This story about Michael Shannon and his two recent projects, “George & Tammy” and “Waco: The Aftermath” first appeared in the Limited Series / TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
A tweet recently circulated asking, “Who is an actor who may not be the main character, but always makes any movie better?” The answer for many was Michael Shannon, whose tense, often explosive performances frequently inspire listicles ranking his roles by their degree of creepy terror, such as the gentle paranoia of Curtis LaForche in “Take Shelter” and the repressive fanaticism of Nelson Van Alden in “Boardwalk Empire.”
Now the 48-year-old actor has moved center stage with standout lead performances in two Showtime limited series: “George & Tammy,” in which he plays the outsize country rabble-rouser George Jones with masterful vulnerability (opposite Jessica Chastain) and “Waco: The Aftermath,” capturing the slow-burn inner turmoil of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner.
Did you know much about George Jones before playing him?
No, not a stitch. At first when they brought it to me, I had a little bit of trepidation because I knew there were other actors who probably would have more of a history with George and his music. Jessica and I had worked together on “Take Shelter” many years ago, and she just had a hunch that it would be a good fit.
Jessica Chastain said she wanted you for this part because you really “protect your characters.” What about George Jones do you think needed protecting?
There was a fair amount of negativity about who he was. Also, some of the more macho interpretations of who he was — the whole ass-kicking hillbilly, don’t-give-a-damn-about-anybody, hell-raisin’ kind of persona that I frankly don’t find terribly interesting. What really drew me to him was his sensitivity, frailty and grief. I guess what she means is that I’m not going to just make fun of him or make him out to be some kind of hooligan just for the sake of showing off.
How do you approach playing somebody so larger than life?
It’s not dissimilar to when I played Elvis [in 2016’s “Elvis & Nixon”]. I had Elvis’ friend Jerry Schilling to talk with. When I was playing George, I had [Earl] Peanutt Montgomery, one of George’s closest friends. The genesis of a lot of my performance is talking to these guys and seeing just how much they loved their friend and how important it was to them that someone go beyond an impersonation… It keeps them from being freaks. Because they weren’t freaks, they were real people.
Was it easier with access to his daughter Georgette or did it add more pressure?
Well, I definitely felt [pressure] in regard to Georgette, not because of anything she did, because she was nothing but lovely and hospitable and open and warm. But an interesting thing happened one day shooting Episode 6, where I’m older. I was walking in the parking lot towards the studio and she was walking in my direction, and she just froze and was staring at me. And I got up close to her and I could see she was crying, and she said, “It’s just like my daddy was walking across the parking lot towards me.” And it just broke my heart. But it also made me feel like not such an imposter. As painful as it was, it was kind of a blessing from her.
In “Waco:The Aftermath,” your character, FBI negotiator Gary Noesner, is the conscience of the show. What did it mean to you to be part of a project like this, with the whole militia mentality taking hold again?
It was definitely part of the appeal. The thing I appreciate about Gary is that he’s not overly judgmental. He’s really just trying to stop something terrible from happening. And he understands people, the way people feel, why people are upset. I also love the way [exec-producers Drew Dowdle and John Erick Dowdle] portray the Branch Davidians. They give them a lot of dignity and complexity. They don’t just make them out to be a bunch of fanatics.
You’ve wrapped your directorial debut, “Eric Larue,” which was inspired by the Columbine shooting. Do you prefer to tell real stories more than fictional ones?
I’m open to anything that I feel might provoke thought. I’m concerned about the world, and sometimes as an actor, it’s easy to feel like what you’re doing is not helpful in the grand scheme of things. But I feel like it can help a little bit to at least make people contemplate something they may not have given much consideration to before.