After wrapping the first season of HBO's Prohibition-era hit Boardwalk Empire, Michael Shannon is back at off-Broadway's Barrow Street Theatre for the second time this year (he stepped in as Our Town's Stage Manager this spring) in Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made. Shannon stars as beleaguered theater producer Felix Artifex, who believes he's found a bonafide hit play about the French Revolution. Mistakes finds Shannon onstage alone for the majority of the show's 90 minutes (which occurs in real time) as Artifex's dreams crumble thanks to the demands of an A-list movie star, an angry agent, a fickle theater owner and foreign terrorists. Broadway.com talked to Shannon, who received an Oscar nomination in 2009 for Revolutionary Road, about his inspiration for Felix, going prematurely gray and the fate of his Boardwalk character, uptight federal agent Nelson Van Alden.
In Mistakes Were Made, you speak on the phone with dozens of unseen characters, but the audience only hears your words. Do you make up what’s happening on the other end of the line?
It’s subject to change from time to time, but [playwright Craig Wright, director Dexter Bullard] and I figured out what the other person would be saying. It’s very important to maintain the illusion that I’m having a conversation with somebody because without that, I don’t think the show would work. You can’t just take a pause and wait to say the next line. You really have to be engaged with the people you’re on the phone with.
The play is incredibly funny, but it takes place on one of the worst days of your character’s life. Do you approach it as a comedy?
For me, it’s not really a comedy or a drama. I think Craig writes parables in a way. There are two shows going on at the same time. There’s one version that’s very entertaining, funny and witty and you can just enjoy and have a good time, but there’s also another track that has more underlying themes, ideas, philosophies and spiritual stuff. Craig was a divinity student and is a very well-read man in both theology and philosophy. At one point, he imagined the play as if God were a theater producer. Felix was the version of God, trying to deal with humanity, creation and destruction.
What do you love about his personality?
He’s a really complicated guy. He’s suffered a great deal and has dealt with some personal loss, which is hinted at, and yet despite this trauma he’s still trying to be creative and optimistic. I love that he never loses his motivation. He’ll fight through anything in order to get what he wants. A lot of the humor comes from his personality.
You’re almost unrecognizable when you walk out on stage, with those gray sideburns!
I spend about an hour getting ready, with makeup and stuff in my hair. Felix is written as a gentleman older than myself, but that never bothered me. I like to transform. I always said to Craig and Dexter that Felix should almost look like some sort of creature or clown. It’s fun to put the makeup on and just look kind of stray.
Were you able to pull from your own experiences in theater and film for the role?
I’m sure I'm suring a lot from my subconscious that I might not even be aware of. I’ve definitely run across old-school folks who have been in the business a long time and have a lot of personality and thick skin. I don’t know if there’s one specific person though. This character is really embedded in the writing, more so than a lot of other plays I’ve done. Without the script I would just be up there smiling at you.
This is your second time back at the Barrow Street Theatre this year, and you performed in Bug there, as well.
I love the Barrow Street Theatre for so many reasons. The building has so much history, and I love the location. I feel really at home here. It’s the right size for me, and I just like the feel of the room. It feels like something really serious is going to happen every time you walk in there.
Congratulations on Boardwalk Empire’s Golden Globe nominations. Is it hard to play a character people may find odious?
The key is just not to worry about it. I don’t mind if people don’t sympathize with me. I think that Nelson is a very sad, lonely person and hopefully if people think about it for a minute they’ll come to a similar conclusion. He’s not an evil man, just frustrated and trying to do the right thing, but he can’t because nobody will help.
Is it fun to play a character from that time period?
I thought it might be intimidating because it’s kind of foreign. No matter how much research you do, it’s hard to know exactly what it would be like back then. I feel like we had a pretty natural way of doing things that didn’t seem too modern or stilted either.
Production for season two begins in February. What do you hope happens to Agent Nelson?
He made a lot of mistakes at the end of the season, so I hope he pulls himself together and doesn’t go completely off the tracks. But it’s not up to me!