Michael Shannon plays a big role in the electric film that is Machine Gun Preacher that also features a career best performance by his co-star, Gerard Butler. Shannon provides an emotional anchor to Machine Gun Preacher as Donnie and he talks exclusively about working with Butler and the challenge of making a powerful film that qualifies as an audience must-see. Every powerful film worth its weight needs a ying and yang and Machine Gun Preacher has it in Shannon and Butler.
We are catching up with Shannon for an exclusive interview at the Toronto Film Festival. The Oscar nominated star of Revolutionary Road, the Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire and the recently cast General Zod of the Superman reboot Man of Steel is sitting back at the Fairmont York Hotel after recently landing at the Canadian Mecca of all things film. He talks about anything and everything when it comes to his ever-building illustrious career and why the story of the real Machine Gun Preacher -- Sam Childers -- qualified as a must-do for his next film. For those who aren’t aware, Childers famously quit drugs, found God and dove into the Sudan civil war building orphanages for thousands of displaced kids while defending them with, yes, a machine gun, from those who are destroying that African nation.
Movie Fanatic: What do you think it is about the Toronto Film Festival that gets such talent and quality films?
Michael Shannon: I think with any festival, it’s a matter of time. Seems like Toronto has made a huge commitment to this festival for a number of years and it keeps growing. It seems to be a great meeting point for people all over the country and all over the world. It’s a nice intersection that has a nice worldly feel to it.
Movie Fanatic: What aspect of the Machine Gun Preacher story most resonated with you?
Michael Shannon: It’s hard not to be compelled by Sam’s story. I can’t think of anybody who has put their money where there mouth is, more than he has -- also, the opportunity to work with Marc (Forster, director). The genesis of it is Marc reaching out to me and saying he wanted to work together on this with me. He’s made so many amazing films. Also, the dynamic of the relationship between Sam and Donnie, a lot of times I’ve played characters who are alone or loners, so it was nice to get an opportunity to explore a buddy dynamic, even though it starts out in a pretty nefarious place. It’s still very, ultimately, touching to me -- the journey they go on together and then, inevitably, they grow apart.
Movie Fanatic: When you have a film based on a true story, in terms of approaching a role, is meeting the real person important? Or at the end of the day, is it about the words on the page?
Michael Shannon: Well, it’s different with this instance. For this particular story, I thought it was important to meet Sam, first and foremost. Donnie’s not really based on one particular friend. Although he did have one buddy that he was closer to than any other. That buddy is not here anymore, so there really wasn’t anybody to talk to except for Sam to get his remembrances and give a sense of how much those friendships meant to him. I think regardless of how much you get to meet people that are part of the story you’re telling, ultimately, it’s informed by the screenplay and the director’s vision.
Movie Fanatic: What was the most challenging aspect of making the film or even wrapping your head around this character?
Michael Shannon: Early on in the story, we have some really intense scenes doing some really crazy stuff. It’s hard to get to that place out of the clear blue sky, particularly on a film set. You’re not actually doing these things, but there is a real rush of adrenaline that would come with going on these adventures. Also, incorporating the drug aspect into it is a mystery to me. It’s not something I’ve ever had experience with. For example, when we were shooting the scene where we rob the crack house, that’s very far from my realm of experience, but it’s helped by the fact that they found an incredible location that really was pretty damn scary. There wasn’t a lot of art direction going on at that place [laughs]. That place was for real. It helped plug us in to that experience. Also it was a challenge to play a character who changes so much and then returns to that bottomed-out place that he’s at. That’s a big journey. It’s a big rise and a big fall. The movie isn’t about Donnie, it’s not like there is a lot of time to lay that out. So you have to make sure that each little moment is specific and really detailing where he is on that journey.
Movie Fanatic: You mentioned the adrenaline, it’s an emotional shoot. Was it hard to turn that off at the end of the day, or was the end of the day more about working towards that next day?
Michael Shannon: Doing scenes like the ones I mentioned, usually at the end of the day, you’re pretty wiped out.
Movie Fanatic: I would imagine.
Michael Shannon: For me, there would be instances where I had a stretch of time off, I wasn’t doing that every day. I’d imagine it was much more difficult for Gerard to turn it off. He was on screen every day, carrying it on his shoulders. I was able to pop in and out of it without too much residual damage.
Movie Fanatic: And what about working with Gerard? The chemistry between two actors can be like a great volley in a tennis match. How was he to volley with?
Michael Shannon: He’s a real smart fellow. He really understood that in order to get that dynamic going as soon as possible, he had to be very approachable. I think he is inherently a very charming guy. He doesn’t put on any airs. Even with the extras shooting in Detroit -- there were a lot of people who showed up who were huge fans of his -- he was always so welcoming and kind to anybody who wanted to say hi or get an autograph. It made it easy to want to be his buddy. It would have been hard to manufacture that if he was standoff-ish or kept to himself. It would have been understandable if he wanted his own space, he has huge shoes to fill. He had enough energy to be accommodating to other people while at the same time playing this incredibly intense role.
Movie Fanatic: As you were coming up learning your craft, were there acting idols that you looked to as inspiration?
Michael Shannon: Oh yeah, I don’t think it would be anybody out of left field. One of my favorite actors is Jimmy Stewart. It always amazed me how this one man could be the lead in Capra films and Hitchcock films at the same time working in a different atmosphere. The same fellow could be the same lead in It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo, that’s about as good of an example of range as I can think of in an actor…
Movie Fanatic: Not to mention his Westerns…
Michael Shannon: Yeah, his Westerns too. I was always in awe of his ability to adapt to different situations.
Movie Fanatic: I know that actors and performers don’t do what they do for awards. But, where does the Oscar nomination fit for Revolutionary Road in your mind?
Michael Shannon: It was thrilling. It was a little bit bittersweet because I felt like the film deserved more nominations than it got. Although I was glad Kate was there and she did win. She’s probably one of the greatest actresses I’ve ever worked with. I was a huge fan of that book. That whole process began with me trying to get an audition. I didn’t even know they were making it until I read it in a newspaper. To go from that to be sitting there in that theater that night, it was a pretty epic journey.