Isn’t He Romantic

Michael Shannon shows a softer side on Broadway.
Deen van Meer, 2019
Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” on Broadway.

“People consider me a very serious dude or whatever, but I’m actually not,” Michael Shannon says. “I’m pretty goofy when it comes down to it.” Talk to the actor for a while, and you have to agree. Although he answers questions about his career with earnest humility, a dryly self-deprecating side comes out, as if the two-time Oscar nominee would hate to sound pretentious. That focused but irreverent mind-set has allowed Shannon to step into a variety of dark, demanding roles: a pious Prohibition agent corrupted in “Boardwalk Empire;” the cruel, amphibian-humanoid-hunting Colonel Strickland in “The Shape of Water;” and, in “Man of Steel,” Superman’s megalomaniacal nemesis, General Zod.

Shannon has no problem playing bad guys, or good guys on the edge of madness. That’s why his latest gig on Broadway is such a departure. He stars opposite Broadway royalty Audra McDonald in Terrence McNally’s 1987 two-hander, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” In this revival (at the Broadhurst Theatre through July 28), the two actors play co-workers at a diner—a cook and a waitress—who hook up one evening. Will a night of casual sex lead to true love for these urban lonely hearts? Shannon talked with IN New York about the play, his approach to acting, and how humor in great playwriting is “the saliva for breaking down the great tragedies of life.”

Who is Johnny, this guy you play?

Well, he’s a survivor. And he’s had kind of a crazy life. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but currently he’s a cook at a diner and he’s middle-aged and he’s alone and he’s just trying to enjoy life as much as he can. He tries to educate himself. But he doesn’t have anybody in his life.

And he hooks up one night with Frankie, a waitress played by Audra McDonald, winner of umpteen Tony Awards. How’s the chemistry between you two?

Oh, I adore Audra. What I respect and respond to in people I work with is their work ethic. How serious they are about what they’re doing, and how hard are they willing to work to get it done. She’s one of the hardest-working people I’ve ever been on stage with. She’s relentless. 

In movies you often play killers and villains. Is this play an effort to show your romantic side?

It’s weird. Acting—the way I look at it—doesn’t really have anything to do with me. My job is to try and figure out as much about Johnny as I humanly can through the tapestry of my own life. I study the script, search for details. Terrence’s script is saturated with such beautiful, intricate details, like a jigsaw puzzle. We try and put it together. I’m not there promoting myself. 

But do you use emotional memory, times in your life when you were heartbroken?

That’s your encyclopedia when you’re doing the work. I don’t close my eyes and try and hypnotize myself or something. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I remember when that girl dumped me. That sucked.” But it’s really the act of contemplation. And then when you get on stage, it’s concentration. Concentration, focus and being there for your team partner.

Your early stage career was marked by really sensational collaborations with playwright Tracy Letts: “Killer Joe” and “Bug.” When are you guys going to work again?

Tracy’s writing has changed a bit, and he’s branched out into different subjects. He’s got plays now like “The Minutes,” which is a bunch of scenes set, I believe, at a town council. Very different from “Killer Joe” or “Bug.” What we were making back then, I don’t know if we could do that anymore. That was fire and brimstone stuff. I would love to work with Tracy again. 

You were on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in April, and you talked about retiring, so you could enjoy the prime of life. Were you serious?

Honestly, I felt so bad when I said it, because then Jane Goodall came out and she’s like in her eighties, and she still travels around the world, trying to save civilization. I felt like a real idiot. When you do talk shows, you do a little pre-interview where they try to drum up things to talk about. And I was talking to the producer about how my jam nowadays has been, I go to the Y in the morning, I exercise, sit in the sauna, have a nice lunch, and then I go home. Because I had like three months off, and this is the life. It’s going to be hard to go back to work! Those talk shows, you’re just trying to be—what, charming?—I don’t know. 

You’ve acted all over Chicago, in London’s West End, and downtown. What’s special about Broadway?

I love these theaters, man. There’s so much history. I get off on the notion of all the people that have been in there and done the work, and all the ghosts—that’s exciting. The hard part is getting there through Times Square. That I could do without, but once I walk in the [stage] door, it’s like a church. It’s a little demanding, doing a two-character show in a 1,100-seat theater, but the designers have done a hell of a job in making it feel very intimate.

Do you have any movies coming out that you’re excited about?

I made this movie called “The Current War” that’s finally coming out in August. It’s a Harvey Weinstein picture, and when he got into his situation, it was delayed. I play George Westinghouse, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Thomas Edison and Nicholas Hoult plays Nikola Tesla, and it’s about the battle between alternating current and direct current, and who was going to provide electricity for the 1893 World’s Fair. I know that sounds perhaps a little dry and scientific, but it’s actually a really interesting story.

“Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., btw Broadway & Eighth Ave., 212.239.6200, www.frankieandjohnnybroadway.com