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Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon on Agent Van Alden’s Descent Into Violence and Drinking

When Boardwalk Empire began, Michael Shannon's stern, lockjawed agent Nelson Van Alden seemed like the prototypical heroic white knight, Elliot Ness type. But as the season progressed, it became clear that there was something twisted about this zealot's quest for justice, as he has veered from self-flagellation to revenge sex with Nucky's dumped girl, Lucy. And last night (SPOILER ALERT FOR DVR-ERS) he drowned the treacherous Agent Sebso because he killed a key witness and then had the gall to refuse to repent for it. We talked to Shannon about his complexly driven character, and discovered that he thinks Van Alden's slide into madness has been too much, too soon.

Van Alden hasn't turned out at all the way we expected. Was there some point when you got a script and were like, “Oh, wow. I didn’t know he was going to be this kind of guy.”
Well, it was a little disappointing. The thing that disappointed me the most was when he drank. Shooting that episode in general was kind of upsetting. I guess I figured he’d probably drink eventually. I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. It’s fine. I just thought maybe, you know, the second season or if we were lucky, the third season. But to put it right in the first season I was like, oh, all right. You don’t know anything when you view the script for the pilot, and you get the script for the next episode after read-through, so you don’t know. It’s kind of like walking out onto a bridge that isn’t finished being built and then they build it as you’re walking across the chasm.

He’s not even that good at his job.
I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say he’s not good at his job. I think he’s been put in an impossible situation. I think he actually is good at his job. I mean, he knows Jimmy Darmody killed all those guys. It’s not like he doesn’t know what happens. He just can’t do anything about it. And that’s not really his fault. That’s because his boss won’t let him do anything. Van Alden’s not at the top of the food chain. He’s a mid-level guy.

So let’s talk about the two really surprising things that Van Alden has done in the last two episodes. On last night’s episode, he drowned Agent Sebso. Tell me about that.
I don’t think he wanted to kill him, I just think he wanted to baptize him. The kid, he wouldn’t say yes and, you know, Van Alden’s a very angry person and I think when he drowns Sebso, he’s drowning everybody. He’s drowning Nucky, he’s drowning this whole situation. Because I think he resents the fact that he’s been put in the middle of so much sin and depravity. I think Van Alden really wants to be a good person, but there’s a lot of resentment and frustration built up inside of him because he can’t — it’s impossible. In this environment, he can’t maintain his character and his ideals. And so he’s disgusted with himself as much as anybody else … I think the word is he snapped.

Sebso’s not a particularly upstanding gentleman, but he dies because he refuses to convert, which takes some spine.
Sebso’s a little creep. He shot the witness. He’s not a good person. Sebso’s an asshole. I mean, I’m not saying he deserved to die, but he’s not an example of a great guy.

The other really surprising thing Van Alden did happened in the previous episode, when he had sex with Lucy. Why’d he do that?
I think it’s fairly obvious that the thing that Margaret and Lucy have in common is that they're both with Nucky, and I think that Van Alden is fascinated with Margaret and upset with Nucky. I think he’s also fascinated with Nucky, too. And in a weird way, being with Lucy is some sort of attack on Nucky for him, some way of getting back at him for taking Margaret.

But he’s so disgusted with himself after having sex with Lucy, cowering at the end of the bed.
Well, yeah. It was a bad play, no question. I think anybody with two nickels to rub together would know it’s a bad play.

Van Alden seems like the kind of person who would think it was a bad play any time he had sex with anyone.
Yes. Pretty much. I think if it was Margaret, he wouldn’t be so repulsed, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s not going to happen.

What is it about Margaret that Van Alden is so drawn to?
I think there’s probably some pretty simple things about it. You know, she’s a beautiful woman and he’s probably attracted to her. It’s probably the first time he’s ever actually been physically attracted to somebody. I don’t think he’s attracted to his wife or anybody. I think he also, at the beginning, imagines that he can save her. He wants to save her from her horrible life and he sees her as this pure person, angelic and innocent. And he knows that she’s heading down this path towards Nucky and all the sin and ugliness, but he doesn’t give up hope that maybe he can rescue her from that.

But he seems like he’s given up on hope now.
Yeah, that happens after he goes to Margaret’s house. There is that scene that nobody wants to ask me about. They want to ask about, you know, when you drank and you banged Lucy and you drowned a dude, but there’s also a really important scene where I go to Margaret’s house and I say, “I can see your soul.” You know, really intense. I lay it all out on the table and she tells me to go away. To me, that’s the turning point, when all the dominoes start falling is when I walk out of her house. He just lost everything. He knows Jimmy Darmody’s guilty and he wants to put him in jail. He can’t make that happen. He can’t trust his partner and he can’t trust his boss. He can’t get anything done in his work and then the woman that he’s in love with tells him that he’s a jerk and to get out of her house.

He’s so unsettling, you don’t blame Margaret for telling him to get lost.
I don’t blame anybody for anything. I certainly don’t think Margaret should be in love with Van Alden. But it’s what he wants. He wants to put Jimmy Darmody in jail. He wants to run away with Margaret. I mean, that’s just what he wants and he can’t have it. So, he can’t have anything he wants, he might as well go get drunk. Isn’t that the way it is in life? Can’t get what you want, you go be a drunk.

Photo: Eugene Mim/PatrickMcMullan.com