Michael Shannon

The Thoughtful Attitude

photography Will Davidson
fashion Gillian Wilkins
interview Emily Colucci

 

“It’s an inherently awkward thing to do—to talk about yourself,” prefaced Michael Shannon before our conversation, watching me with his trademark piercing blue eyes.

With his relaxed clothing, bedraggled hair and reserved but thoughtful attitude, Shannon gives the impression that he doesn’t even know he’s increasingly one of Hollywood’s leading men. He’s also a bit dismayed by all the media attention that comes with celebrity. Instead, Shannon just wants to act. And act he does. Beyond his most recent role—an unlikely turn as Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon, Shannon has a lengthy list of upcoming films including Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Loving, which marks his fifth collaboration with director Jeff Nichols. Shannon also maintains an ongoing theatrical career between these films as evidenced by his just-closed stint on Broadway with A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However, whether he likes it or not, Shannon is a star. I met Shannon at the quaint restaurant Fort Defance in his Red Hook neighborhood. The restaurant kept its doors open past its afternoon closing hour just for us—a welcome perk that comes with Shannon’s level of fame. Sitting down over a quick lunch before heading to the airport, Shannon opened up about playing Elvis, his busy schedule and what inspires him.
EC I want to start by asking you about Elvis & Nixon since I am an Elvis fanatic. I was actually surprised to see you in the role when I first saw the trailer. What initially attracted you to playing Elvis?
MS The way the project was presented to me was that they weren’t looking for an impersonator. They were interested in having a little bit more depth or an investigation from a psychological point of view who Elvis might be—what it would be like to be Elvis.

As wonderful and blessed a life he had, it also had a tremendous amount of anxiety and difficulty. That’s never really been captured or talked about, particularly in a film. I didn’t necessarily think I was the right fit either—I’m not a huge Elvis aficionado. I knew it would be very challenging but I spent a lot of time with Jerry Schilling, who was one of Elvis’ best friends. He was the one who said he would appreciate a more thoughtful approach because for him, this has been painful over the years to watch his friend be set up as a satirical figure. A lot of people do it out of love and admiration for Elvis. It’s not like they’re making fun of him necessarily, but they see Elvis in terms of what they get from him and what he meant to them.
EC Did you go to Graceland?
MS I went to Memphis with Jerry. We went to Graceland and that was obviously a very stunning place. But it wasn’t the only thing we looked at. It wasn’t even the most moving thing. Jerry took me to the Lauderdale Courts, which was one of the first housing projects in the United States. When Elvis was a teenager, that was where he lived. Today, it’s an apartment complex but they kept the apartment he lived in sanctioned off. You can go in his bedroom where he was a teenager. It’s very small— the room is barely big enough for the bed. There’s a window that looks out on a kind of bleak, anonymous landscape. Honestly, I was more moved by that room than I was by Graceland. That’s the room where all the yearning happened—all the daydreaming, the wondering, the questioning and the searching. I imagine him sitting on his bed, looking out the window at this landscape and wondering what he was going to be.

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