At the 13th annual RiverRun International Film Festival, held in April in Winston-Salem, acclaimed actor Michael Shannon received the festival’s Emerging Artist award.
Best known for his role as John Givings in the 2008 screen adaptation of “Revolutionary Road,” for which he earned an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor, Shannon has amassed a wide range of credits during his career, including: “Groundhog Day” (his screen debut), “Pearl Harbor,” “Vanilla Sky,” “World Trade Center,” “The Runaways,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Bug,” “Jonah Hex,” “8 Mile” and an ongoing role as a tormented federal agent in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”
Shannon’s appearance at the festival occurred literally hours after it was announced that he would play the Kryptonian arch-nemesis General Zod in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, which stars Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel.
Shannon was introduced at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking by RiverRun Executive Director Andrew Rodgers, who praised Shannon for “establishing himself as a really powerful performer.”
“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten anything like this,” said Shannon of the award, and he was particularly pleased that “it’s reflective of my whole body of work.”
Following a retrospective of clips from Shannon’s films, he was joined by filmmaker and UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols, who directed Shannon in “Shotgun Stories” and the upcoming “Take Shelter,” which will be released in the fall and has already picked up steam on the festival circuit.
Director and actor, good friends, discussed Shannon’s career and their collaborations in relaxed but informative fashion, sharing anecdotes that entertained the audience on hand. “He’s kind of like a big brother to me,” Nichols said.
Like brothers, there was good-natured banter throughout. At one point, when Nichols was heaping praise on him, Shannon lifted the award above his head with mock sheepishness, delighting the crowd.
He also discussed the many acclaimed filmmakers he’s worked with thus far, including Martin Scorsese (“a great, great guy,” he said), William Friedkin, Oliver Stone, John Waters and Sidney Lumet, who died days before Shannon’s visit.
Lumet, he said, was “intimidating. He is probably one of the greatest 20 American filmmakers I can think of.”
When comparing the directors with whom he’s worked, Shannon told Nichols: “You’re nothing like John Waters.”
As much a veteran of the stage as the screen, Shannon recently completed an extended off-Broadway run in the one-man satire “Mistakes Were Made.” He’s not necessarily predisposed toward improvisation. “I respect writing a lot, because the writing is what attracts me to a project,” he said.
The characters he plays tend to be distinctive and on the edge. “Life’s a struggle and it’s hard,” Shannon observed. “The most interesting characters are those who fight the hardest.”
Born in Kentucky and raised in Chicago, Shannon honed his acting chops on stage – “I just wanted something to do after school,” he said – and, basically, went from there. Feature films beckoned, and the small roles soon became larger ones.
“For me, acting’s all about paying attention,” said Shannon. “My first agent wanted me to go to a speech therapist, so I got another agent.”
It was shortly after completing “Take Shelter,” in which he plays a man who suspects the apocalypse it at end, and his “Mistakes Were Made” stint that he received another call, literally out of the blue.
“This Superman thing came out of nowhere,” he said, recalling a preliminary “read-thru” (read: audition) with director Snyder and co-star Cavill which, Shannon related, was designed “to see if … Superman (and I) have chemistry.”
He smiled at the memory, but is very much looking forward to participating in so high-profile (and high-budgeted) a project. “That’s a hard part to play – Superman,” he observed. “I plan to luxuriate in the richness of the environment.”
Having appeared in a number of low-budget independent films, Shannon admitted that he definitely has a liking for edgy, indie-friendly material, but that he’s also a bit weary of struggling the bring the lowest-budgeted projects to fruition. “Making movies for under $1 million is … a little old,” he said.
As for his career path, “it gets muddier,” he said. “The more opportunities you have, the harder it is to figure out the right thing to do…I’d love to do as many different things as I could.”