Michael Shannon is one of those actors that constantly reminds us there’s no such thing as small parts. No matter the size of the role, his presence will leave an impression, with his sole scene in Loving being one example. Every second matters when Shannon is on screen. The actor, who was last seen on AMC’s The Little Drummer Girl, now stars in Meredith Danluck‘s feature directorial debut, State Like Sleepan intimate neo-noir with dreamlike sequences.

Katherine Waterston plays a photographer investigating the death of her husband, and during her journey of grief she crosses paths with Edward, her neighbor at a hotel. Because of the story’s unpredictable tone and genre elements, you’re not quite sure what to expect from Edward at the start, but there’s ultimately a surprising tenderness to his messy relationship with the lead character. Along with Waterston, Shannon makes the movie’s few moments of kindness very impactful.

Recently, Shannon told us about his experience with Waterston and Danluck, in addition to the importance of naps, the apex of his career, a memory from Kangaroo Jack, and some details about Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.

There was quite a bit of time between when you shot State Like Sleep and when you finally saw it, so how was the experience seeing it completed? How are you about watching your work?

Well, I enjoyed watching this one a great deal, because I really like Meredith, her point-of-view, and what she has to say. I also really like Katherine, and I thought she did a great job in the movie. The cast is pretty strong. There’s so many scenes that are just so unusual, like, I had never seen something like that before, you know? This one is fun to watch, but it’d be hard to say in general. I mean, I’m not one of these people who can’t watch themselves. I don’t really care. I don’t sit there and be all uptight about it. It is what is. I think people who are terrified of seeing what they do, I don’t know, I just don’t understand it. It really doesn’t make any sense. I guess, at the end of the day, I look at this as a very collaborative process. There’s a lot of artists involved, and a lot of different kinds of art, all contributing equally. I’m always curious to see what they’ve done, and how their work has impacted the film as a whole.

That always seems like the best attitude for actors to have: viewing themselves as one small piece of the puzzle, even if they’re the star of the movie. 

Exactly. If you sit and look at the credits afterwards, you’re like, holy crap, it took a lot of people. It’s a shame, because most people just get up and walk out [at the end of a movie], but most people don’t realize when you’re watching a movie that each and every frame, even the five seconds of me deciding to get up and go get potato chips, there’s so many frickin’ people working on the frame of the film, trying to make it the absolute best. I see that firsthand, so I appreciate watching it.

Most of your scenes in the movie are in a hotel room. Some actors say a movie can feel like a play sometimes, but with all the technical aspects involved, does it ever feel that way for you?

It can, it can. It depends on the location — you’re right about that — and it also depends on how it’s being shot. You know, if someone is trying to do something in a oner and there’s not a lot of coverage, that obviously feels more theatrical than doing a bunch of different angles. To me, there’s nothing as exhilarating as doing theater. There are incredibly tedious aspects of filmmaking that are kind of unavoidable. What was interesting with this film, we were actually staying in the hotel we were shooting at, or at least I was, The Thompson Hotel. It was really surreal.

Do those tedious moments get easier over time? How do you deal with them?

Yeah. You sort of have to figure out how to occupy yourself, you know? The fact of the matter is, on average you can spend 12 hours at work, and if you’re lucky — if you’re lucky — probably two of those hours actually acting, so that leaves you ten hours. Different people handle it different ways. I usually sleep, which I’ve gotten really good at as of late. I just go to sleep. I remember working with Christopher Walken, on Kangaroo Jack all those years ago, he always had a room to go to with a couch to lay down on. One day, I just happened to stumble into the room, and there he was, laying there with his eyes closed. I’ve come to realize how intelligent it is all these years later. At the time, I was like, “Huh?” It’s very wise.

Sometimes people will make comparisons between you two as actors, but have you ever felt a connection with him or has he in any way been an inspiration? 

Well, no. Honestly, I think it’d be sacrilegious to say, because he’s kind of in his own universe. I was very moved the first time I was nominated for Revolutionary Road, because that was the first time at the Oscars they were having former winners present the nominees. Remember that?

I do.

So, Christopher Walken gave a little speech about me, and that was probably, in a way, the apex of my life, at least professionally. Everything after that is kind of… I don’t want to say downhill, but I can’t imagine getting more excited. Really, I had an out-of-body experience watching that happen. I know he was just reading off a teleprompter, but I didn’t give a shit.

[Laughs] No, you shouldn’t, that’s an incredible moment. State Like Sleep has a very unpredictable tone, so you really don’t know what to expect from these characters, especially Edward. Did you at all want to try to play with expectations audiences might have about him?

He just made a whole bunch of sense to me right off the bat. I’m never too interested in trying to manipulate people’s expectations. At the end of the day, I feel like that’s a superficial thing to do. Exploring the true nature of humanity in all its complexity and long-headedness sometimes is more interesting. You know, I like that the ending is sweet, but not too sweet. You don’t really know what’s going to happen [after the movie], because that could be the last time those two people ever see each other. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll be friends, or maybe not.

It’s hard for all of us. We have our lives, we have our families, and our significant others, and whatnot. We meet a lot of people, particularly in this line of work. It’s a strange conglomeration of people who have to spend a lot of time with one another for a brief period, and then it’s over and they all disappear. It’s a strange way to live, and it brings out strange impulses in people.

It’s such a finite amount of time to work with people, make friends, and then have to say goodbye and go to the next job. Making those relationships and then having to say bye so fast, is that ever tough?

It can be, but the people I really, really dig and think are super cool, I tend to have a habit of running into them again. Like, Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) or Liza Johnson (Return) or Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes) or other directors and actors I really like. That’s the good thing — you can make something else, if you really feel simpatico with somebody.

I really hope you and Jeff Nichols make that biker movie one day. Is that something you two have ever talked about doing together?

He talks about it from time to time. He always says he’s not ready. [Pauses] I don’t know what that means, I don’t know why he feels that way. I can tell you, it’s not going to be anytime soon, because he’s about to go off in a whole different direction with something else that’s going to probably monopolize his time for quite a while. Fingers crossed.

Another great director you worked with recently was Rian Johnson. How was your experience on Knives Out?

I had a blast, man, that was so much fun. It’s a murder-mystery movie, and I’ve never done one of those, you know, good old-fashioned kind of Agatha Christie-type things with a big cast. All the characters are kind of eccentric and whatnot. Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Also, Rian is a super, super sweet guy.

You’ve played some eccentric characters before and more grounded characters like Edward. Is one type of character ever more enjoyable to play than the other? 

You know, I love every character I play. The only kind I don’t [love] is when the writing makes you go, “This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand why this person is doing this or saying this. Please, don’t make me say this.” That’s hard, because then you have to fake it. When you understand what a person is about, whether it’s normal, mean, or nice, that’s irrelevant to me.

Since the year just ended, what movies have stayed with you recently? What did you enjoy watching in 2018?

I thought Widows was real strong. I’m kind of curious, because I don’t think it got a lot of attention. I mean, The Favourite is fantastic, but that’s no surprise, everybody loves that. I was going to watch Vice last night, but I went to a dinner for a benefit type thing, but I’m going to see that. I really want to see that. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I liked. Also, Free Solo, which was probably the most dramatic movie I’ve seen. You know that one?

I still need to see it. 

Oh, dude, you gotta see that movie. Everybody should see that movie.

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State Like Sleep is now available in limited release and on iTunes.

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