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.
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?
Matthew McConaughey, Chris Pine, & Michael Shannon Audition for Dolly Parton's Role in 9 to 5