This far into his illustrious career, Michael Shannon probably needs no introduction. As someone that Werner Herzog has described as the best actor of his generation, Shannon has been stealing scenes and turning heads since he began appearing in theatrical productions as a teenager in Chicago, where he helped found A Red Orchid Theatre. After landing a small part in Groundhog Day, Shannon broke into the movie business and has established himself time and time again as an exceptional onscreen force throughout the last 30 years, earning himself Oscar and Golden Globe nominations among others along the way.
Whether it’s a leading or supporting role, the versatile actor always commands attention with purpose and intensity. His credits include Guillermo del Toro’s Best Picture winner The Shape of Water, Rian Johnson’s ensemble whodunnit Knives Out, Zack Snyder’s superhero epic Man of Steel (where he played General Zod and will be reprising the role in this year’s The Flash) and numerous other acclaimed performances in films like Take Shelter, Nocturnal Animals, Revolutionary Road, Elvis & Nixon, 99 Homes and more. On television, Michael Shannon has taken home two Screen Actors Guild Awards for his work on Boardwalk Empire and has also starred in series like Waco (as well as the upcoming Waco: The Aftermath) Nine Perfect Strangers, and most recently, George & Tammy alongside Jessica Chastain.
While many consider Michael Shannon to have a certain intimidating presence, his latest role is that of a rather meek and unconfident man who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity. Written and directed by Michael Maren, A Little White Lie is a lowkey comedy that stars Shannon as Shriver, a lonely handyman who receives a letter meant for a famous writer that shares the same name. The letter is an invitation to a literary festival at a prestigious college, and despite Shriver barely having even read a book in his life, he decides to attend anyway, foolishly hoping that he can maintain the ruse. The film also stars Kate Hudson, Don Johnson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Aja Naomi King, Romy Bryne, Zach Braff, and Peyton List.
We caught up with Michael Shannon himself, who has been hard at work on his upcoming feature directorial debut Eric Larue, to discuss getting into the character of an imposter like Shriver and the making of A Little White Lie.
Exclusive Interview with Michael Shannon for A Little White Lie
So I’m a huge fan of your work. I know this was a decade ago but my favorite thing you’ve done might be your reading of a sorority letter you did for Funny or Die back in the day. My college roommate and I just loved that to death.
Michael Shannon: Oh, yeah (chuckles). That poor girl. I hope she’s okay.
Oddly enough, I think the movie I’ve seen the most with you in it would be Kangaroo Jack. I watched that way too many times as a kid, couldn’t tell you why.
Michael Shannon: Well, it’s fun. A good way to kill some time.
So how did you become involved with A Little White Lie?
Michael Shannon: The fella who directed it, Michael Maren, came all the way to Chicago to see me in a play that I was doing with this theatre company I’m with called A Red Orchid Theatre. I was pretty impressed with that, that he would come all that way. We went and had dinner afterward, and I just found him to be a really fascinating guy. He had a fascinating life and he had been trying to get this made for years. I could tell how passionate he was about it and I just really liked him. Then I read the script and I kind of fell in love with the character. I thought it would be fun, so I said okay.
Are you a writer yourself?
Michael Shannon: That’s an interesting question. If I write something it’s usually a song. I’ve written some songs. I think writing plays and screenplays is a phenomenally difficult thing to do and I have a lot of respect for writers. I think it’s probably the hardest job out of all of this. So I’ve never really felt comfortable, at least not yet, attempting to do it myself.
Would you consider yourself a reader? Do you have time to read things beyond scripts and screenplays?
Michael Shannon: It goes in spurts, you know? Usually, if I’m working I’m pretty focused on whatever it is I’m doing so I don’t tend to read things unless they pertain somehow to the job at hand. But if I have some time off I’ll pick up a book just to read it.
Have you ever been mistaken for somebody else and just rolled with it?
Michael Shannon: I get mistaken for quite a long list of people, oddly enough. Just the other day a fella thought I was Quentin Tarantino. I’ve gotten Willem Dafoe before. Some people think I kind of look like David Letterman, although I don’t think anybody would mistake me for David Letterman. Then, of course, there are the inevitable comparisons to the fella who played Jaws in the James Bond movies, which I always enjoy. But no, I don’t usually roll with it. I usually say “No, I’m not that person. I’m somebody else.” But I make a living pretending to be other people, so to that extent, the answer is yes.
Part of this story is very much about impostor syndrome and disassociation. The way you view yourself versus the way others see you. I imagine as an actor that might be a chronic feeling, especially when it comes to things like awards shows or being in the public eye.
Michael Shannon: Oh god, I’ve really been thinking quite a lot about that lately, actually. I think people imagine that, I don’t know, being me is some exciting, thrilling adventure or something. But I have a lot of very mundane problems and deal with a lot of issues that pretty much anybody deals with in life. And yeah, those awards shows or even just premieres and any of that, I’m not entirely comfortable in those environments. But I don’t know if anybody is, if they are really honest about it. It’s a strange thing that we do all that, but I guess it draws attention to the work at the end of the day.
Everyone’s putting on some kind of facade in this film, but that’s the truth of real life as well. Everybody’s doing that in one way or another.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, exactly. Isn’t it interesting when you stop and think about that?
That imposter syndrome is something I relate to a lot. It’s happening to me right now doing this interview! I watched the film last night and there’s still so much to process.
Michael Shannon: Well, that’s a beautiful thing. If we manage to make something that rolls around in your head for more than five minutes then mission accomplished.
How do you find the physicality of someone like Shriver?
Michael Shannon: In his life back in the city, being the superintendent of an apartment building and living alone and drinking too much, he’s kind of slouchy and shifty. Probably not terribly athletic or anything. He’s not taking great care of himself. Probably doesn’t really feel good in his body, you know? He’s just kind of there.
Then when he goes to this university to try and pretend to be the world-famous Shriver, I guess he’s really going on his subconscious and all the examples he’s seen, whether it’s on TV or in movies, of how people like that present themselves. But it’s still kind of awkward and not really sure of itself. It’s just kind of impulsive. I think it also depends on who he’s around, what situation he’s in, and how much stress he’s under. But a lot of the things, they’re just instinct, really.
This film got cut off right in the middle of filming due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it was over a year later before you all were able to come back and actually finish it. Does that just completely throw you off as an actor, to have to try and find that headspace again after all that time? Or did the time away allow you to think on it more and come back at it even better?
Michael Shannon: When we got shut down, I was sad because I felt like I was just kind of hitting a groove and the character had really sunk in. And yeah, I was anxious about being able to finish it correctly. When we got shut down we didn’t even know when we would start again. But I didn’t sit around thinking about Shriver for a year, I went and did other things and lived my life because that would just be absurd to try and hold on to something for that long.
When I came back to it, I was actually really excited and was really looking forward to finishing the story. And it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it probably had a right to be. It just kind of popped back into my head, like a CD or something. The record started playing, you know?