The superb Michael Shannon on his new thriller The Quarry

Hands down one of our favourite actors, Michael Shannon joined us for a chat about his new film The Quarry, in cinemas here this week.

Oscar nominee Michael Shannon is a police chief who suspects a newly arrived preacher (Shea Whigham) of being a fugitive in The Quarry.  Shannon has been in Australia recently to shoot a limited series based on the Aussie novel Nine Perfect Strangers (with a cast including Nicole Kidman, Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, Samara Weaving and Bobby Cannavale), that’s due to air next year.

During Auckland’s recent Level 3 restrictions, Steve Newall chatted with Shannon on Zoom about the Texas-set crime drama, this tough year, and one of his moments of magnificence in Knives Out.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I guess it can be strange being away for shoots in general, but it must be super weird at the moment.

Yeah. I had been home in New York City for four months, and this was a big decision to do this. I’m away from my family right now. They’ll be joining me, the middle of September they’ll be coming, so that’ll be nice. But yeah, it was a big decision.

When we get off the call today, I’m going to watch some of today’s Democratic National Convention. Is that another thing that’s weird? Being away from home while the sharp end of the Presidential election comes into view?

Honestly, there’s a part of me that’s wanting to avoid it. It already has been a very unpleasant 2020 and I think it’s going to continue to be. I think that’s not just me and probably a lot of other people are pretty anxious about the next few months, and I thought it would be nice for me and my family to be here to kind of get a break from it. But I’m still very much paying attention to what’s going on.

The Quarry had the potential to be over-egging some of the issues that are in the US today. It doesn’t avoid issues like race and small-town impoverishment, but I really liked the way it was quite an even-handed portrayal of that stuff without making those necessarily the most prominent parts of the film. Is the film that way for you as well?

Yeah, and I kind of look for that on the whole. When I’m deciding to do certain projects, I look for things that are going to be thought-provoking without being too heavy-handed. That aren’t preaching or beating people over the head, but nevertheless may lead you to contemplate certain aspects of our culture, our society, that are a little troubling.

The character of a small-town cop is a well-trodden path on screen. So what do you have to do as an actor to make that interesting for yourself and maybe a bit less one dimensional for the audience?

No matter what I’m working on, I try not to hold it up to other versions or examples of it that people may draw a correlation to. I just treat it as an individual person. It’s a person first and foremost, no matter what uniform they’re wearing or where they live. And I think people that live in small towns actually can have pretty rich inner lives because they don’t have as much access to distraction as people that live in big cities. It’s easier if you’re in a big city to kind of be like a pinball and dart around from thing to thing and place to place and not have to spend so much time with yourself in quiet and reflection. So I actually enjoy exploring characters like that.

Knowing that you’re good friends with Shea Whigham, what’s it like when you go to work on a project with him?  You guys square off in sort of an escalating fashion in The Quarry. Is that one of the things that drew you to the film, that you’d be working with him?

Yeah, very much so. Very much so. I was really excited for him to have the opportunity to basically be the lead of the film. It’s not an opportunity he gets very often, and I couldn’t think of anybody better for the part. So it’s funny because we’re such good friends and we make each other laugh and we spend time together. We were in New Orleans and we would go have dinner at night and just really enjoy each other’s company and then go and play these characters during the day. But yeah, I guess that familiarity we had with each other didn’t seem to be a liability, even though our characters are supposed to be strangers.

I wonder about that as a fan of both of you guys and also [friend and frequent co-star] Paul Sparks. With the frequency of you working with each other, are there pros and cons to that?

I haven’t found any cons yet. I mean, these are two guys that I just think the world of and always love walking on to set with them. I can trust that they’re going to bring their A-game and they’re both going to be super prepared. And they’re both great listeners and really in the moment. And yeah, there’s never been a day where I’ve been like, “Jesus Christ. I wish it wasn’t him.” It’s worked out. And I think we have a lot in common. None of us are typical leading Hollywood men. We’re really just actors and we’re not super ambitious career-wise. We just like to tell stories and find interesting people to inhabit.

It’s interesting how your relationship with Shea moves throughout the film. Some scenes in particular where your growing distress or interest in what lies behind his facade becomes a fascinating thing to watch as the film goes on.

Well, thank you. And that in juxtaposition to my denial of it. How I stubbornly refuse to act on it because whatever matrix of my identity or my history and where we are, the town we’re in. And I think it just really reflects a valuable point about what’s going on in American culture today in terms of xenophobia and racism and people that are fundamentally, I guess, well-meaning, well-intentioned people still falling prey to these toxic conditions and how important it is to be aware of that and to try and combat it somehow.

There’s kind of contradictory things in your character, right? On the one hand, he speaks about the importance of taking responsibility. His view of religion is it’s too easy and you need to take your own personal responsibility. He makes a comment that may or may not be a racist comment: “Last I checked, I was white.” None of that’s over-egged. He seems to me, a character who is like, “This is just the way things are.”

And everybody has their version of that. I guess, the catchphrase now – thanks to Michelle Obama – is “It Is What It Is,” and everybody has their version of It Is What It Is. And unfortunately, the majority of those manifestations of It Is What It Is tend not to be very helpful or healthy. So maybe It Isn’t What It is. And I think that’s kind of the theme of the film. One of the major themes, anyway.

My partner and I love your improv-ed Knives Out line “I’m not eating one iota of shit.” Is there anything that you brought to this film that happened in the moment like this or that you surprised your castmates with?

That’s interesting. I don’t think there was much improvisation, really. It’s a very well-written script. And it’s been a while since we shot it, but yeah, I think it’s pretty much all on the page. Yeah. We didn’t goof around too much on it

It’s a repeated phrase in our household.

I’m very tickled to hear that. Yeah, we had some fun on Knives Out. That was a fun show, man. But again, similar to The Quarry, there’s that xenophobia. It’s really important not to lose sight of that, particularly in America right now. Just keep reminding people that it’s a problem.

And everywhere as we deal with the reality of this virus and being stuck in our homes or our countries or whatever, it’s… I don’t know, it feels like it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

You’re on lockdown again, huh?

Nearly. We can go out and get a takeaway coffee or food or whatever, but with masks on, and we’re all working from home. So I’ve fallen into the groove of not having much human interaction.

Right. Are you a fan of your President?

Yeah, I’m a fan of the Prime Minister. We’ve got a scaremongering conservative opposition who are trying to win an election in two months. So they’re kind of beating the drum of being organised and competent – “You guys are doing a shit job. We could do it better.” Even though no-one’s had to deal with anything like this in modern history. But I’m really impressed with how things have gone here.

It will interesting to see what kind of art is generated out of this. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot coming out, so. Although, I can’t say it feels particularly inspiring, but it’ll lead us somewhere.