Michael Shannon on His First Jobs as a Fish-Tank Cleaner and Telemarketer

We talked to the 'Nocturnal Animals' actor about his crappy first jobs like bookstore clerk and canvasser for Ralph Nader.

by Sam Fragoso
Nov 22 2016, 5:05pm

Photo courtesy of TK

In Early Works, we talk to celebrities and other notable people about the strange, funny, and absurd gigs they took before becoming the well-known figures they are today.

From his roles as a scrupulous prohibition officer on Boardwalk Empire to a vindictive villain in Man of Steel, Michael Shannon is bound by nothing—his intensity shatters any notion of what a character should be. Audiences have picked up on Shannon's singular charm as well. He has an inability to be anything but himself: vulnerable, candid, cutting, masculine yet sweet.

When he appeared on screen in both Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals and Jeff Nichols's Loving at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the theaters erupted in laughter. The 42-year-old Kentucky native has become one of those immediately identifiable faces in Hollywood—a guy nobody seems to dislike. While some flock to recognizable actors who appear relatable (or likable), people's fascination with Shannon is an anomaly. He's not an everyman; he's not a muscular male lead produced in a lab by film studios; he's not a classically gorgeous movie star, like George Clooney. In fact, he's not like anyone. At times Shannon seems plucked straight out of a Fellini film—his face so expressive, inimitable, that he's able to communicate a range of emotions through a glance (see Take Shelter) or gesture (see Midnight Special).

But films are the furthest thing from his mind right now. "I love this movie, and I'm very proud of it," he recently said, over the phone, of Nocturnal Animals, a violent, enthralling, and layered story within a story about an art gallery owner (played by Amy Adams) captivated by an early copy of her ex-husband's disturbing novel. "But it's kind of hard to talk about movies right now," Shannon explained, with the fate of the country on his mind. "I'm not gonna lie." So, mostly, we didn't.

Instead, Shannon and I discussed some of his early jobs: canvasser, telemarketer, fish-tank cleaner, bookstore clerk. We also discussed the aftermath of Trump's victory, obliviousness, and "the best introduction he's ever gotten in a movie."

VICE: How's your day-to-day right now?
Michael Shannon: It's a disaster. It's a catastrophe. We have to do something. If [Trump] is left to his own devices, he's going to destroy the world. It's an end-game scenario. We'll figure something out. I'm very moved by all the protesting going on. People are seeming to not settle for this outcome.

Could you see yourself protesting?
I would love to, but I'm in LA. I have my platform, which is the fact that people want to talk to me about stuff, and so I can take advantage of that and tell the world what an asshole I think Donald Trump is. Now, will that change anything? I'm not sure. I have two children, and I'm very scared for them, more than anything.

Given your upbringing in Lexington, Kentucky, did you have an impression that Trump could rise like this?
Here's the thing about Kentucky: There are some fairly urban, cosmopolitan areas. Those areas tend to vote Democrat. Nobody in my family voted for Donald Trump, and we are from Kentucky. They are coal states—Kentucky and West Virginia. I don't know if any of these people who want to go back to coal mining realize that in New Delhi, India, people can't even leave their homes because the air is so dirty that they can't breathe. They've closed down the schools, and people are shacked up in their houses sitting next to air purifiers hoping for the best. The point I always make is that if you can't breathe or drink water, then nothing else really matters.

It certainly puts things in perspective. Can we talk about early jobs of yours? Your appearance in Groundhog Day always makes me smile.
[Laughs] It just goes to show that some people really do start with one line, and they keep going. That's what I did. I am not an overnight sensation, by any stretch of the imagination.

You're a 25-year sensation. What were you doing before that?
I was in Chicago doing non-equity theater, making no money—very small audiences, if any at all. I worked at a pet store. It was this beautiful little pet store in Evanston. It's called the Fish Bowl, on the corner of Dempster and Chicago Avenue. In the entry-level job there, you had to carry big bags of pet food around, do the stocking, and you had to clean the fish tanks. It was one of the worst jobs ever. It's very hard to clean fish tanks because fish basically swim around in their own toilets.

You were 16, 17, cleaning fish tanks.
Yeah, I never lasted super long at any particular job. Super Crown Bookstore was a few years later. It's not even around anymore—not many bookstores are around anymore. That's where I learned about pyramiding. The stacks of books wouldn't all be equal on the table—four books to three books to two books.

What's the worst odd job you had?
Oh, boy. I've had some stinkers. I tried my hand at telemarketing—it's the worst thing imaginable.

I can't see that going well. You strike me as a no-bullshit kind of person.
I can't lie to people. I don't know how telemarketing exists at all. How is anybody good at it? The second that any telemarketer calls me I just hang the fuck up on them. Instantly. I don't let them say anything, and in the moment that I'm hanging up on them, even though I'm hanging up on them, I think back to my days as a telemarketer and very briefly feel sorry for them.

Any other gigs?
Well, I also did door-to-door canvassing for an environmental group—Ralph Nader's thing. You're going door-to-door telling people, "Look we need to worry about air and water quality. It's an issue." And they're like, "No, it's not an issue, and everything is fine." Then they shut the door in your face. It never ceases to amaze me how oblivious people are. It's my least favorite characteristic in human beings. It's like, "Wake the fuck up."

In a way, there's a performative element to those jobs—telemarketer and canvasser.
There is, but I found absolutely nothing attractive about the telemarketing job whatsoever. It was a job that was easy to get. I did not keep it very long. In terms of the environmental job, that was something I was hugely concerned about and really wanted to do something about it. I've always been concerned about the environment.

Did you cry when Trump was giving his acceptance speech?
I didn't watch his speech. I'm not going to. Part of the reason the guy has been elected president is because he's entertaining. So one of my protests is that I'm simply not going to watch anything he does. I feel like you're just feeding the demon when you do that.

You mentioned obliviousness is something you especially don't like in humans. I'm wondering, with this election, has your understanding of people radically changed?
Well, yeah! It makes the last eight years seem like a lie. I was so happy with Obama. It was such a beautiful thing. It really was. But now, it's like, Oh, this whole time there's been this racist, sexist, despicable underbelly teeming underneath that's now been given permission to come out and flaunt itself. Everything feels false now. We have to keep trying to find constructive ways to carry on.

In that regard, how did you sustain hope when you were washing fish tanks?
Oh, you know it was really easy for me because here's my deep dark secret: I never gave a shit whether I made any money at this or not. I wasn't a careerist. I had no aspirations to come to Los Angeles and do movies. I was quietly happy doing plays in the basement of a coffee house for five people. I enjoyed that because I'm weird. You come out to LA, and it can be a very sad place. So many people who so desperately want things that they can't get. I didn't suffer from that. If it happens, it will be interesting. If it doesn't happen, I'll do something else.

At what point did you feel it happened?
I did this play in New York called Killer Joe. I did it in Chicago and London. One night after the show, this guy approached me and said, "Uh, you know, I want to be your manager." I never had a manger. I didn't even know what a manager did. The next day, I went to his office, and he said, "Look, I'll show you what I can do." And he picked up the phone and made a phone call and said, "I just got you an audition. You go to this audition tomorrow, and you're going to get this job, and then you're going to come back here and say, 'Gee, you're a great manager.'" He got me an audition for Jesus's Son, and I went out and booked it. And I was like, "Jesus, this guy is right." That was a fella named Lee Daniels, who we all know now as the producer and director. Before that, he was a manager, and he was my manager. Once I finished the play, Lee said, "You gotta go to LA." I said, "Lee, the last place on Earth I want to go is LA." He said, "Just trust me. You gotta go to LA, and I'm going to crack this open for you." And he did it.

How did you reconcile with LA?
The reason I didn't want to go to LA was because I had a lot of friends in Chicago who were great actors, who were worried about making money and being successful. They would do a few shows and get great reviews, and then they would move to LA and deliver pizzas. To me, going to LA was like sticking your face in the fan. Why go? Don't do it. You're going to chop your face off. I was here less than a month and Lee had me in front of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay for Pearl Harbor.

How do you feel about your place in film right now? There's like a growing cult of Michael Shannon.
Look, back in the day, before I had kids and was working 20 hours a day, I used to go to movies all the time. And I remember people who inspired that in me. The thought that I would have that effect on someone else is very humbling. At the end of the day, it's so many people who contribute to that. For example, when we were doing Nocturnal Animals, Tom [Ford] came up to me and said, "I'm going to give you probably the best introduction that you're ever going to get in a movie. Ever." I got this shot. It's low-angle. He said, "Right now, all I need you to do is stand here, and you don't even have to do anything." That's a gift.

Do you worry that there's an audience expectation to deliver the same role in each film?
I see every single character that I've ever played as a separate, distinct entity. There may be a certain intensity to some of the things I've done, but that's because of the way I'm wired. Sometimes I resent when people lump what I do into a convenient shape. There's nothing convenient about it.

Are you an intense person?
I'm a hypersensitive human being. Ever since I was a little boy. I take in everything very extremely. I can't help but regurgitate that a little bit, whatever is happening around me. I'm a very sensitive person. I think a lot of actors are. It's ironic—that intensity stems from that sensitivity. Usually when you think of the word "sensitivity," you think of a shy, quiet person in their bedroom playing violin.

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Nocturnal Animals is in theaters now.