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Interview: Michael Shannon on Playing the Antagonist in The Shape Of Water

Michael Shannon is rocking an uber-cool green T-shirt and he’s telling me about the band whose name is splashed across it. He lights up when talking about music in the same way he lights up when we start talking about his time on the West End stage. I learn about his first love, theater.

Shannon is here to talk about his role as Stricklean in Guillermo Del Toro’s new film, The Shape of Water. He plays a brutal government agent who oversees the handling of a mysterious creature kept captive in a windowless lab, with plans to run scientific experiments to test its powers. Shannon believes Strickland is neither hero nor villain, but rather a product of the paranoid Cold War society he inhabits. Regardless, Shannon delivers yet another striking performance, playing his part with such fear and imposing menace that he’s worthy of an Oscar nomination.

Read our conversation below and watch out for Shannon’s commanding presence in The Shape Of Water released by Fox Searchlight on December 1.

How did you get involved with The Shape of Water

Guillermo asked me to do this. I was out here for the Independent Film Spirit Awards and my agent said, Guillermo wants to have lunch.

He came to my hotel, we had lunch and the rest is history. I was flattered that he had me in mind because he said he was writing the script with certain actors in mind and that I was one of them.

Were you a fan of his work prior to this?

I’m a huge fan of Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I’m not a huge monster movie fan. I didn’t have that in common with him. I’ve never even seen The Creature From The Black Lagoon, but there are so many components to this movie that are intriguing to me. A lot of the Cold War stuff reminded me of Dr. Strangelove and that’s a movie I’ve always admired, so I found that a great opportunity to inhabit the world.

Were there any changes from the script to when you were filming?

The script is very much the inspiration for what you’re seeing. My approach to acting is the writer deserves the utmost respect. Without the writer, I don’t have much to do. An actor can’t do much of anything without that script. The decision an actor makes is to decide whether or not to participate. Once you decide to participate, I feel it’s your job to honor that script as much as you possibly can.

How would you describe Strickland? He’s not quite the villain, but more a product of the fear the country was feeling at the time, the fear of the unknown.

The interesting thing is in the old days during the era when they were making B-movies with these creatures in them, the Strickland character wouldn’t necessarily be considered the villain. Strickland would have been considered the hero. What I enjoyed about that is it smashes the notion of hero and villain altogether. The question isn’t “Is Strickland a hero or villain?” but rather, “Who the hell is he?”

I don’t understand why we’re so obsessed with categorizing people as heroes and villain. I don’t think it does us favors. It exacerbates the situation.

I would describe him as a man who is desperately trying to advance himself and have a secure position in a society that is insecure about what it actually is. There’s a period in American History where people were presented with a paradigm, if you do X,Y, and Z and have this number of children and you have this house, then you’ll be fine. It was a hollow premise and led to a lot of anxiety and unhappiness and couldn’t support itself. Strickland is a by-product of that situation.

I found Strickland’s home life interesting compared to how he was at work.

They were sweethearts at one point or another, but he’s not able to access his emotions. He’s jammed up and it’s a very prevalent problem: the American male persona, particularly during that time. They would cling on to certain notions at the expense of their own sanity. By the end of the movie, I think he feels alien from everyone. It points to his biggest problem in that he’s a very lonely person.

What was it like being in the Del Toro fantasy world?

It was such a great privilege but it was very serious. It was a gift. He doesn’t come by that easily. He thinks about it a great deal and a lot of people put a lot of work into it right down to the textures. The amount of thought that goes into it is easy to take for granted. I think some people do, but I don’t. I was grateful to be in their presence and to see their work from the DP to the set designer and production designer.

He makes films that can only be described by his name. Even though he’s mixing genres, he’s still mixing something that only he would know how to do.

You play such diverse and memorable characters. What stands out for you when you’re reading a script?

It’s hard nowadays not to feel like acting is a silly endeavor. There’s a lot of troubling things going on in the world and it’s hard to think that me acting in a movie is going to help someone out. I feel I can pick projects that might be a pebble that you drop into a pond and it leaves a ripple. Maybe it nudges people in a certain direction or just gives people the opportunity to enjoy watching a movie. Because that’s a great gift to give someone, The Shape of Water.

Over the years, I feel I’ve developed an aptitude to help other people, not so much myself.

Aren’t you heading back to the theater soon?

Over the summer I shot a series for HBO based on the book, Fahrenheit 451 and it’s written by Ramin Bahrani who I worked with on 99 Homes and I’m really excited about that. I’ve got 12 Strong coming out in January, but yes, I’m directing a play in Chicago.

Your theatrical love.

I always go back to the theater because it’s where I started. It’s my home.

You did theater on the West End right?

It’s a historic theater town. I did a show at the Vaudeville Theater on The Strand.

That’s such a perfect theater. What show was it?

Killer Joe. We started that play in Chicago at a little tiny theater on the North Side of Chicago. Then we went to the Edinburgh Film Festival. Dominic Dromgoole saw it and he brought it to The Bush Theatre and while we were there, we ended up on the West End.

How was the crowd for you?

At that time, I’d never acted in a theater that large before and up until the Vaudeville we were used to performing in small theaters. The Bush is tiny and all of a sudden we were in this theater with two balconies. It was a process to figure out how to adapt to the larger space.

It’s such a sophisticated crowd and they seem appreciative to see an American show with blood and guts. It’s the same way someone from the USA goes to see Noel Coward or Shakespeare.

Would you like to do another show on Broadway or the West End?

Oh yes. I’m trying to get something on Broadway. The West End is difficult because I have a family and we live in New York. If I go to London and I don’t get to bring my family, I won’t see them for three months.

The Shape of Water is released on December 1.