The Missing Person’s Michael Shannon on Noir, 9/11, and Working With Herzog

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Photo: Courtesy of Strand Releasing

Michael Shannon has been stealing scenes in so many major films over the last few years — he even got nominated for an Oscar for what amounted to a cameo in last year’s Revolutionary Road — that it’s almost strange to see him in a leading role in the neo-noir The Missing Person (out now), in which he plays a troubled private detective tasked with tailing a man who reportedly went missing after 9/11. We’d better get used to it, though. Close on the heels of The Missing Person will be a lead role in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Vulture caught up with Shannon last week to chat about The Missing Person, his days as a young actor, and how he likes to be directed.

I read that you kind of stumbled into this project by chance.
Sort of. Amy Ryan, who’s also in the film, is a friend of mine, and we had worked together on another project. I was having coffee with her once, and she told me she had to go to take a look at this film that she had made — the director wanted her thoughts on it — and she invited me along. So I went along, and the film was Cassady, about Neal Cassady. That was Noah [Buschel]’s second film. I was very impressed by it. I told him I really appreciated it. A couple of weeks later, he called and told me they were doing a reading of this new script, and asked if I would come and do it. And the rest, I guess you could say, is history.

What appealed to you about the script?
I think the aspect of John’s personality that really attracted me was the desolation of it. He’s a person who’s really been wiped out, in a way. He’s a person who’s entirely given up on life. When Miss Charley knocks on his door, there’s a sliver of light. And he gets this task that reignites his passion for life and gives him a sense of purpose. In the process of carrying out this responsibility, he learns about himself. That journey's what attracted me. Stylistically, I appreciate film noir, but I wasn’t interested in mimicking film noir, personally.

With this film and with World Trade Center, you’ve now appeared in two films that offer different perspectives on the experience of 9/11. How has this changed your own feelings and thoughts about it?
When 9/11 happened, I wasn’t living in New York; I was in Chicago. That’s not to say it didn’t have an effect on me, but obviously, it had a much more profound effect on those in New York. Noah is born and raised in New York, and I know it had a huge impact on him. Part of this film is his dealing with how he had responded to that event. No matter how much you think about it, it’s still hard to wrap your head around it.

The film walks a fine line, between the somewhat arch nature of re-creating hard-boiled film noir and the raw nature of the emotions involved, particularly with your character. Did it present any challenges to you as an actor?
I don’t know if “luxury” is the right word, but with a film, you have, let’s say, the “advantage” of going in every day and working on a small fragment of the whole. If you take it on a day-to-day basis, you can say, “Well, today I’m doing this scene, and it’s kind of funny,” and then have fun. Or you can say, “Today, I’m doing this scene, and it’s kind of dark,” and you get into that frame of mind. You don’t have to try and pull it all off in the same day. You can be very exact.

You’ve now had the experience of working with a broad range of directors, some of them veteran masters, some of them relatively new. How would you describe Noah Buschel as a director?
Noah is very minimalistic as a director. Almost confoundingly so. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be quite sure if I was doing what he wanted. He gave away as little as he had to. But now that I think about it, I think it makes a lot of sense. If he was giving me a lot of encouragement along the way, I might not have been able to pull off the part in a realistic way. I think part of what comes through in performance is how uncertain I was most of the time. I was never sure if I was getting “the right thing.” Of course, there was no right thing. Noah’s a Buddhist in the way he approaches things. There’s no one right way to pull it off. It makes sense in retrospect. It can be frustrating when I step back from it.

You also recently made a film with Werner Herzog called My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? How was your relationship with Herzog?
I really enjoyed Werner’s company. I loved hearing his stories. He’s at a very reflective point in his life. His desire and impulse to keep making films is really intriguing to me. He could easily say, “I’ve made a lot of classic movies, now I’m going to go sunbathe.” He always seemed to be pretty pleased with what I was doing, so I didn’t endure any abuse or rants or anything. It was pretty cordial, considering the subject matter.

You went through a period where you were acting in tiny stage productions while doing smaller parts in big Hollywood productions like Pearl Harbor and Kangaroo Jack. Was that frustrating at all?
It was exciting to go back and forth. As they say, variety is the spice of life. I feel like I had a very unique experience. The hardest part about it was figuring out what I’d say no to. It was kind of like straddling a ravine for a while.

You must be getting recognized a lot more now on the street.
It’s weird. People always kind of seem to think they might know who I am, but they’re not so sure. A lot of the time I have to explain to people why they know who I am. It’s up to me though whether I tell them the truth or just say that they’ve mistaken me for someone else. New York City people are pretty cool, though. I mostly just get sideways glances, or a few double takes.