In our present moment, defined by unease and uncertainty, it’s nice to know there are still some things we can count on. Like, for instance, the ubiquity of actor Michael Shannon. We’ve barely had any time to miss him since appearing in Rian Johnson’s 2019 smash “Knives Out,” but he’s back in Scott Teems’ “The Quarry.” Shannon plays a local police chief in the border-set noir who gets suspicious about the arrival of the town’s mysterious new preacher (Shea Whigham). The film is a testament to Shannon’s unique ability to make roles jump off the screen which might otherwise fade into the background.
In a different world, the film would have world premiered at SXSW and be headed for a day-and-date VOD release on April 17. COVID-19 had other plans. I caught up with Shannon to discuss both his latest film, as well as, 2011’s “Take Shelter,” a film that feels incredibly timely in the midst of this global pandemic.
How are you holding up amid all this social distancing?
Well, it doesn’t really suit me…I was supposed to be doing a play, and now, I can’t do it. There are people with larger problems. I just try and keep it all in perspective.
Beyond just the obvious disappointment of not being able to do the show itself, it seems like there’s really no acting anywhere right now. Is it tough to not have that creative outlet?
I’m restless by nature. There [are] some people that don’t mind hanging out at the house, but I usually like to get up and go do something. But it’s okay. I’m healthy; my kids and my wife are healthy. We’re alright, which is a lot better than most folks right now.
During this pandemic, I know a lot of people are going back to “Contagion” as the topical disaster movie. But the movie I’ve kind of felt the most compelled to revisit, and I’m not just saying this we’re talking, was “Take Shelter.” I’m curious, are the parallels to this current moment of worldwide anxiety something you’ve thought about?
I’ve always thought of it. “Take Shelter,” to me, is the most significant film [I’ve] made. There’s a lot of other ones I’m equally proud of, but “Take Shelter,” yeah, I’ve felt that anxiety ever since I was a kid. I mean, I don’t remember the world not being anxious, really. There seems to always be something to be anxious about, but this is definitely really in your face right now, for sure.
I felt a bit kind of like Curtis that first weekend when they were trying to implement social distancing in New York, and there were still the dumbasses out in the street. Like, “there’s a storm coming and truly none of you are ready.”
Yeah, right. Oh my god. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting. People are realizing there’s a connection to the coronavirus with climate change. Environmental concerns for me have been huge. Ever since I was a kid. And now they’re saying there’s a connection between these new diseases and what we’re doing to the environment. And then it just goes to show what I’ve been saying all along. People, they like to make light of it and say, “Oh, I need to save the panda bears,” or whatever. And it’s like, no, this is about us as much as anything. Because the earth isn’t what’s going to get destroyed. What’s gonna get destroyed is us. The earth will be just fine. Hopefully, this is waking people up.
I went back and read some of what was written about “Take Shelter” in 2011. It seemed to be a moment when a lot of critics, thinkers and writers coalesced around you being one of our foremost actors of conveying the torture, vulnerable male psyche. I’m curious, are you ever thinking about any kind of a larger through-line that connects the roles you play or the movies you choose? Or is it just the story or the character in a given moment that resonates?
I wish I had a master plan, but I’ve always kind of been a gun for hire. I mean, there’s certain things I’m not interested in doing. I’ve had opportunities where I could have made a good chunk of change and maybe been a part of something a little bit swankier. But that just doesn’t interest me. I don’t need to drive a Ferrari or live in the Hollywood Hills, but I do need to feel like I’m not just making silly crappy movies. Otherwise, it just doesn’t really seem to be much point to it.
But I’ve noticed some trends. They may be more subconscious than conscious. But like with “The Quarry,” a lot of it comes back to me stories about personal responsibility and how people move through the world and what impact their decisions have on other people.
How did you come to get involved with “The Quarry?” I had forgotten rewatching “Take Shelter” that Shea Whigham was in that as well – and so many other things you’ve done.
Oh, yeah. Me and Shea, we’re thick as thieves, man! We’ve been going for a while. I met Shea doing “Tigerland” back in 2000. So we got a 20-year thing going. He’s just one of my favorite people. And when Scott came to me and said he was thinking about Shea to play The Man, I just thought, “Man, this is such a phenomenal part for Shea, such a phenomenal opportunity for him.” I really wanted to be there to see it happen.
And, at first, I was a little hesitant to play chief. Just because the first time I read the script, I didn’t really like him all that much. But I talked to Scott about it and he said, “you know, chief’s really not a bad guy. He’s a product of his environment.” And I read the script again, looking at it from that point of view. And I thought, “Oh, that is actually kind of true.” So it didn’t bother me as much.
In my research, people have asked you about playing “bad people” like The Iceman. And you’ve always said something they kind of like, it’s not really my job to judge them or to look at them as bad people. It’s just a matter of understanding them.”
Well, yeah, I mean … jeez, there’s a lot to try and understand about human beings. We do some pretty confusing stuff. I mean, look at the situation we’re in right now. I’d save somebody a lot of money if they could explain to me how we wound up here. To be under the thumb of complete idiots. Like I said about responsibility, they foist all the responsibility on us. It’s like, well if you don’t want to die, sit in your house for four months, then everything will be okay. I’m like, the government exists in order to protect its citizens. Why don’t you frickin’ do something instead of putting all the responsibility on us? Stay away from other people, you can’t work, you’re gonna go broke, but if you don’t do that, there’s nothing we can do to help you … it’s infuriating.
Going back to Shea, I want to ask you about the concept of loyalty. You’ve worked with him a lot, and you’ve also collaborated frequently with directors like Jeff Nichols, Ramin Bahrani, and Liza Johnson. Is there a common denominator that unites the people that you work with multiple times?
Well, they’re generally by and large, at least, I think they’re really intelligent and proficient in what they do. And they’re also very kind people, conscientious, thoughtful about the same issues I’m thoughtful. Just compassionate, decent human beings. I love working with Liza because she has such a fascinating imagination to me. And she’s very idiosyncratic. A lot of these great filmmakers are great because what they do, you can’t put into words and nobody else does it quite the same way they do. It eludes categorization.
“The Quarry” is not the first time you’ve played a streetwise law enforcement type; I’m thinking mostly “Nocturnal Animals,” obviously. Are you able to draw on some of the same kind of memory bank or research to play a character like that? Or are you going back to the drawing board each time?
It’s funny, I’m not a real expert on law enforcement by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t really spend a lot of time with cops. But I have played a lot of them, it’s funny. I’ve also played a lot of military personnel. That’s not something I would have been familiar with otherwise had it not been for acting. But that’s one of the great things about acting is that you learn about stuff that otherwise you probably would have been avoided entirely. But I don’t think Chief Moore is like one of the great forensic minds of our time. He’s basically just keeping an eye on this little town making sure shit doesn’t get too crazy. But I don’t think he’s any Inspector Clouseau.
I didn’t realize until reading the press notes after watching “The Quarry” that the novel was actually set in South Africa originally…
Yeah, and in the novel, the chief’s very quiet. He doesn’t really hardly say much of anything. I’m glad Scott a bit more of a personality because it would have been boring.
So you read the novel beforehand to see where it was rooted and how it was translated to Texas?
Yeah, I think it’s always smart practice to see where the thing’s coming from. But I don’t mind that it’s different. I expect it to be different. I mean, they’re such different mediums. And I got the feeling this guy was using a story to tell a story about America. And I thought that was valuable. You know, it didn’t bother me that it wasn’t all from his imagination.
In most interviews over the past few years, someone would ask how you manage all these projects, and you’d say sometime soon you wanted to slow down. Judging by your IMDB page and what I’m seeing, it looks like you’re making things at a slightly more manageable pace – albeit still plenty. Are you finally making good on that promise to yourself over the years?
Well, the CDC is making good on it for me! I am able to say no. It’s a weird thing to do because I know a lot of people that don’t get that luxury. A lot of people that struggle to get by, and I never lose sight of that. For me, I think about a lot of it beyond the effect it has on my personal life. I’m just looking at the amount of content, and it seems like it’s oversaturated You know, there’s too much crap out there. So if you’re gonna add to that pile of content, make sure you’re adding something is worth someone’s time to watch it. For me, anyway, they’re few and far between.
Especially now, I feel like we have to be conscious of what we’re putting out in the world and make it worth people’s time and energy when there’s so much else competing for it.
Somebody asked me the other day if I wanted to do a voice for a video game. I said, “You must not know me very well. I ain’t doing that.”
“The Quarry” is available now on VOD.