Loose-Cannon Shannon: With Grace, Stage Dynamo and Oscar Nominee Michael Shannon Takes Aim at Broadway

Shannon. (Courtesy Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Anytime anybody mentions Michael Shannon, the first reaction is, ‘That guy’s an amazing actor’—I mean, universally, everyone knows this to be true, because it is.”

That’s Paul Rudd waxing rhapsodic about the man he will start sharing the stage and marquee of the Cort Theatre with Sept. 13 when previews begin for Craig Wright’s Grace—and, even in that euphoric description, you can hear the “but” coming. “The second thing I seem to hear from people,” he gingerly post-scripted, “is, ‘Jesus, he’s scary! He’s so intimidating!’”

Mr. Rudd has known Mr. Shannon almost 20 years and can personally attest to the fallacy of that widespread first impression. “If people knew Michael, he’s the furthest thing from that. He’s hysterically funny—such a gentle, kind soul.” They just summered together, filming They Came Together, a loopy Airplane!-like antic.

The press can attest as well to Mr. Shannon’s charming old-school politeness, his shy demeanor and Kentucky-fried good manners, but we try not to let any of that get out, lest it cost him work or chafe against the chilling persona he has perfected: atop a hulking 6-foot-4 frame is a brooding, broad-boned face that appears to be in a perpetual state of agitation. Rage is ever within his range, and he can effortlessly zoom from zero to 120 with the ruffle of a brow or a glazed-over glare.

Mr. Shannon chalks up this look of chronic intensity and unease to bone structure, but it is, nevertheless, unrelenting. In judgmental severity, it would be right at home selecting which witches are fit for burning at Salem. In repose, it smolders—almost ticks—in dreaded anticipation of an imminent emotional eruption. In a hall of fame for frightening actors, his craggy, square face would be in a display case alongside those of Rando Hatton of the ’40s and Richard “Jaws” Kiel of the ’70s. He’s the Mr. Mean of the new millennium.

Only he isn’t, and therein hangs a career—a humanity that overwhelms volcanic acts. “That’s another great thing for Michael,” Mr. Rudd pointed out, speaking of his colleague’s role in Grace. “This is a part people would not necessarily think of Michael for.”

Grace is one of those rare plays that directly address matters of faith and religion. “The given circumstances are pretty clear,” director Dexter Bullard said at a recent press meet’n’greet with the cast at the Grace Hotel. “An evangelical Christian couple moves down from Minnesota to Florida to begin a template for a chain of gospel hotels. He’s a venture hotel renovator, and they meet a next-door neighbor who has been in a recent auto accident. Through their encounter together and with an exterminator”—seven-time Emmy winner Ed Asner—“who visits the building for his job, they find themselves wrapped up in kind of a love triangle and a bit of a situation of high stakes where we’re not sure how their lives are going to change at this point. That involves the deal with the hotel as well as the marriage.”

The extent of the neighbor’s injuries is one of the plot points discreetly sidestepped. “There’ll be some makeup involved, definitely,” conceded Mr. Shannon, who knows the drill from 2006, when he played the recovering NASA physicist in a critically cheered production of Grace helmed by Mr. Bullard at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre.

“At the beginning of the play,” he continued, “my character’s life has been ruined by this car accident, and he’s having a hard time figuring out how to go on. Then, he meets Steve and Sarah, his next-door neighbors, and they have tremendous impact on him and reawaken him to life. They are devoutly religious people, and it’s quite interesting, I think, to have a scientist talking to these two about life and meaning.”

The people who thought of Mr. Shannon for Grace have played the Shannon card twice before in New York—and quite productively. Messrs. Wright and Bullard know he can juggle theatrical masks and shift histrionic gears with ease. Their Lady ambitiously pretended to present the American zeitgeist, circa the Iraq war, as a hunting expedition in the Illinois backwoods, played out by three good ol’ boyhood buds who long ago took wildly disparate political paths. Mr. Shannon was the apathetic American, stoned on his dying wife’s medical marijuana, and the title character was his sprightly Brittany spaniel, as symbolically lost as his ideals.

In the other play, a one-man monologue meltdown called Mistakes Were Made, he was a dizzily spinning dime—a fast-talking, low-rent Broadway producer (think Max Bialystock in overdrive), speed-dialing and speed-lying to keep his teetering French Revolution epic from tanking. Back Stage critic Erik Haagensen likened Mr. Shannon’s tour de force to “Leonard Bernstein conducting a piece of Mahler’s.”

This potent alchemy of writer, director and actor was practically a palpable thing in both plays, and now all three gentlemen have joined hands to make their collective Broadway bows with Grace. Consider them the latest in a tidal wave of talent that has blown in from the Windy City, led by Our Town’s David Cromer, August: Osage County’s Tracy Letts and Clybourne Park’s Pam MacKinnon and Bruce Norris.

Yep, it’s incestuous that way in Chicago. “We’re a small theater town in some respects,” Mr. Bullard allowed, “but a big one in ways that a network of people who support each other will come together. I find New York is not that much different. It’s certainly a bigger pool here, but, again, everybody seems to know everybody.”

Mr. Bullard and Mr. Shannon first crossed paths in 1991 on a Howard Korder play called Fun/Nobody, and the collaboration paid off with “Chicago’s Tony”—a Jefferson Award for Best Actor. “They were two unrelated one-acts about upstate New York,” recalled Mr. Bullard. “Michael was one of several lower-middle-class kids trying to fill their day. The second play was about their parents, and the father was played by Tracy Letts. That was when Michael and Tracy met—in that show I directed.”

When the time came to transplant Mr. Shannon from Chicago to New York, Mr. Bullard picked a pair of Mr. Letts’s plays to do the trick, first producing Killer Joe, in which Mr. Shannon hatched a matricide-for-money plot, and then directing Bug, in which Mr. Shannon reprised the wired lead performance he had originated in Chicago.

It was Mr. Letts who insisted director William Friedkin hire Mr. Shannon for the movie version of Bug, but it wasn’t much of an arm-twist. “Billy really loved Mike Shannon’s performance in the thing and fought hard for him to be in the film,” he said. “We both felt it important that Michael’s performance be recorded in that film.”

They were right. If Mr. Shannon more than scratched the itchy-twitchy surface of Bug, playing an AWOL soldier hiding out from the Gulf War and political paranoia in a roach-riddled motel outside Oklahoma City, it could have been an early calling (his grandfather was Raymond Corbett Shannon, a noted entomologist). In any case, the kinetic result caught the eye of director Sam Mendes, who put him in a small loose-cannon role in Revolutionary Road—a scarily erratic, truth-telling mathematician. With only two harrowing scenes at his disposal, he stole the picture from Kate Winslet and Leonard DiCaprio and walked off with an Academy Award nomination.

He carried this mental instability and anxiety the feature-length distance in Jeff Nichols’s unsettling saga Taking Shelter, as an Ohio construction worker whose dreams of an apocalyptic disaster start coming true.

It was Oscar-worthy work that didn’t make the running, but it did win him a raft of regional Best Actor awards.

A dangerously unpredictable actor, he can pop up anywhere—and has. This summer, he quietly triumphed in, of all things, Uncle Vanya Off Broadway, bringing some lusty roughness to the amorous Dr. Astrov. “It was a great opportunity for me,” he said. “I don’t usually do romantic things. Nobody really asks me for that.”

Currently, Mr. Shannon can be found representing the law in his hard-nosed fashion, on screens big and small. In HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which begins its third season Sept. 16, he’s Federal Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, a violently zealous, predictably obsessed crime-fighter butting heads with Steve Buscemi’s Atlantic City gang czar, Nucky Thompson. In the visible blur at the cinemas titled Premium Rush—“a fun popcorn film,” he calls it—he’s a corrupt cop who loses his temper and at least one tooth over Manhattan’s Midtown traffic and an overly committed bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Mr. Shannon made his film bow as the recurring groom of Groundhog Day, a broken-record comedy that Stephen Sondheim once considered musicalizing. In real life, he’s yet to make it down the aisle, though Kate Arrington has the inside track there, as well as the female lead in Grace; together, they have a 4-year-old daughter, Sylvia.

Grace, he said, is about questioning, and its characters go through extreme changes at a rapid pace. “Their lives—and, essentially, their selves—are completely changed throughout the course of the play—and it happens very quickly, sorta like one of those rides at Coney Island where they drop you from five stories up on a bungee cord or something and you say, ‘Whoa!’”

So what is it like to return to a role that has been settling into his system for six years? “There are things that come back pretty quickly,” he said, “mostly superficial things like maybe a vocalization that I was using, certain tics. You do have to rebuild the interior of the character and the interior life in that show. I’ve changed a lot as a person since then. That’s always fun to try and incorporate, maybe things that you’ve learned—just as a person, not as an artist—points of view you have picked up along the way.”

The person who has changed the most, in his view, is the playwright. “Craig is a very fluid writer. He’s always open to working on things. Even with a play like Grace, that has had the success it has had, he’s still interested in making it even better. To see Craig’s writing on Broadway is long overdue.”

At least six years overdue, if Chicago Sun-Times critic Heidi Weiss is a barometer.  At the first viewing of Grace, she asked, “Why isn’t Craig Wright the talk of Broadway, with his name right up there in bright lights alongside those of, say, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, John Patrick Shanley, Richard Greenberg and the rest? By any measure, his plays are as sharp and provocative as theirs.”

Chicago chauvinism aside, Off Broadway has been peppered with enough Wright stuff over the years—thoughtful, disquieting pieces like Recent Tragic Events, Lady, Mistakes Were Made and his Pulitzer also-ran, The Pavilion—to second that motion.

editorial@observer.com Loose-Cannon Shannon: With <em>Grace</em>, Stage Dynamo and Oscar Nominee Michael Shannon Takes Aim at Broadway