“There were no movie stars on that set,” actor Michael Shannon said Monday of his latest film, “Revolutionary Road.”
Celebrity chroniclers and film fans might beg to differ: The Sam Mendes picture features the reunion of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who sailed into cinematic history as the doomed lovers in 1997’s “Titanic,” the all-time box office champ.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, David Harbour, Kathryn Hahn
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 26 Dec 2008 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 30 Jan 2009 (General release); 2008)
And Shannon’s own star got a lot brighter Thursday, when he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance in the film.
The nomination reflects the seriousness with which he and the other actors approached the film.
“It was a group of people united by a passion for the material and wanting to honor the book,” Shannon said before the nominations were announced.
The book is Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about a Connecticut couple who try to break the bonds of mid-20th-century suburbia. Frank Wheeler is a cookie-cutter office worker in New York, and his wife, April, cares for their home and children. She hatches an unconventional plan to break their boring routine by moving to Paris. Friends and co-workers politely congratulate them but privately scoff at Frank and April’s plan.
All except John.
Played by Shannon, John is the son of Frank and April’s real estate agent (Kathy Bates).
He was a gifted mathematician, teaching at a university, but he has since been committed to a sanitarium, where he has undergone electroshock treatments. When he meets the couple, John seems to have a disdain for suburban living.
“Plenty of people are on to the emptiness,” John says to Frank and April, “but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.”
The question is implied: Is it good or bad that the crazy guy seems to be the only one supporting the plan? The question is soon moot, as April’s pregnancy and Frank’s promotion scuttle the Paris plans.
In his second scene, John condemns the change of plans, particularly Frank’s role in changing them.
The idea of a suffocating suburbia brought to mind a family Shannon says he used to visit as a child.
“They were very nice and quiet,” he says. “They didn’t say much and they didn’t seem connected. ... It was kind of creepy, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe John experienced something like that.”
Whatever Shannon channeled, John is the latest in what has become a signature type of performance for the Lexington, Ky., native: the character who appears briefly but sears himself into the moviegoer’s memory. We saw it in “World Trade Center,” when he played an ex-Marine who walked out of an office building and back onto duty after 9-11.
Shannon’s turn in “Revolutionary Road” has earned him a small feature in Entertainment Weekly magazine and other shout-outs, even before the Oscar nomination.
Shannon says all the praise is tempered by an experience last week in Peru, while working on a new movie with legendary director Werner Herzog.
“I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months having people tell me I did a nice job and they think I’m pretty good at acting and stuff,” Shannon says. “Then I went down and got back to actually trying to make something work, and I felt a little rusty.”
The Herzog film, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done,” is one of several big projects in the offing for Shannon, including two new films screening at the Sundance Film Festival. In “Missing Person,” he plays a noir-style detective, and in “The Greatest,” he has, yet again, a small but pivotal role opposite Susan Sarandon.
“Missing Person” is looking for a distributor at Sundance, and “The Greatest,“Shannon says, shouldn’t have trouble finding distribution because of its marquee stars, Sarandon and Pierce Brosnan.
Shannon, of course, knows all about marquee stars from the “Revolutionary Road” experience and what they are like when it’s time to get down to business.
There was not a “‘Titanic’ reunion” buzz on the set of “Revolutionary Road,” but Shannon sees one aspect of DiCaprio and Winslet’s first pairing as essential to this film.
“The only real remnant of it is their friendship, which is a very genuine friendship that they have, very pure,” Shannon says. “Sometimes they seem like high school buddies. And that’s very helpful for the work they’re trying to do on a film like this. Two people that didn’t have a history with one another would have had a harder time manufacturing that kind of relationship.”
And it takes a lot of work to create performances like the ones in “Revolutionary Road,” ones that earn critical acclaim and fuel awards-season speculation. That’s why, far from getting freaked out about working with movie stars, Shannon says it’s essential to be prepared the moment he walks onto the set.
“People are very complicated,” he says, “so it takes a lot of preparation and thought to try to create one.”