TORONTO — Within the space of a week, Michael Shannon will be seen on the big screen in two extremely different roles. This Friday he opens in “99 Homes,” playing a hard-driving real estate shark who ruthlessly snaps up houses in the widespread foreclosure crisis of 2008.
However, when we chatted recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, the veteran Chicago stage actor was focused on a discussion of his portrayal of a real-life man: Dane Wells, the longtime New Jersey detective whose police partner, Laurel Hester, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and fought to secure her pension benefits for her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree.
In “Freeheld,” opening Oct. 9 in Chicago, Hester is played by newly minted Oscar winner Julianne Moore and Andree is portrayed by Ellen Page, who herself recently came out as gay in real life.
Shannon explained that Wells “was very generous with his time. I had asked if I could meet him [before filming started], and he invited me out to his home in Jersey.
“He’s got a very beautiful house in a very quiet, wooded, peaceful neighborhood. He showed me his car collection — he collects vintage cars, plus a lot of antiques. … Then we sat in his living room and he told me the whole ball of wax.”
Along with sharing his personal memories of working with Hester, Wells showed Shannon photographs and newspaper clippings related to the battle Hester pursued with the county board of freeholders, who originally denied her appeal for benefits — despite New Jersey having already passed same-sex domestic partnership.
For Shannon, a key part of his meeting with Wells centered on the longtime police officer explaining “how fond he was of Laurel, as a detective. He told me what a fantastic detective she was and how well they worked together. It was clear they both really loved what they did.”
Then, once filming began on “Freeheld,” Wells would frequently come to the set, “just to make sure we had things right and were following the correct police procedure.”
However, one possible sticking point didn’t bother Wells in the least.
“Dane is very different from me physically,” Shannon said. “The first time I met him I was kind of anxious about it. I told him, ‘I don’t know if I can be exactly like you. I don’t know if I can do it.’
“But he told me, ‘That doesn’t really bother me. I don’t need you to impersonate me. I’m just happy that someone is telling Laurel’s story and that more people will now know her story.’ ”
That was an aspect of the filmmaking experience on “Freeheld” that clearly resonated with Shannon.
“Until I was sent the script, I knew nothing about this. I think a lot of people don’t know about it either. The fact that more people now will know about it is something we were all excited about.”
Playing a key supporting role in “Freeheld” as a very flamboyant gay activist is Steve Carell — like Shannon, an actor who got his start in Chicago. In Carell’s case it was at Second City. Shannon revealed that when he was starting out, Carell was already long gone from the Chicago entertainment scene, “but I would sometimes just stand outside the Second City theater and look at the names of all the people who had ever worked there, up on the wall. Of course, Steve’s name was there.”
In Shannon’s case, he still maintains his Chicago connections, and said he is “very excited” to be heading back here in November to star in the new production of Brett Neveu’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” at Red Orchid Theatre, which he co-founded.
“I love making movies, but there’s something special I get from doing live theater. And I especially love doing it at Red Orchid.”