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The Missing Person: Michael Shannon

We talk to 2009 Oscar nominee Michael Shannon about his new role as an alcoholic detective in the unconventional noir The Missing Person. (Plus he dishes on The Runaways with Kristen Stewart!)

The Missing Person

It is not a stretch to say that every movie could use the exceptional and eccentric presence of Michael Shannon, a reliably hypnotic actor (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Bug, Shotgun Stories) who's probably best known for his Oscar-nominated performance in last year's Revolutionary Road.

Happily, Noah Buschel's smart little neo-noir The Missing Person, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, is anchored by the lurching, physically imposing presence of Shannon as alcoholic detective John Rosow. A man out of time in a natty suit, Chicago vowels yowling all over the place, Rosow is sent to a yellowed-out California (evoking Elliott Gould in The Long Goodbye) in search of a missing person, a man who disappeared after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.

While Buschel's film has an air of neo-noir cool that fits comfortably alongside Rian Johnson's Brick and HBO's Bored to Death, it's an elegant look at loss and absence—Rosow and the missing person (Harold Fullmer, played by the Tony-award winning character actor Frank Wood, who was recently on the Flight of the Conchords as Murray's aggrieved coworker Greg) are two men irrevocably bruised by the events of September 11th, and their lives have whirred on in the aftermath, stuck.

It's a pleasure to see Shannon jump into the role of Rosow—parrying back and forth with the film's great faces like Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone) and John Ventimiglia (The Sopranos), talking with a cab driver in the desert, bonding over the fact that they're displaced New Yorkers, with the cabbie concluding: "I like to think you're on the right side. The Serpico side." Buschel's use of genre is engrossing, and the results are darkly funny, strange, and charming.

Tribeca Film talked to Shannon, who lives in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood, over the phone this week. Post Oscar-nomination, he's doing a slew of interesting projects: Werner Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, the high-profile music biopic The Runaways with Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, and the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. We talked with him about how to properly play a drunk and whether you get actor whiplash going from the rockin' 70s to a 1920s period piece.

Tribeca Film: What initially drew you to The Missing Person?

Michael Shannon: I was invited to do a reading of it; I guess they were trying to raise money to make the film. Amy Ryan, she's a friend of  mine and she had worked with Noah before on a film, Neal Cassady. Noah was kind of stumped to find someone to play Rosow, and the reading wound up being an audition of sorts.

Tribeca: What was your take on the way that the film approaches 9/11 and its aftermath?

MS: When I did World Trade Center, which is much more of a straightforward story, people were saying it was way too soon, how could he [director Oliver Stone] do it? Then I always say just because some time elapses doesn't mean it should be less painful. One hundred years from now it should be painful, and that's kind of the way life works, as time passes and things lose focus. I think in The Missing Person, Noah is dealing with the kind of ramifications of what happened in such an imaginative way. I don't know if it's more or less palatable because of the fact that it's shrouded in this film noir story. I don't know if that makes it easier to take or not. I certainly think it's heartfelt—for Noah it's heartfelt, he put his heart into the movie and this story and it's authentic.

Tribeca: How much of the genre mismash was in the script?

MS: One of the reasons I was drawn to it was because it just read uniquely. It wasn't like anything else. I'm not saying it's the first detective movie ever made, but what it transforms into and how it transforms, I had never seen anything like it. I was always very happy to come to the set and be working with whomever I was working with. Noah had access to an incredible talent pool. There was never a letdown.

The Missing Person

Tribeca: How do you play an alcoholic well?

MS: I think you focus on other attributes of the character. At the end of the day, someone drunk or not drunk is typically the least interesting thing about them. There's so many aspects of the character to focus on: why is he drunk, who is this guy? He's a very mysterious person—he's as much of a mystery as anything going on in the film.

Tribeca: So what's the difference between working with established directors like Oliver Stone and Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and young, hungry guys like Buschel and Jeff Nichols (who directed the excellent Shotgun Stories)?

MS: Jeff and Noah are really two of the most exciting people I've worked with in this business. I've worked with a lot of revolutionary directors, but it's exciting to work with young people who are just starting to form their own vision. I think Jeff and Noah are both extroardinary writers and I think their screenplays are two of the best screenplays I've ever read. Period. [The screenplays] had such imagination and, in a very sophisticated way, they dealt with very topical issues. I was impressed with how sophisticated they were. They both, as directors, were very, very quiet, and they encourage understatement from their actors. They want their actors to be as subtle as possible.

They were both very adamant about shooting on film (Shotgun Stories was on 35 mm, The Missing Person was 16 mm). Both of the films have a really distinctive look. I think there's still a lot of young directors that would rather shoot on film. If anything, it seems like more veteran directors are more excited about HD. Sidney Lumet loved shooting on HD. He didn't mind having film at all. He thought it was great and he could move a lot faster. But with young directors, I think there will always be a group that will shoot on film.

Tribeca: You have an extensive theater background. How does acting technique differ from theater to film?

MS:  A lot of the theaters I've worked at—not all of them—I've said the majority of them are very, very small. In particular, one theater I've worked at in Chicago for many years—A Red Orchid, like the flower—it only seats about 70 people. The majority of the audience is three to five feet away from you. It's kind of the same situation, it's good training for acting on film. You're not trying to make people hear you on the balcony because there is no balcony. If anything, it's more demanding. With the film, you've got the camera in your face, and with the play, you got all these people staring at you and you have to act like they're not there.

Tribeca: You and Tracy Letts (the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of August: Osage County) have sort of come up together. How did that come about?

MS: I met Tracy—Tracy's an actor—I did a play with him, he played my father, and this is almost twenty years ago. Then after I did the play with him, I didn't see him very much, and he called me one day and they were going to do a reading of this play, Killer Joe, that they were working on. We went and did the reading, and he asked me to do it. I feel like I understand his work pretty well. I don't know why he was drawn to me or not, I guess because he just trusted me with his material. I think we have a similar sense of humor, we both have dark senses of humor—as dark as what he writes is, there were a lot of jokes in his material, and I could hit it.

The Missing Person

Tribeca: I was curious about how The Runaways shoot went. Were you terrifically mean to Kristen Stewart? Is it going to be an actual film with strong roles for women? (Shannon is playing Kim Fowley, the co-founder/Svengali of the rock group.)

MS: First of all, I have pretty high hopes for it. Kristen took her job very, very seriously, and she spent pretty much all of her waking moments with Joan Jett. She studied her very voraciously. I have a lot of respect for her with how hard she worked on it. Dakota was the same way. They're both very serious about what they do and they work very hard.

I did have to be a little mean as Kim Fowley. I had dinner with Kim one night and he asked me to make sure to not come off too mean. He wasn't just mean all the time. It seems like he and Joan had a soft spot for each other. Even having worked on the film with each other, it's still very mysterious to me, the dynamics back then. [What you hear] is very different considering who you talked to. It's very much a movie about young women who are trying to make something of themselves, and I think as much as it can be, it's pretty faithful to what happened. Thank god [The Runaways] actually existed so we can make a movie about them.

Tribeca: What are you up to next?

MS: Shooting this TV show called Boardwalk Empire for HBO. I was working on that when I was working on Runaways.

Tribeca: You must've had whiplash going from the 70s to the 1920s! How did you do it?

MS: Yeah, they were two pretty extremely different parts. I don't know. I made it through.

The Missing Person
opens on Friday, November 20 in New York at the Village East, and on Friday, November 27 in Los Angeles. Click here for ticket information.



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