Michael Shannon’s been having a lot of fun with the Internet lately. A seemingly innocuous comment in an interview with Vulture about having to wear flippers for his role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was swiftly taken as confirmation that he’d be playing the villain Doomsday (a character widely expected to be in the film). He’s since told The Daily Beast that the whole thing was a joke taken out of context and that he’d only done a bit of voice-over work for the film.
In between the rumor and the ultimate debunking of the rumor, I met Shannon in Beverly Hills to talk about his latest film, 99 Homes. Directed by Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop), the movie fictionalizes the human cost of the Florida home foreclosure crisis, circa 2010. Shannon plays Rick Carver, a ruthless real estate agent with a penchant for vaping and a seemingly foolproof business plan: Buy up foreclosed homes, bilk the government for unnecessary repair fees, and sell the homes at a significant profit.
Dennis Nash, an unemployed construction worker played by Andrew Garfield, gets roped into Carver’s orbit after Carver evicts him from his home on behalf of a bank. Carver brings Nash into his business because he sees in Nash the same sort of single-minded, tenacious work ethic that made Carver a success, but the cost of success is something Nash might not be prepared to pay. 99 Homes is, more than anything, a morality play, a tale of two opposing viewpoints. Nash represents community, family, and history. Carver spends much of the film espousing his belief that America should only “bail out the winners.” He’s Ayn Rand with an e-cig. If that sounds like heavy material, it’s because it truly is. But weighty material is Michael Shannon’s stock-in-trade.
Perhaps we all took this Doomsday stuff seriously because it’s hard to picture him as the type of guy who cracks wise. The man is intense, both onscreen and in person — prone to speaking through his hands and contemplating his answers a beat longer than normal. He has a way of putting you on your heels, but also drawing you in with the depth of his thought. There’s a wise, deliberate quality to his person that’s at odds with the idea that he’d be enough of a prankster to continue with the alleged Doomsday ruse through multiple interviews, which he does toward the end of our chat. But that intelligence and high-mindedness might be why he can’t help but develop a sardonic response to yet another question about superheroes and aliens.
Whose idea was it for you to smoke that e-cigarette in 99 Homes?
That was Ramin. Ramin came to me with that and it made a lot of sense.
It seems like [with] this and True Detective Season 2, there’s a trend toward e-cigarettes and vaping as a shorthand for duplicitous or morally conflicted characters.
That’s interesting. I didn’t know about the True Detective; I haven’t seen it. But I don’t know, for me it’s a stress thing. I think Rick Carver is an incredibly stressed-out individual. I think he carries around a lot of tension. And to me it’s just literally steam. He’s just blowing off steam.
Also just having a thing that you chew on, I guess.
Yeah, he’s probably a grinder. Grinds his teeth at night.
Even though there’s a great big cast with Laura Dern and Clancy Brown and others, it’s really a movie about you and Andrew Garfield’s character — your seduction of Dennis Nash. How much time did you spend with Garfield outside of the set? How much interaction did you have? Or did you kind of feel like, I need to be apart from him and develop this kind of seductive relationship by not being too close?
Yeah, we didn’t spend hardly any time together on set. I mean, we had a brief rehearsal period before we started shooting, which was, you know, helpful. But once we started shooting we pretty much left each other alone unless we were at work. Andrew was very serious about this, very diligent, you know. He spent a lot of time with people who had been in these types of situations, so I think he felt a big responsibility not to mess it up.
There are a lot of things that Rick Carver says that I almost feel like I agree with, and that’s kind of scary because he’s so uninterested in other people. He’s not a magnanimous person. Even though he gives Dennis this great opportunity to make a lot of money, his decision to do that is very self-involved. But I also feel like he speaks for a work ethic that is very American. When you were working on the character, did you want that to be emphasized?
Well yeah, I mean, it’s not like Rick Carver’s some product of our imagination. There’s lots of Rick Carvers walking around. And to a certain extent, it’s highly permissible. His code of conduct, his ethics. And you’re right, he does work hard. And nobody gave him anything; nobody was like, “Here’s all the secrets.” He figured it out himself, you know. And that’s hard work. I mean, it’s not menial labor. But he didn’t want to do menial labor. He watched his father fall off a damn roof. He didn’t want that to be him. So he was like, How do I avoid that? And yeah, I think he sees past people, or there’s something about him — I think he’s a very lonely kind of person, you know. And he’s become obsessed with this vision of what’s the ultimate deal. Because he could just settle for what he has and spend time with his family and whatnot. But there’s an emptiness inside of him that that doesn’t fill.
That’s another thing that’s really a uniquely American problem — the inability to be satisfied.
Exactly. Yeah, that’s very true. And it’s creating this toxic economy. The reason the middle class is disappearing is because people who have money and power never seem to have enough money and power. So, you’ve just got to pick what side of the fence you’re going to be on. And Rick started out on one side of the fence and then he climbed the fence.
It almost seems like the desperation that he feels comes from knowing that it could disappear in any second, because he sees people losing everything every day. You know, he sees Nash just fall apart and have to live in a hotel. I can relate to the fear that everything is going to disappear in a second, and that everything I’ve worked for is transient. Do you pull anything from your life when you play characters who are desperate in this way?
Yeah, it’s funny, Rick had to come from somewhere inside of me. And yet, for the life of me I can’t really figure out where, because I really don’t have much in common with the guy. I guess we’re both tenacious people, and I think we share a love of language, and maybe a similar sense of humor. But I’m not compelled by the things that he’s compelled by. I guess the one thing we have in common is that line about not being attached to real estate emotionally, because I couldn’t agree with that more.
If you believe that your home is that important then you’re making yourself vulnerable, because anything can be taken away from you. And if it’s not a toxic mortgage, it could be a flood or a tornado or a bolt of lightning, you know. But I think for me, I was mostly drawn to play Rick just because of the type of character that he was. Like back in the day if I were to have had an audition for this movie I’d be auditioning for like Frank Green [an emotionally unstable neighbor of Andrew Garfield’s character played by Tim Guinee] or something. But the fact that Ramin was willing to let me take a shot at Rick, it was exhilarating, it was a challenge. I mean, Rick’s fancy. I’m not fancy like that. I don’t get that opportunity very often.
If material things and the things that Rick is interested in don’t compel you to act, what does compel you and what gets you out of bed every day?
Well, it’s mysterious, you know. I’ve been acting for a really long time. I can’t imagine my life without it. I also a lot of times on set, inevitably at some point during the day, think, What the fuck am I doing here? So, you know, it’s kind of a mystery. I think, ultimately, acting is an appreciation of life. Because what you’re doing when you act is you’re really paying attention to people and why people do what they do, and you’re trying to figure that out. So in a way it’s kind of an act of gratitude.
It’s like you’re solving a mystery, and you want to get into a person and understand it. Understand their motivation and understand why they do what they do. And you play a lot of characters who are unsympathetic, but you are able to find that sympathy. Throughout 99 Homes, I felt like, I understand, I get it, this is an impulse that I have that other people have, to keep striving. Do you think ambition is a burden for people?
Well, yeah, it can be, definitely. But it depends, you know, at the end of the day it’s up to us to figure out what the heck we want out of our lives. And you know, as long as the ambition you have doesn’t keep you from enjoying the parts of your life that should be enjoyed. I think the real tragedy for Rick is that he’s not able to enjoy his wealth and enjoy his family. He’ll probably die alone, a lonely man. And a lot of that is because his ambition is like the leash that’s guiding him, that he’s tethered to. I mean, I think it’s like anything in life, whether it be ambition or addiction or whatever, people are in trouble when they let something outside of them dictate their behavior.
How do you keep from tipping over to that sort of obsession?
Well, it’s hard. I mean, I’ve got two kids. There’s nothing that makes me happier than my kids. I think they keep me tethered. But it’s hard, because I could be working every day of my life, and that’s a good thing, and something that actors strive for. Some actors strive for it their whole lives and they don’t get that opportunity. And right now I have that opportunity. But sometimes you’ve just got to get off the ride for a minute, you know. Just go to the park, push your kid on the swing and breathe, just relax.
Rick had a family that he ignored. And a lot of what kept Nash from completely immersing himself in that world of greed was his family. Losing his family would be the ultimate disaster for him, the ultimate tragedy.
Yeah, he can’t live with that. No, that’s very astute. I mean, yeah, therein lies the difference between Dennis and Rick, I guess, or one of them. Yeah, just see those up against one another, you know, Rick’s family versus Dennis’s family. Because Rick, jeez, you see his wife and kids for a minute maybe. I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose.
It seems like being a father or mother is the opportunity that you have to give back to the world or not be completely selfish.
Ideally, yeah, that’s the moment where accountability really becomes concrete. Because up until that point, yeah, you can kind of just be in your own little world, and kind of you’re in the center of your own universe. But once you have a kid that changes real fast.
You’ve been working nonstop, jumping from the big-budget Superman stuff to this and back and forth, TV and everything. When you’re on set, be it a small film or a big film, what do you do to communicate with your family, to keep that tether to the world? Because you can get lost playing General Zod.
I go home a lot. I mean, if I’m on the road I go home every weekend. I’m not a Skyper or any of that stuff. That stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. But yeah, with Man of Steel I was fortunate because I had a lot of time off. I wasn’t there every day, so I could go back and forth. Yeah, I just fly a lot, basically. Whenever I can be home, whenever I can be with the kids, that’s where I am. If I got to work, I’ll go do it.
And do you find it difficult to then jump back into the character after you’ve let go of it for a while?
No, no. I’m not one of these guys that’s like, Please call me by my character’s name. I get a sense of what it is and once I put the costume on and look in the mirror I’m like, There’s so-and-so, and go do it. But I can pick it up and put it down.
I’d be remiss not asking you about your mentioning you have flippers in the new Batman v Superman movie. Is there anything else you can say about that?
And a trunk.
[Laughs.] He’s got a snout?
Yeah, he’s got a snout. Doomsday is like an elephant-platypus character.
This interview has been edited and condensed.