Early on in our conversation, Michael Shannon stands up, mid-response, to close the door the publicist forgot to shut. It’s a hard moment to describe, but it’s both strangely determined and vaguely comical — as though he was a high school principal about issue me a lecture. Like many of the characters he plays, the actor has a kind of shy intensity; he seems like the strong but silent type, but he can rattle off thoughtful answers while still appearing withdrawn. That tension is part of what makes the actor’s quieter performances — and even his louder ones, as in “Man of Steel," “99 Homes” and his Oscar-nominated turn in "Revolutionary Road" — so fascinating.
His turn in “Midnight Special” is one of the less talky ones. He plays a former cult member trying to protect his son (Jaeden Lieberher), who has mysterious superpowers that have made him a target of both government officials and religious fanatics. It’s the fourth film Shannon, 41, has made with filmmaker Jeff Nichols, a fellow Southerner, after “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and, briefly, “Mud.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve fallen into a comfortable groove.
This is definitely a film that speaks, sometimes uncomfortably, about the bond between parent and son. Being a father yourself, how did you react to the script?
When you have a child, you’re bringing another person into this world. It’s not your person; it’s another person. You definitely feel connected to them. There’s a bond there. But they’re also their own entity. That’s a hard thing to wrap your head around. That’s what drew me to the story.
Your character, Roy, winds up forced to do some things to protect his son that could be called, for lack of a better word, unethical.
I don’t know what to tell you. I understand it. It’s his kid, you know? If somebody was threatening to take one of my children away, I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t do to stop them. I didn’t look at him and think, “Wow, this guy is really crazy. Why would he do that?” It made sense to me. It’s a desperate and strange situation he’s in. If he was given the luxury of time and more information, maybe he would act differently. But he doesn’t. He has to act based on the love for his son and the faith that he’s doing the right thing. I don’t think what he’s doing is based on any sense of ethics. He’s not philosophical about it. There’s an urgency to it that’s beyond contemplation.
You’ve played characters who run at the mouth, but Roy is definitely the silent-but-deadly type, even as he’s not Cro-Magnon. He has a lot going on in his head.
This is a person that Jeff and I really understand: this Southern man who’s full of thoughts and feelings but who’s not articulate, not able to express himself very well. So he expresses himself through his actions, what he does, the decisions he makes. That’s his identity. That’s something I saw a lot growing up. Jeff probably did, too.