Michael Shannon: Movie Love Scenes Are Like Real Sex, Only Without the Pleasure
The Academy Award-nominated actor, up for the prize this year for Nocturnal Animals, recalls his very first sex scene, with Kim Basinger no less, and the gift she gave him after they wrapped.
The actor Michael Shannon has enjoyed a prolific career in Hollywood, acting in small but pivotal supporting roles in films as varied as Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile and Pearl Harbor. That is until he got noticed for his part in the Kate Winslet-Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle Revolutionary Road. That part earned him his first Academy Award nomination, a feat he repeated this year for his righteous, thoroughly Texan sheriff character in Tom Ford‘s Nocturnal Animals. (His other two films in 2016 were Midnight Special, by Jeff Nichols, whose Loving was a critical darling all season, and Elvis & Nixon.) The late-in-life acclaim has been long in the making, and in his interview with W, he recalled his not so auspicious start: a sex scene with Kim Basinger in Hanson’s 8 Mile. Love scenes, he says, is “just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure, but all the horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness there is to enjoy.”
So tell me how you got the part in “Nocturnal Animals”. How did Mr. Tom Ford give you a call? The first time I saw the script, it said Nocturnal Animals on the front of it. It’s based on a novel called Tony and Susan, but when I got it, it was a red script, very exciting and it had my name on every page. It was top secret, and I read it, and I was like, ‘Man, this is really dark,’ and I know I guess I’m kind of known for doing edgy stuff, but it was almost a little bit more than I can handle. But then I met with Tom, at the Carlyle Hotel, in New York City.
Did you get nervous about what you wore? I’m incapable of doing that. I have nothing but respect for Tom and what he’s done, but I just—it’s just not part of my DNA, you know? I mean, look at me. This is my Midnight Special jacket. So I met Tom, and we talked, and I was like, ‘Wow, Bobby, that’s a really cool character. I’d love to do that,’ because Bobby’s like a Jim Thompson character.
Did he give you any particular direction? He didn’t say a super great amount, no. I mean, once we got the look. The look was very important—the hat, the boots, the suit, the mustache. The cough. It helped that we were out in the desert. It’s very hot and dusty, so it made coughing easier. I was also smoking a lot when I was doing that movie. I was trying to get into character, I guess, but it was kind of dangerous.
I thought what was great about it is there was kind of that mix of classic Clint Eastwood and Jim Thompson. It reminded me of like Anthony Mann Westerns. Do you know the Anthony Mann Westerns? I just like the dark Jimmy Stewart. I love Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart’s my favorite film actor of all time.
No, really? Do you have a favorite movie? Oh, it’s impossible. I mean, he’s been in like 20 of the greatest movies ever made. I guess maybe Vertigo. he could do anything.
Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
Stone wears Chloé tunic; Wolford leggings; her own rings. Beauty: Covergirl. Affleck wears Louis Vuitton jacket and shirt.
Portman wears Dior dress; Mish New York earrings. Beauty: Dior. Negga wears Carolina Herrera dress; Lalaounis earrings. Beauty: Laura Mercier.
Adams wears Prada shirt; Djula earrings. Beauty: Giorgio Armani. McConaughey wears Burberry shirt.
Driver wears AG T-shirt. Mortensen wears Alternative Apparel henley.
Williams wears Louis Vuitton dress and bodysuit. Beauty: Nars. Edgerton wears Burberry T-shirt; Rolex watch.
Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.
La La Land
“My real name is Emily Stone, but when I started acting, that name was already taken by another actress, so I had to come up with a different one. For a 16-year-old, picking a new name is an interesting prospect, and back then I said, ‘I’m now going to be Riley Stone!’ So, for about six months I was called Riley. I landed a guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle, and one day they were calling, ‘Riley! Riley! Riley! We need you on set, Riley!’ and I had no idea who they were talking to. At that moment, I realized that I just couldn’t be Riley. So I became Emma. But I miss Emily. I would love to get her back.”
Sonia Rykiel sweater; Commando briefs.
“I was attracted to Gold because it reminded me of my dad. He loved shady deals. He’d much rather do a shady deal with fun people than a good deal with a bunch of straight-asses. He invested in diamond mines in Ecuador, and there were no fucking diamonds there. It was a scam, but he loved that. That’s the spirit of my character, Kenny Wells. There’s a little poem we have in the movie—‘Bird With No Feet Sleeps in the Wind.’ And that’s it: If Kenny, or my dad, gets the money or not, does it really matter? Would he change? No. Not that guy. These are people who are going to con, finagle, and boot-scoot their way in the side door. They never had the front-door entrance to the American Dream.”
AG jacket; Current/Elliott T-shirt; Levi’s jeans; John Hardy bracelet (right); Ann Demeulemeester boots.
Arrival and Nocturnal Animals
“Tom Ford became my muse on Nocturnal Animals. My character, Susan, was very personal to Tom, and so I based my interpretation on him. Tom would ask on set, ‘Why is Amy using her hands like that?’ And I said, ‘I’m copying you, Tom!’ I used him. I used him up.”
Gucci shirt; Djula earrings.
“Playing Jackie Kennedy is scary. I was nervous at first, and I started by doing a lot of research. The biographies on her are all a little bit trashy, but the transcripts of her interviews with the historian Arthur Schlesinger were really helpful. He taped everything, and you can hear Jackie’s voice. Her intellect and her wit and what she’s bitter about are immediately apparent. At the same time, I was going to costume fittings and makeup tests. When I put on the Jackie wig, the physical and emotional sides came together. The hair itself is so iconic that once you have it right, you can start to see Jackie. I don’t really look like her, but I felt like I was in her skin.”
Paterson and Silence
“Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests on a journey from Macao to Japan in search of their mentor, a priest who may have renounced his faith. When Martin Scorsese asked me to come to his house to talk about the movie, I already knew that for 28 years it had been his passion project. We talked about Silence, but when Scorsese starts a sentence, ‘When we were shooting Raging Bull…’ you can’t help but say, ‘Yeah, okay, tell me everything.’ So we talked for a long time, and finally he asked me if I would be willing to lose weight for the role. It made sense: How can you play a 17th-century persecuted priest while eating great meals? So I lost around 51 pounds. The weight loss was only bad in that, you know, I’d try to figure out how to play a scene and I had no ideas, because I was so damn hungry. Then I’d have a scoop of peanut butter and suddenly everything turned on!”
Dior Homme jacket; Rag & Bone Standard Issue T-shirt and jeans; Rolex watch. On model: Wolford stockings.
Hell or High Water
What was your first audition? My parents were both actors. I had just graduated from college, and my father had gone in for an audition for Gilmore Girls. He told the casting directors, “My son is back in town. Will you have him in for a reading?” So it was nepotism at its best. I can’t remember the role—maybe a boyfriend to someone? I got my start playing boyfriends, husbands-to-be, and princes.
In Hell or High Water you play a kind of modern Western antihero. You don’t speak much. When I read the script, the image that came to mind was of a man on a porch squinting through harsh sunlight into the distance, but not talking. I have a lot of similar memories of my father, where we are sitting next to each other and not saying much. Westerns have a stoic silence I’ve always appreciated. These days, we have so many distractions. I have minor ADD, so if anything grabs me and keeps me from petting my dog or collaging or just daydreaming, I immediately pay attention.
Brunello Cucinelli sweater; Sandro trousers; Loewe shoes.
Michael Kors henley. Model wears Araks robe; Stella McCartney Lingerie bra; Fifi Chachnil briefs; Falke stockings; Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“When I auditioned for the part of Mildred Loving, I had to sort of disappear into her character. Usually, I don’t create a costume for an audition, but this time I wore a summer dress. I knew that coming in the door looking like this woman would have an impact. A year later, I learned I got the part. At the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, I walked up the steps of the Palais in full makeup, and I walked down the steps with mascara dripping. It was such an emotional experience. All I could think was that I needed to blow my nose before it dripped all over my frock.”
Prada top and skirt; Fabiana Filippi top (underneath).
“I’m a pretty good actress. You could say that, right? Well, to play Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who figured out a way to get NASA astronauts into space, I had to be believable as a math expert—and I failed math in college. Precalculus looked like Chinese to me. Even with two tutors, I still failed. So God has an incredible sense of humor, because now I am playing a mathematician! Even on set, they would have a professor there to try and teach me. I said, ‘Show me what I have to write and I’ll memorize it, because I’m not gonna get it.’ Take that, math! I won: I became an actress.”
Monse shirt; La Perla bra; Forevermark by Natalie K earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Rules Don’t Apply
“I never knew Howard Hughes, so I’m able to take liberties, to allow my imagination to go to work. I like to quote Henry Ford, who said, ‘History is bunk.’ I like to quote Winston Churchill, who said, ‘History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it myself.’ And, in Rules Don’t Apply, I quote Mr. Hughes himself. He said, ‘Never check an interesting fact.’ ”
Jeffrey Rüdes sweater.
Manchester by the Sea
“I used to love movies that made me cry, and now all movies seem to make me cry. I don’t like that so much. I have my own things to cry about. I remember being young and sitting on the floor in my father’s apartment watching The Elephant Man on his black and white TV. When the Elephant Man did his speech—‘I am not an animal’—I started sobbing. That’s a tearjerker. That film made a superstrong impression on me. It set a certain standard in my mind of what was possible.”
Louis Vuitton pants; Falke socks. On model: Alexander Wang sweater.
A Monster Calls and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
“Recently, I seem to be doing a lot of dying onscreen. Lizzie, my character in A Monster Calls, has cancer, and I became obsessed with the way someone’s voice changes as their body deteriorates, and how they change the way they hold their body. Cancer patients would tell me things like, ‘You become obsessed with painting your nails, because your body is out of control.’ It became harder and harder to play Lizzie. I don’t think I’m going to die anymore.”
Giorgio Armani dress; Djula earrings; Tacori ring.
Allied, It’s Only the End of the World, and Assassin’s Creed
“It might sound weird, but I always cry at the end of Step Brothers. I’ve seen the movie 10 times, and it still touches me at the end, when Will Ferrell sings. You don’t expect to cry watching that type of comedy, but I always do.”
Burberry trenchcoat; Loro Piana sweater; Chopard earrings.
Hell or High Water
“I remember doing an interview years ago and being asked if I was one of those actors who takes the part home with me. I answered, ‘No. Not really.’ My wife happened to be in the room, and she started to laugh. Apparently, I had been playing a terrible person—a killer or someone who buries people alive or something—and she definitely noticed. I wasn’t fun to live with.”
Boss coat; A.P.C. jeans; the Frye Company boots.
“When I was cast in Slumdog Millionaire I was 17. At our first major screening, I walked the red carpet in my school shoes and a terrible suit I found on the high street, in London, with my mum. My costar, Freida Pinto, was very beautiful, very glamorous, and they said, ‘We can’t have this kid walking the red carpet with her! He’s spoiling the whole picture!’ So they gave me a new suit and fixed me up. It was a bit like Pretty Woman.”
Hermès sweater; Frame Denim jeans.
The Edge of Seventeen
Where was your first kiss? My first kiss was actually onscreen. I was in a graduate-thesis film called She’s a Fox, and I had to kiss two guys in it. I think I was 12. I was very nervous. One of the guys was shorter than me, and he had to stand on an apple box… Awkward! He told me, “I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my mom!” I was pretty sure that’s not the thing you say before you kiss a girl, so I looked at him and said, “Okay, I’m going to pretend I’m kissing my dog!”
Where was your first real-life kiss, then? At my house, by my front door. Which kind of sucks, because every time I walk through my front door I think about it. The kiss was a little messy, and I looked at the guy and said, “No, no, you can do better.” That’s not what you’re supposed to say, but I said it anyway.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Max Mara bralette; DKNY pants; Cartier earrings.
The Witch and Split
You say you don’t like watching horror films—so what’s it like for you to act in them? I’m a real scaredy-cat. I’m not good at being frightened. But I do like acting in a horror movie, because I get to feel so intensely. You put yourself in these extreme emotional situations, and it wears you out in a great way. Afterward, I go home and get a good night’s sleep. The work chills me out: I’m a lot more stable since I’ve been in scary movies.
What frightens you? Revolving doors. I worry they’ll cut me in half. Strangers will see me tense up and hold my hand as I’m going through them. I’m constantly worried that I’m not going to make it through the door alive.
Gucci jacket, shirt, and pants.
Midnight Special, Elvis & Nixon, and Nocturnal Animals
“Doing a sex scene is just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure. The horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness of sex is all there to enjoy—but none of the happiness.”
Saint Laurent jacket, shirt, and tie; Tiffany & Co. watch.
Hacksaw Ridge and Silence
“The majority of my process in playing a priest in Silence was praying. I’d never really prayed before, and I developed a relationship with a power greater than myself—call it God, call it love, call it what you will. It became very natural to me, and I realized that we’re all praying all the time. There’s that human impulse to worship and to long for a connection to the divine. Unfortunately, in our culture we are driven to worship things that are false and empty. I had a year of exploring this idea of what we are truly longing for and how we actually go to the places that can feed that longing. We all get glimpses of eternity every day. It’s just a question of whether we’re looking up from our iPhones long enough to notice.”
Alexander McQueen jacket and pants; A.P.C. shirt.
Maggie’s Plan and 20th Century Women
What is your karaoke song? It’s the nerdiest one ever: “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” by Billy Joel. It’s one of those songs that if you were a certain kind of teenage girl—me!—you thought knowing all the words would help you get a boyfriend. And then, about 30 seconds too late, you realize that it won’t. But it remains my song. I had the same thought about “Modern Major General,” by Gilbert and Sullivan. I thought guys were looking for a girl who could memorize a lot of names, but they didn’t care about that. They just cared about getting a hand job or something.
Do you have a cinematic crush? I would have to say Melanie Griffith in Working Girl—the first time she meets Harrison Ford at the bar. She’s all done up and she tells him, “I’ve got a head for business and a bod for sin.”And young Harrison Ford…what a dreamboat! But it’s her I truly love. She’s so compelling and funny. She’s sexy without being plastic. I think a lot of people miss seeing women that way.
Proenza Schouler dress; Guidi boots.
Were you a dramatic child? Yes, I used to stand in front of the mirror and try to make myself cry. I would also try different accents. I was living in an imaginary world, usually with Michael Jackson. He was going to rescue me! I used to draw pictures of me and Michael getting married, and I would send them to his fan club. I would imagine Michael waiting for me at the gate of my school, eager to whisk me away to a happier world.
Why Michael Jackson? I imagined myself as a Peter Pan kind of character, and Michael represented that existence. He was my guy.
Miu Miu coat, sweater, shorts, and shoes.
Manchester by the Sea
“As a little kid, my first love was IMDB [the data bank for movies and television]. I would memorize the birthdays of child actors. I really wanted to be an actor, and I related to the kids in the industry. But now that I think about it, memorizing their birthdays is not cute at all—it’s a little serial killer–ish.”
Prada sweater; Brooks Brothers boxers.
What was your favorite birthday? When I turned 40, my husband, Keith [Urban], drove me up to the top of this small hill in Australia and sat me down. He had put together this huge fireworks display. It was just for the two of us! It was sexy.
What is your pet peeve? When people say they will do something and they don’t. And I know it’s terribly demanding, but I don’t like it when my husband doesn’t answer his phone. I have to keep calling and calling, and I get anxious. Does that make me high-maintenance?
What movie has made you cry? Last year I saw Room, and I was absolutely devastated by it. I’m raw as I get older. I have to be careful what I let in.
Where was your first kiss? This is crazy: We were playing hooky from school. I had my first kiss while watching The Shining. Is that not weird? And we did a few things other than kiss too! I didn’t see a lot of the movie.
Chanel sweater, dress, shorts, and shoes; Bulgari earrings.
He could sing, even, like you. So tell me about your favorite love scene, since you’re so good at this. What’s your favorite love scene in a movie? Well, you know, my scene in 8 Mile, where I got to have sex with Kim Basinger, that was pretty cool. That was my first love scene.
Dd it make you nervous? Are you kidding me? Of course. I was terrified. It was very strange because there was a woman there whose job was to be Kim’s body double while they were lighting, and that’s the only reason she was there, and she had to take off her clothes. And so they brought me to set first, and that woman, whose name I can’t remember, sat on top of me while they made sure the lighting was right. And then at the very last second, when everything was prepared, Kim came in, and she had her robe on, and she’s like, ‘You ready to do this?’ I’m like, “Uh, sure,” and she threw her robe off and straddled me, and we did a take, and [the late] Curtis [Hanson] was like, ‘Yeah, that was very good. I think we’ll just go one more time, you know?’ And so we’re sitting there on the couch, and I’m trying to not make eye contact. I’m sweating, and the whole thing’s just wrong, and there’s this green pillow, a really ugly, hideously ugly green throw pillow next to me on the couch, and I said, ‘Oh, that’s, that’s a nice pillow,; or something about the pillow, and Kim was like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘The pillow, uh, I like this pillow.’ She’s like, ‘Oh, okay. Yeah, it’s a nice pillow.’ And then we did another take, and Curtis was like, ‘Oh, I think we got it,’ And then we would go on. And then like a few months later, I was in Louisville, Kentucky doing a play, and I got a package in the mail, and there was a little envelope, and it said, ‘Dear Michael, Just wanted to say I really enjoyed working with you. You were such a gentleman, and I thought you might like this as a memento of our time together,’ and she had sent me the green pillow from the couch in the box. And I have since lost it. I have no idea where it is, probably the most significant item I’ve ever received, and I lost it. She’s really, really nice.
And you must have been a gentleman, because I’m sure that’s an awkward moment. Oh, man, there’s nothing like it. I always say sex scenes in movies, it’s just like having sex, except without any of the pleasure, but all the horror, fear, anxiety, sadness, and loneliness is all there to enjoy, just none of the pleasure part.
Usually, they’re not. I mean, maybe my life’s different than yours, but I doubt there are as many people around when you’re having sex in real life. Yeah, your life’s different than mine.
[Laughter] You have eight or nine people everywhere with your lighting. Yeah, yeah. Well, I’m still learning, you know?
Oscars Red Carpet: The 21 Most Memorable Dresses of All Time
Speaking of Galliano: At the 69th Annual Academy Awards in 1997, Nicole Kidman would forever change red carpet dressing by sporting one of his designs for Dior, a flawless, devastating silk gown in iridescent chartreuse that immediately appalled Joan Rivers and upstaged Tom Cruise.
Cher at the 45th Annual Academy Awards in 1973 wearing a bedazzled crop top.
Anjelica Huston at the 58th Annual Academy Awards in 1986 wearing a one-sleeve emerald green dress.
Madonna at the 63rd Annual Academy Awards in 1991 wearing Bob Mackie and $20 million worth of Harry Winston diamonds.
Sharon Stone at the 70th Annual Academy Awards in 1998 wearing a Gap shirt paired with a Vera Wang skirt.
Cate Blanchett at the 71st Annual Academy Awards in 1999 wearing a sheer John Galliano dress with an open back.
Celine Dion at the 71st Annual Academy Awards in 1999 wearing a Dior tuxedo backwards.
Halle Berry at the 74th Annual Academy Awards in 2002 wearing a sheer Elie Saab gown.
Marion Cotillard at the 80th Annual Academy Awards in 2008 wearing Jean Paul Gaultier couture.
Charlize Theron at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010 wearing Dior.
Angelina Jolie at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in 2012 wearing Atelier Versace.
Gwyneth Paltrow at the 84th Annual Academy Awards in 2012 wearing a Tom Ford cape.
Lupita Nyong’o at the 86th Annual Academy Awards in 2014 wearing Prada.
Barbra Streisand at 41st Annual Academy Awards wearing sequin see-through bell bottom pants with a matching top.
Diane Keaton at the 76th Annual Academy Awards wearing three-piece menswear-inspired suit with bowler hat.
Hilary Swank at the 77th Annual Academy Awards wearing backless Guy Laroche gown.
Penelope Cruz at the 79th Annual Academy Awards wearing an Atelier Versace gown.
Jennifer Lawrence at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards wearing a red Calvin Klein Collection dress.
Lady Gaga at the 88th Annual Academy Awards wearing new designer Brandon Maxwell.
Jennifer Lopez during The 75th Annual Academy Awards, donning an unexpected mint hue.
In 2018, Rita Moreno walked the Oscars red carpet in the same black and gold gown she wore to the Oscars in 1962.
Matthew McConaughey, Chris Pine, & Michael Shannon Audition for Dolly Parton’s Role in 9 to 5
Matthew McConaughey, Chris Pine, & Michael Shannon Audition for Dolly Parton’s Role in 9 to 5