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Michael Shannon.

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Michael Shannon on Take Shelter, Agent Van Alden’s Redemption, and Having His Memory Erased

Michael Shannon may be on track for a second Oscar nomination with Take Shelter (he was first nominated in 2009 for Revolutionary Road). Though the actor is known for taking on a large array of unbalanced characters (including the barely contained Agent Van Alden in Boardwalk Empire), this particular role stands out for its subtlety and nuance. As Curtis, Shannon plays a man struggling with apocalyptic visions — he doesn’t know if what he sees are warnings of a storm to come, or the beginnings of an unraveled mind, since his mother (Kathy Baker) has schizophrenia. He doesn’t want to scare his wife (Jessica Chastain), or his friend (Boardwalk co-star Shea Whigham), but he begins to prepare for both possible outcomes. Shannon chatted with Vulture about building fortresses, erasing his memory, and whether people kneel before his Zod in the upcoming Superman reboot.

Your character has all these visions, the storm-filled sky — but it’s all CGI. How do you play someone who sees things that you can’t?
There’s this thing called sense memory. If you haven’t had the experience, you’re supposed to try to imagine an experience that’s similar, you know? I don’t do that. To me, it’s just confusing. Why wouldn’t I think about something that’s supposed to be happening? That’s what kids do. Didn’t you ever put sheets over chairs and hide under the sheets? The shelter is a grown-up version of that. It takes me back to being a kid on a rainy day, and you build a fortress, and you feel safe and cozy.

Of all the unhinged characters you’ve played, Curtis might be the most sane of the bunch, if you consider that he’s questioning his own sanity. An insane person wouldn’t do so.
I actually didn’t see it as a story about insanity at all. He does have the specter of his mother’s illness lurking in his past, and certainly at one point he considers whether he may be inheriting that, but I think he goes between wondering if the problem is in his own mind, or whether there are outside forces he needs to be worried about. I don’t think he’s convinced either way. I mean, on the same trip that he goes to the library to get that book [about mental illness], he stops at a grocery store to buy food for the shelter. That to me is in indication that he’s not sure, ultimately. And I think that’s understandable. In the world we live in, people are constantly taking stock, wondering if there’s cause for concern, or if we should just keep living our lives as if there’s nothing to be worried about.

Without giving too much away, the ending provides an answer of sorts — but it’s not an easy one.
If you look at the film as being about someone who is having an experience he can’t share, even with the people he loves, the fact that he can finally share that vision, that’s meaningful, that’s moving. He’s done everything you’re supposed to do; he’s taken the step to go the psychiatrist, he’s fulfilled that obligation, and in the end, he says, “Okay, I surrender, you’re right.” But I think the point is, just because he’s admitting he needs help doesn’t mean he’s wrong. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be worried. Maybe the solution isn’t to take a bunch of Prozac and forget about everything. The solution lies between those two poles.

On Boardwalk Empire, are we only starting to see the beginnings of Agent Van Alden’s cracks, or is he going to try to put his life back together in season two?
He’s got a lot of pressure on him. He’s not unaware of the situation he’s created — he hasn’t lost touch with all reality. But season two is about picking up the pieces and trying to find some sort of redemption. He’s got to change — otherwise, he would explode. I mean, he sacrificed everything he believed in and now it’s time to see what kind of phoenix can rise from the ashes, when he tries to put himself back together.

Lucy’s pregnant, but his wife Rose is the one who wants a baby. Maybe he can do a baby swap.
[Laughs.] That would be interesting. Who knows? I don’t know what happens. Every time we finish filming an episode, they erase my memory, with the machine.

That sounds more likely to happen on your Superman movie, Man of Steel.
Exactly.

Do people now say to you, since you’re playing General Zod, “Kneel before Zod!” or “Kneel before Michael Shannon!”?
They’ve been saying that for years! But there’s no kneeling down. No one’s kneeled down before me yet. I would never make somebody kneel. Maybe because I’m such a nice guy?

Or maybe because you’re such a tall guy? And it looks like you might be even taller in the film. There are two photos that have leaked from the set: you in a motion-capture suit, and one that might be you with a pole that seems to increase your height.
Yeah, that’s me, in a motion-capture suit. The other one, that’s not me. People think it’s me, but it’s somebody else. I’m surprised that anybody would find that interesting.

Well, that film is bringing out the fanboys in everyone. And possibly you as well? Isn’t that a Superman mug on the table there?
[Grins.] It’s a gift from my stepmother, God bless her.

Photo: Eugene Mim/PatrickMcMullan