'The Current War' Star Michael Shannon On Making A Movie About The Future Set In The Past [Interview]

Actor Michael Shannon has been a staple on the Chicago theater scene for decades, thanks in large part to his regularly appearing in productions at his own A Red Orchid Theatre company, but most of you know Shannon as a film actor, first appearing in smaller roles in such works as Groundhog Day, Chain Reaction, Pearl Harbor, Vanilla Sky, 8 Mile, and World Trade Center. Shannon caught many people's eyes in the film adaptation of the Tracy Letts' play Bug, in which Shannon had originally starred. But it was in the late 2000s that he really exploded and became the actor of choice for both new and established directors looking to tap into his intensity and inherent creepiness. He scored major roles in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and Jeff Nichols' first feature Shotgun Stories (the two have collaborated on every Nichols' film since, including Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving).But it was Shannon's Oscar-nominated turn in the Sam Mendes-director Revolutionary Road that turned a corner for the actor, who might be best known for playing Nelson Van Alden, the FBI agent turned low-level associate of Al Capone, in five seasons of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, and as General Zod in Zack Snyder's reworking of the Superman legend in Man of Steel. Easily one of the busiest and most in-demand actors working today, Shannon was nominated for his second Academy Award for 2016's Nocturnal Animals and made quite an impact in Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, as well as in recent miniseries like Waco and The Little Drummer Girl.The reason for my sitting down with Shannon was his leading role as industrialist George Westinghouse in the long-delayed The Current War: Director's Cut, co-staring Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult, and Tom Holland. Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) The film concerns the competition between Westinghouse and world-famous inventor Thomas Edison (Cumberbatch), and even the strange man who worked for both of them at different times but whose genius was largely ignored, Nikola Tesla (Hoult), as they battle to see who can supply America with electricity, breaking many rules in the process./Film spoke with Shannon recently, and he discussed the elements of the film's story that focus on his hometown of Chicago, why he believed Westinghouse and Edison should have been colleagues rather than enemies, and the elevated anticipation levels at shooting his one scene with Cumberbatch. The Current War is now playing nationwide.The thing I couldn't help thinking as I'm watching this movie was that Westinghouse and Edison should have been friends, or at least collaborators.Oh, Westinghouse wasn't afraid of that. He wanted that very much; he would have liked nothing more than to be friends with Thomas Edison.And we get that sense in the beginning. What do you suspect went wrong then?I don't think the film is all that far off. This period of time, the stakes were so high. It's hard to reverse engineer it and imagine what it was like before we had all this technology that we have now. What they were attempting to do, there was a phenomenal amount of power in it and influence. It could also be attached, like you see today, some ill intent, which is one of the paradoxes of life. Usually in the act of creating something, we're also destroying something. It's hard to find an instance where that's not the case. It's hard for me to get too deep into the whys and wherefores of the decisions Edison made. I just know that it seemed like it was a rough patch for him with his first wife passing away. Some people really want to be remembered; some want their name on the side of a building; and some people could care less.This was the fist of two films you made with Katherine Waterston [the other being State Like Sleep]. In both cases, you two are playing people who are close or grow to be close. Talk about your dynamic with her and what you like about working with her.Katherine is divine—I've always been a fan of her. We're both theater actors and would see each other in plays in New York. I've known her a very long time, and she's super-kind and smart. When we were doing The Current War, she did even more research than I did. She was constantly pouring over anything she could get her hands on, telling me little details about what they liked to have for dinner and all these things. She's very devoted and takes what she does very seriously, but she's also so easy to be around.You and Benedict only have the one scene together near the end of the film. Was there an anticipatory tension leading up to shooting that scene? Did you actually shoot it near the end?We did, we shot that toward the end. Up until then, it was like we were making two different movies. It was very exciting, and that location where we shot was breathtaking. That's a real room in Brighton in England. It was thrilling to get to that scene and be able to take us having lived through the story up until that point. It would have been terrible if we had shot that scene first; it would have been awful.You director Alfonso has a real emotional core to him. He's great at capturing that, and it seems necessary in a film like this about technology to inject humanity into a subject that could be dry. What did he do to humanize everything?His mantra really was: "This is a movie about the future. It's not about the past." It's a historical story but in the moment that these people are living in, all they're thinking about is the future. It's a trippy way to look at it. It really activated the story in a great way if you think of it that way. Obviously, a lot of it he did with camera and design elements too. He talked a lot about using wide-angle lenses and wanting to always have nature be present all the time—whether you're hearing it or seeing it—and realizing that this is all part of something much bigger than all of us, whether it's 100 years ago or now. There's something much bigger than all of us, which is nature.As someone who lives in Chicago and has read up on the history of the city, seeing those scenes of the World's Fair are really exciting. I don't know how much of it they built for you to see, but even to see the digitally created version of it is stunning for you. Was that an exciting aspect of being a part of this film, that all roads lead to Chicago?Oh yeah! Of course. In the course of human civilization, you've got to count that as an epic event—one of the fundamental events in our evolution as a culture. It was pretty remarkable. The production design across the board was incredible, particularly Westinghouse's factory—WABCO—which was such a gigantic place. They had to CGI some of it because they couldn't find a place like that anymore. But what the practical stuff they really had was really incredible.