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Give him 'Shelter'

Michael Shannon’s character in “Take Shelter’’ is a down-to-earth but mysteriously troubled man. Michael Shannon’s character in “Take Shelter’’ is a down-to-earth but mysteriously troubled man. (SONY PICTURES CLASSICS)
By Christopher Wallenberg
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2011

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NEW YORK - Is it any wonder that Michael Shannon, the character actor-turned-leading man who’s become a go-to guy for playing live-wire lunatics, happens to be a fan of the blistering industrial-noise band The Jesus Lizard?

Ensconced in a Manhattan hotel suite talking about his latest film, “Take Shelter,’’ Shannon is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the experimental Chicago rockers, who were hailed in their ’90s heyday for a simmering volcanic aggression and artfully controlled chaos - the same qualities that Shannon seems to embody so effortlessly as an actor.

Indeed, Shannon, 37, an Oscar nominee in 2009 for his role in “Revolutionary Road’’ and a star on “Boardwalk Empire,’’ seems to be cornering the market these days on playing the kind of riveting, unhinged characters who burn with a feral intensity or a disarming menace inside a tightly wound package. Witness his latest role in “Take Shelter,’’ which opens Friday, in which he plays Curtis LaForche, a man haunted by apocalyptic dreams and waking hallucinations that suggest a fraying psyche.

Or think back to his role as the mentally unstable son of Kathy Bates’s chattering suburbanite in “Revolutionary Road,’’ wherein Shannon brought manic ferociousness, weary resignation, and wild-eyed candor to a dinner table confrontation with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In both the stage and film versions of Tracy Letts’s “Bug,’’ he embodied a paranoid Desert Storm vet gripped by delusions of tiny aphids embedded under his skin. In last year’s off-Broadway tour de force, “Mistakes Were Made,’’ he displayed a desperate mania as a frenzied theater producer. Then there’s the part for which he is becoming most recognized, as Prohibition-era lawman Nelson Van Alden, whose zealous pursuit of justice takes a twisted turn in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.’’

Although a friend once told him that his face projects “psychic baggage,’’ Shannon says he’s not entirely sure why producers and directors keep approaching him with big-screen basket cases. “Nobody really ever says, ‘I’ve written this insane person, and I just think you’d be perfect for it,’ ’’ says Shannon, smiling faintly, having shoved his hulking 6-foot-4-inch frame into a hotel armchair.

Still, these characters keep coming his way. In “Take Shelter,’’ written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the actor again shows that his natural intensity can encompass a range of different colors, including the steady, taciturn qualities of a Midwestern Everyman grappling with a mounting sense of dread. Living in a small Ohio town, Curtis is a dedicated husband and father, with a wife, Samantha (the suddenly ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), and 6-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf. Despite day-to-day struggles, they’re a happy bunch, until Curtis starts having unsettling visions: an oily, viscous rain falling from the sky, ominous flocks of birds swooping down on him, enormous thunderstorms gathering on the horizon, and nightmares about levitating living room furniture. Is Curtis grappling with mental illness? Are these prophetic dreams? Or is something else afoot?

“Jeff was actually pretty adamant that Curtis is not a stark raving lunatic. He’s a very down-to-earth person. When I look at Curtis, I see the love in his heart more than anything,’’ says Shannon, on a short break from filming the new Superman movie, “Man of Steel,’’ in which he plays Kryptonian evildoer General Zod.

At first, Curtis avoids telling his wife the truth and instead seeks medical advice. To cope, he channels his growing fear and anxiety into the obsessive building of a storm shelter in his backyard to keep his family safe. But he can’t seem to contain the flood of images, and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic.

“He’s trying to control himself and not succumb to these influences,’’ says Shannon. “In a very rational way he’s trying to understand what’s happening to himself and trying to remedy it.’’

Nichols, who wrote the lead in his first feature, “Shotgun Stories’’ (2008), explicitly with Shannon in mind, says that he was most impressed with how the actor imbued Curtis with such tenderness and vulnerability, even while he’s unraveling at the seams.

“Mike can be tongue-wagging crazy, which we have some of in the film. But when I find him most fascinating as an actor is when he’s being quiet and sympathetic. Because I don’t think you see it coming,’’ Nichols says. “You get this outside look at him, which can be intimidating. But then there’s this massive wellspring of emotion and empathy underneath him. He’s such a complex actor, and able to do so much, that up until the end of this film you don’t know where his character is at - because you keep expecting the hatchet to come out or something,’’ Nichols adds, with a laugh.

In person, Shannon is considerably less intimidating, but still projects an air of focused intensity: staring off to the side and squinting his eyes while gathering his thoughts, only occasionally making eye contact, and toying with a bottle cap between his fingers. With piercing eyes, a wide, overhanging brow, and a shock of upturned hair, he cuts a striking figure. Perceptive and earnest, he shows only a glint of the playfully biting humor that Nichols says is a hallmark of Shannon’s personality.

When Shannon signed up for “Boardwalk Empire,’’ he assumed that producers would ask him to play a gangster or thug on the cable series, considering his previous parts. But when they presented him with Van Alden, a federal agent trying to bring down Atlantic City bootleggers, he was thrilled with the opportunity to play an ostensible good guy. The character, however, soon revealed a dark side, which Shannon has largely embraced.

“If Van Alden just arrested the bad guy at the end of every episode, after a while that would probably get a little monotonous. So instead I’ve got this incredibly complex character, full of dilemmas and questions and all sorts of nuances that is a lot more exciting for me to play,’’ says Shannon.

“Personally I find life very complicated, and I have a lot of questions myself about why are we here, and what the hell’s going on, and all the rest of it,’’ he continues. “And I’ve always kind of assumed that a lot of other people have those questions, too. So I’m definitely drawn to characters that are struggling to deal with their place in the world and trying to figure out the right thing to do.’’

Shannon lives in Brooklyn with Kate Arrington, his partner and fellow actor, and their young daughter. He has acknowledged a sometimes difficult childhood. Growing up in Lexington, Ky., and Chicago, he moved back and forth between his parents, who had split up early on. At one point, his father and stepmother sent him to a therapist. He sat and stared at the man, then knocked the books off the shelves, tossed over a lamp, and stomped out of the room (they’re now close friends). He says he started acting, in part, because he was troubled and wanted to become someone else.

“It was a way to kind of release whatever has been building up inside of you, to give it some sort of vessel. You didn’t have to sit on your hands,’’ he says. “And it was a lot of fun to do. It’s a childlike impulse to pretend.’’

Nichols says that Shannon is an exacting performer, with an uncanny ability to connect all the dots about how his character should track emotionally and psychologically. But the conversations and questions from the actor after each take can sometimes be maddening, the director says.

Explaining himself, Shannon says, “If I haven’t turned over every stone by the time I go home at night, I always wind up kicking myself later. I feel a huge amount of pressure to do something that’s not just entertaining, but that is illuminating the story, the intent of the writer and the director, and that may be valuable to somebody dealing with their own issues or questions.’’

An allegorical tale of the mounting anxiety and dread that pervades modern society, “Take Shelter’’ reflects the pressure-cooker feelings of average Americans, in which natural, environmental, and economic disasters often seem right around the bend. As Curtis spirals downward, he’s threatened with the loss of both his livelihood and his family.

“You have to hold on to your identity and live in the present,’’ Shannon says. “I think that’s one of the themes of the film - that you can’t be overwhelmed by all of it. Otherwise you really could lose everything, because you won’t have the present, and you won’t get to have the future.’’

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.

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