Michael Shannon has played fictional characters, such as General Zod in “Man of Steel.” He’s also taken on roles based on real people, such as his turn as Elvis Presley in the upcoming “Elvis & Nixon.” In the case of his latest film, “Freeheld,” Shannon got to sit down with the real person on whom his role is based.
“Freeheld” is based on the true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore) and her domestic partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page), who have to fight local government officials to make sure the terminally ill Hester’s pension goes to her partner. Shannon plays Hester’s police partner, Dane Wells, who becomes a major support through Hester’s legal and health battles.
“Dane is a very layered character, and I was a little intimidated by that,” Shannon says. “I got to meet Dane and found him to be such a reserved man.
“There was nothing inherently dramatic about him. He doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve. I found him to be very deep and very intelligent.”
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The more Shannon talked with Wells, the more he discovered how much he cared for his partner, both as a fellow police officer and as a friend. It was his challenge to find just the right way to play a character who isn’t overly dramatic while at the same time showing how much he cares.
Shannon was able to call on his years of acting that include a Best Supporting actor nomination for his work in “Revolutionary Road.” His other credits include being a series regular on “Boardwalk Empire,” plus the films “The Runaways,” “99 Homes” and “Jonah Hex.”
“There are challenges to playing a real person, and there are things that are helpful. When I play an imaginary character, I can call on my own imagination or do research,” Shannon says. “When playing a real person, they are there to use as a reference.”
Shannon could also reference the 2007 documentary about Hester’s battles. Although “Freeheld” looks like a basic story of battling city hall, Shannon saw the production as a bigger story about the people involved and what their fight meant to the world.
Shannon knew the second he met Wells that they were nothing alike. That wasn’t a problem because he wasn’t doing an impersonation of Wells, but he was more concerned with helping tell this story in the most respectful way possible.
Playing Elvis was a different matter.
After getting past the initial shock that anyone would even consider him to play Presley, he began studying any material he could find. Shannon calls the experience a “real nail biter.”
Playing General Zod also was a different experience. Despite the role being a fictional character, Shannon found that the “Man of Steel” director, Zack Snyder, knew exactly how the character should be played.
“He told me that Zod is not a bad guy but cares about Krypton,” Shannon says.
Zod is just one piece of a growing body of work for Shannon that also includes a lot of theater roles. He is attached to a small theater in Chicago where he is the resident playwright.
The Kentucky native’s first work was in small theaters. He says going from there to where he is now is like going from the bottom to the summit of acting. But Shannon says he is just as happy working in a small theater as he is performing in a big budget action movie.
“Growing up in Kentucky has a huge influence on me,” Shannon says. “It gave me a real sense of perspective.
“I don’t get all caught up in notions of being a star. I don’t want to be in the spotlight in terms of red carpets. I just like to work.”