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Michael Shannon on Playing the Man Who Discovered Joan Jett in The Runaways

As legendary rock-and-roll manager/impresario Kim Fowley in The Runaways, Michael Shannon delivers a spot-on, entertaining performance that captures the outsize personality who shaped Joan Jett and her bandmate Cherie Currie. For those familiar with the Oscar-nominated actor’s work, the role feels like a departure, though Shannon bristles at the notion that many of his other recent parts have been brooding types. He recently took the time to set us straight, and to discuss what it was like to play a guy who likes to order teenage girls around.

You play a flamboyant, larger-than-life character in this film. It seems like a bit of a departure from some of your more subdued roles. Did you ever see it that way?
Not really. When you act for a living, you often do a project because it’s different from the last project you did. But I guess I know what you mean, though. It’s weird. Sometimes I wonder if I’m not doing my job well enough, if sometimes they seem so similar. Also, I do a lot of theater, and in my theater work I’ve done some parts like this. I was actually in an improv-comedy group for a number of years. So when people call this a departure, I’m like, “What are they talking about? I’ve done comedy before!” But then I have to remind myself that it was in a basement somewhere and that nobody saw it.

Since Kim Fowley is a real-life character, how much liberty did you have in creating this role?
I was very concerned with trying to capture Kim the way he is. I spent a little bit of time in his company, but mostly I looked at footage of him that I’d found. There’s an interview he did on the Tom Snyder Show that I watched. And I watched The Mayor of the Sunset Strip, which is a documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, who is also portrayed in the film.

What was the most challenging part about this role for you?
It’s like you said, he is a very fearless person. You can’t be self-conscious about it. If any doubt creeps into your mind, it’ll show and it’ll screw up the illusion. So just having the authority to walk into a trailer and tell everybody what to do. I mean, think about it: Teenagers don’t usually listen to grown-up people telling them what to do. That’s a tricky situation even when you’re not acting — telling a teenage girl to do something. The fact that I had to do that on camera was even more daunting.

What was Kim’s attitude towards this project? Did he have any advice for you?
I think he was excited about it. In the music scene out in L.A. he’s a legendary presence, but in the rest of the country people don’t know about him that much. So he was excited that people might find out more about him because of this movie, or his influence on the Runaways in particular and on music in general. He kind of managed to squeeze in everything about his life into a two-hour dinner conversation. [Laughs.]

What does he think of the finished film? He’s not always seen in the most flattering light.
He seemed very happy with it when I saw him after the premiere in L.A. He said some very flattering things to me about it. But I don’t know how much of that he would reveal to me or to anybody else. As to his portrayal, that’s a matter of every individual’s point of view and judgment. I don’t know if Kim thinks he looks bad in the film. The film is based on Cherie’s book, and it was made with the blessing of all parties involved. They all got to look at the script, and they all had a chance to say, “This is what I believe to be the truth” before the film got made. If Kim didn’t approve of how he was portrayed in the film, he probably could have done something about it.

What’s his relationship like nowadays with Joan and Cherie?
The night I had dinner with Kim, I was with Joan and Kristen Stewart. It was the four of us, and Joan actually set it up. Kim and Joan were sitting across the booth from me, and they seemed like old buddies. I think Joan has a very accepting, Zen attitude about the whole thing. She’s very much living in the present moment right now: She’s still a musician, and she has a lot to be happy about. I think maybe with Cherie, Kim’s relationship is more distant, but it’s not like they don’t speak to each other.

Finally, what can you tell us about Boardwalk Empire?
It’s set in Atlantic City at the start of the Prohibition era. The first episode is the beginning of Prohibition. It’s loosely based on the life of a guy named Enoch Johnson, who kind of ran Atlantic City during that time. I play this guy named Van Alden, a prohibition agent for the United States Treasury Department. I’m trying to keep people from selling or drinking booze. And I’m, uh, very serious about my job.

Photo: Patrick McMullan