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Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon on the State of Agent Van Alden’s Soul

Michael Shannon Photo: ANDREW TOTH/

When we spoke to Michael Shannon this time last year, he expressed some disappointment that his devoutly Christian Boardwalk Empire character, Agent Nelson Van Alden, had fallen so quickly from grace. During the second season, Van Alden has tried to delay payment on his sins, mainly by hiding the woman he impregnated in hopes of passing the baby on to his sterile wife. In the end, he lost everything — and after his dramatic escape last episode, we’re not sure if he’s going to embrace single parenthood or resume his descent into depravity. Shannon, who’s currently shooting Man of Steel, spoke to us late last night about the state of Van Alden’s soul leading up to Sunday night’s finale.

How do you see Van Alden’s arc this season?
He had what he thought was a solution to this problem of impregnating Lucy, and that was kind of the event of this season because it all backfired and blew up in his face. That for me was the main event for him. Also, losing yet another agent because of his dubious dealings with Mickey Doyle is weighing heavy on his soul. Basically he just wasn’t able to make things right, and now he’s lost pretty much everything except now he has a baby — a little girl, Abigail. It’s kind of interesting that the one thing he has left is this new life, and maybe that could be a chance for redemption. I do have my trusty nanny — she hasn’t left me yet! But obviously, this is before the finale, so everybody is probably wondering: Where the hell has Van Alden run off to and what did he take with him? But I can’t say.

Exactly how did he expect to pull off giving a baby to his wife? Wasn’t that a delusional plan to begin with?
Well, it’s difficult in that it is his child, so it would probably wind up looking like him, which would kind of be a giveaway. But it’s the best thing he could come up with, you know? What else is he going to do? He’s certainly not going to tell Lucy to get an abortion. That’s not his style.

Can you talk about the moment when it looks like Agent Clarkson is going to expose Van Alden, and he goes out into the hallway and looks at the flickering lightbulb? I was sure he was going to take that as a sign from God and come clean.
Well, he does call his wife and basically, in a very ambiguous way, alludes to what a terrible person he’s been. He can’t bring himself to say anything specific, but he tells her that he’s been wrong. But yeah, I mean, I think the light was meant to indicate some sort of signal to him from beyond that he was in hot water. But it could also be a faulty lightbulb, you know? That’s the way life is.

We know that Van Alden is a masochist; we saw him literally flagellating himself in the first season. Given that tendency, it seems like the idea of repenting and confessing his sins would be appealing to him on some level.
The thing about the masochism is that it’s private. It’s just him, you know? I think he’d like to be able to sort out his own problems himself without anyone else knowing about it. I think it’s actually much easier to punish yourself than to let other people punish you.

Van Alden buys Lucy a Victrola after she accuses him of being no fun. Even though he’s spent his life trying to be a law-abiding Christian, does Van Alden secretly wish he were more like Nucky?  
I mean, he’s kind of like a bird flying into a building. He’s so ruptured that everything that he thought was true about himself is basically being pulverized. I think the ideology he has was instilled in him at a very young age, and he didn’t see much of the world growing up, so Atlantic City has been a very transformative place for him. But I don’t think he knows what else to be, if he’s not who he is. And I think he’s very unhappy. I don’t think he’s been happy ever since the show started. So I guess anyone who’s incredibly unhappy is probably wondering how to make that stop. But I don’t think he really knows what he would rather be.

I had hope for his relationship with Rose in the season premiere, after that moment when he busts the restaurant for serving Champagne. It looked like she was actually turned on.
I do believe, in spite of everything that’s happened, that Van Alden does have a genuine affection for Rose. That’s not a lie. I think being in Atlantic City and being away from her is hard for him. But I think it would also be hard for him to stay at home and do nothing, so he had to sacrifice being with her to fight crime in the big city.

Can you tell us if you’re coming back next season?
Can I say that? [Publicist says no.] We want to preserve the surprise.

No worries. It’s just that we all want you back!
Well, I want to be back too.

Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon on the State of Agent Van Alden’s Soul