LOS ANGELES — Though Michael Shannon has found great success as one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood — having already been twice nominated for an Academy Award — the actor, filmmaker and director still maintains a strong presence in Chicago, where his career was launched.
As we chatted about his role in “The Shape of Water” (opening Friday), a film generating a lot of award season buzz this year, Shannon was also quick to note he’ll be spending a fair amount of time in town in the coming weeks, “as I’m going to be back at Red Orchid [Theatre] directing ‘Traitor,’ a play from our very own Red Orchid ensemble member Brett Neveu. It will open on Jan. 14. It’s his modern adaptation of ‘An Enemy of the People’ by Henrik Ibsen,” which was first produced in 1882.
As for “The Shape of Water,” Shannon admitted he was “totally blown away” when he learned that his role as the main villain in the piece, Richard Strickland, was specifically written for him by writer-director Guillermo del Toro — as was the case with the filmmaker’s other key cast members, including Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer and Michael Stuhlbarg.
“I found it very flattering, particularly considering I have never met the man, before this,” said Shannon. The actor was doubly impressed when he realized del Toro had “literally seen everything I’ve done on film, including things like a movie that may have been seen by three people, when it opened in one theater for one afternoon!”
Shannon agreed that the best portrayals of “bad guys” are the ones where that character doesn’t see himself as evil. “They don’t think of themselves that way. With this guy [a very tightly wound, by-the-book official helping manage a secret U.S. government laboratory in 1962, at the height of the Cold War], his main motivation is to be part of the hierarchy. He very much enjoys being an authority figure. He enjoys being in control of things and people.
“I don’t find that uncommon in our world. There are lots of fellows like that. … It goes in cycles. That early ’60s period was an uptight period, followed by the counterculture explosion that came about later that decade in reaction to that. … Now, I believe we are again back in an uptight stage — which makes our film relevant today.”