Michael Shannon can easily be described as Hollywood’s secret weapon. He’s a reliable working actor whose versatility onscreen has seen him emerge from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor to appear opposite Eminem in 8 Mile, earn an Oscar nomination in Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s highly anticipated onscreen reunion Revolutionary Road and walk away unscathed from Man of Steel, in which he played the critically panned blockbuster’s main baddie, General Zod. He’s repeatedly worked with directors that include Jeff Nichols, Liza Johnson, Michael Bay, Siofra Campbell and Werner Herzog.
In fact, Vulture even gave him that title in 2016 when he was promoting the back-to-back releases of Nocturnal Animals, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor, and Loving, the latter of which most fans probably didn’t even realize he was in until the actor suddenly appeared onscreen as a photographer who captures the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving for Life magazine.
Salt and Fire, Shannon’s latest film in theaters on April 7 and on demand April 4, is a thriller that sees him reunited with Herzog for the third time following Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? And as with the latter, the actor found himself in South America -- this time in the salt flats of Bolivia -- playing the CEO of a company held responsible for an eco-disaster who captures two ecologists (Veronica Ferres and Gael Garcia Bernal). The film, which deals with issues of climate change, is being released at a time when Donald Trump, a real estate mogul-turned-reality star, is president and has made it a priority to undo President Barack Obama’s climate legacy. “I do believe we’re destroying the world. Particularly right now; we just named a man who doesn’t believe in climate change as the leader of the Environmental Protection Agency,” Shannon tells ET, referring to Scott Pruitt.
“What I also appreciate about this movie is that it can address those issues, but not in a pedantic way,” Shannon says, preferring to be in Herzog’s bizarrely compelling narrative over a film about Congress. “That would be boring as sh*t. [Salt and Fire] is a nice way to reference some things that are going on around the world but also have some imagination.”
Aside from the story, Shannon found the decision to work with the prolific filmmaker to be a no-brainer. “I will do anything for Werner,” the actor says. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s a living legend. I’m lucky enough to spend time with him.”
And the adoration extends both ways. In an interview with Marc Maron, Herzog proclaimed Shannon to be the best actor of his generation. “There’s no one like him. I love the man,” he said, adding that the actor’s charisma “comes from somewhere else and we cannot even name it.”
In fact, that kind of appreciation from directors is not rare when it comes to the actor. Tom Ford has compared him to Gary Cooper, and writer Tracy Letts, who has written two plays starring the actor, told Vulture that Shannon has a “mercurial quality that makes people want to see what happens next.” And when it comes to Nichols, who has directed the actor five times, he knows when Shannon is a perfect fit. “I’m a big believer in having the right person for the right part,” Nichols told Variety. “I’m not shoe-horning Mike Shannon into all of these roles. I’ve been very specific about the parts I’ve asked him to play.”
In some ways, Shannon has developed a reputation that supersedes him. It could easily inflate one’s ego, but the actor doesn’t seem to indulge it. “Lucky me, you know? Jesus -- a lot of it is about minding your Ps and Qs. I see some people that have talent and something to offer but they get in their own f**king way sometimes,” he says, explaining that it’s simply a matter of mutual respect. “There are people I really respect. I respect how they work and their reasons for making movies.”
Shannon’s role on set, he says, is to be a service to the filmmakers. “If I think what they're doing is worth a sh*t, I'm there to help, you know? Sometimes, you can get actors who are not about helping. It's about them. That's a turnoff.”
That lack of ego -- he had no belief he’d win Best Supporting Actor over Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali at the 2017 Oscars -- is probably also why the actor has no problem stepping into smaller roles, often coming in for a couple of days to play a part like he did for both Nocturnal Animals and Loving and, in some ways, Salt and Fire, which was shot in fewer than 20 days. “I don’t really mind it,” Shannon says of becoming something of the ultimate supporting player, for which he has earned two Academy Award nominations and a Golden Globe nod. “The smaller the part, the quicker I get home to my kids. That's the way I look at it. I'm more nervous about taking the big job and being away for a long time.”
And being away from his family, which includes longtime partner Kate Arrington and their two daughters, seems to be his only major deterrent from work. “The responsibility that holds the most significance in my life is being a father,” Shannon says. “So, honestly, lots of those moments don’t happen on set. They happen in those brief periods where I actually get to go home and take the kids to school, pick them up, cook them dinner and put them to bed.”
While he’s certainly been on longer shoots and led several films, his longest commitment to one project was playing Nelson Van Alden on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. “I'm not going to lie, when Boardwalk was over, I was kind of relieved. I was grateful for the opportunity, but spending five years on something -- that was about as much as I would want to do,” he says.
Since the show ended in 2014, Shannon has retreated back to film and the Broadway stage, earning a 2016 Tony nomination for Long Day's Journey Into Night. Late last year, it was announced that Shannon is set to return to TV on the ensemble miniseries Waco, about the 51-day standoff in 1993 between the ATF, the FBI and David Koresh’s spiritual sect the Branch Davidians, which eventually led to a raid and fire that killed 76 people.
“I like to change it up and do different stuff,” Shannon says, as if his four new films -- State Like Sleep, Pottersville, The Shape of Water and The Current War -- slated for release over the next 12 months weren’t evidence enough. “I certainly don't want to get locked down on a show for years and years and years, even though I know it can be lucrative.”