me to do a lot of things—which is great, but I can’t do it all. I have to figure out where to say no. I always have regrets.
Q: Such as?
A: [Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning] August: Osage County. I backed out of that to do Revolutionary Road. I hate to cancel once I’ve committed, but trust me, my absence was not felt in that cast.
Q: Does getting Oscar swag make up for the regrets?
A: That is some weird [stuff] they give out. Gift certificates for $500 micro-dermabrasion acid peels. I don’t even know what that is. A pair of pink cowboy boots. Way too small for me. A box of these little pads you can put in your underwear to make your butt look bigger. It all went in the garbage.
GO: Mistakes Were Made runs Sept. 4th through Oct. 18th at A RED ORCHID THEATRE, 1531 N. Wells St.; 312-943-8722, aredorchidtheatre.org
Photograph: Matt Carr/Getty Images