From Take Shelter to Revolutionary Road to Boardwalk Empire, Oscar-nominated actor Michael Shannon often plays brooding, dangerous characters you can’t take your eyes off.
But it’s not all dark, as the Lexington, Kentucky native demonstrates in the dope-and-debauchery-fueled holiday comedy The Night Before.
And funny enough, Shannon—who now splits his time between Brooklyn and Chicago—may love music even more than acting. So during a break shooting the latest Speakeasy, we asked him about his band, his guitars, playing Elvis and more.
“I didn’t like my stepdad much, but he had a big record collection, and I remember as a kid sneaking down into the basement to listen to vinyl records like Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles and Tommy by The Who.”
Tell us about your band, Corporal. Where do you play?
Music is my favorite thing after my kids. I started music before acting. In our band, I’m the lead singer and lead choreographer [grins]. Our music is hard to pin down. People say it all sounds different. I’d call it eclectic because my taste in music is varied, from classic rock to Public Enemy to Steely Dan.
I perform when I can, which is pretty irregularly. Our last gig was on my birthday on August 7th at the Bell House, an old warehouse turned into a music venue, in Brooklyn by the Gowanus Canal. The gig was kind of a birthday present to myself. I really do love playing and everyone in the band is so good, but we’re also so busy.
You have a self-titled record of originals but also perform some great Stones’ classics, right?
Yeah, we often play “Dead Flowers” by the Stones, pretty much as our sound check, and everyone seems to like our version. And it’s a good one to play to hear how you sound in the room. We don’t typically play many covers. But we’ve also played the Stones’ “Torn and Frayed” a couple of times, a little bit more complicated tune.
Tell us about your guitars.
My go-to guitar is a black Takamine acoustic-electric. A little while ago I also got a Telecaster just to have a different option, a straight-up electric guitar. But I’m pretty fond of my Takamine. Guitars are beautiful instruments. I love going to guitar stores and tooling around with them, checking out their different sounds.
You’ve played music people in a couple of movies now…
I played Kim Fowley, a music writer and producer, who managed Joan Jett’s band in The Runaways. And I also just played Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon. It’s about Elvis going to the White House to meet the President in the early 1970s. Elvis, who’d already served in the US Army, wanted to be an undercover agent at large. So he was trying to get a badge from the Narcotics Bureau.
There’s a very famous picture of Elvis shaking Nixon’s hand in the Oval Office. We replicated that picture for the movie, and the scene is interesting because we know that the two of them met but we have absolutely no idea what they said to each other. The two of them were alone for a period of time, and there no was recording… unlike when Watergate was going on. So it offered a fascinating opportunity to do something that was both real but also completely imaginary. They actually became pretty good friends and remained in touch.
Do you get to sing any Elvis songs?
My character Elvis sings a couple of times in the movie but not in performance, so I didn’t have to be onstage. He was singing in his cars, listening to the radio, and I get to sing Creedence Clearwater Revival. So I effectively get to interpret both of them, Elvis singing CCR, and not just sing an Elvis standard, which is hard enough to do without sounding like everyone who ever tried.
What are your earliest memories of music?
I didn’t like my stepdad much, but he had a big record collection, and I remember as a kid sneaking down into the basement to listen to vinyl records like Sgt. Pepper’s by the Beatles and Tommy by The Who. My mom and I would dance to Stevie Wonder’s “Part Time Lover.” I think the first record I bought was Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required. Now, I also like jazz. Thelonius Monk’s Paris 1969 is one of my favorites.
Tell us about doing a comedy like The Night Before.
For all my friends who’ve been saying, “Why don’t you do a comedy?”—well, here it is. I had a lot of fun doing it. These guys [Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anthony Mackie and Seth Rogen] have been getting together every Christmas to party, and I play their former high school pot dealer, who gets them supplied for their holiday festivities. The director, Jonathan Levine, says I’m kind of like the character Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, an angel setting the table.