Shannon grew up in Lexington, Ky. His parents each divorced and remarried five times. His mother, a social worker, stayed in Kentucky; his father moved to Chicago and became an economics professor at DePaul University. Later, in Chicago, Shannon told me: "I've been an only child, a middle child and an oldest child." In his teens, he recalls, he lived with his mother and young stepbrothers: "I felt guilty because I wanted to help out, but at that age? My mother was dealing with other people's problems all day, then came home to a house of children. I had to leave." He moved to Chicago and lived with his father, went to New Trier Township High School in Winnetka for two years, then moved back to Kentucky his junior year, then back to Chicago for his senior year, attending Evanston Township High School for a semester before dropping out.
He went to theater auditions.
Jane Brody, a Chicago acting teacher and casting director, recalled: "He would come to where I was teaching every day and sit in the lobby. He looked like the poorest child in the world, safety pins holding his clothes together. I let him take classes for free, then learned that he was not poor; he liked to be a mystery." Asked why he started acting, Shannon had difficulty answering, but Arrington said, "Mike once told me being onstage was the only place where he could be as angry as he felt and it was still acceptable."
The first time Chicago saw Shannon onstage, he was 15. A year later, he was cast in a pair of one-acts, "Fun" and "Nobody," at Evanston's Next Lab, opposite a 25-year-old Letts, directed by Dexter Bullard (who later directed Shannon in "Grace"). Shannon was so raw, Bullard said, "two weeks into rehearsal, he shut down, wouldn't do his lines. I asked what was wrong. He said, 'It's all so fake; theater people are so fake.' I thought, 'This guy? Different.'" A year later, at 17, Shannon won a Jeff Award for the show.
Which led to Shannon's starring as Chris, the murder-plotting drug dealer, in the original production of Letts' "Killer Joe." By 19, he was in the London production of the play. A few years after that, he was a paranoid drifter in Letts' "Bug" and developing a reputation as an actor of unusual intensity and personal eccentricity, "a kid with nerves on the outside," Brody said. Indeed, one night during the New York run of "Bug," "there was this chatter in the audience," recalled Chicago actress Shannon Cochran. "I was standing over Mike (in the scene), and he was hunched down, then suddenly he stood up and screamed into my face at the top of his lungs.
"OK, so, do I react? I ignored it, then spent the rest of show assuming he was mad at me. Later I got this note apologizing, saying he shouldn't lose control like that, but he gets so mad when audiences don't concentrate. We never really talked much offstage, but eventually I did end up with a little pile of notes."
We walked for blocks, Shannon in his socks, carrying his coffee cup from home, keeping a running commentary, stepping around glass (and occasionally through puddles), angling around bags of mulch outside a garden center, moving past empty lots, chain-link fences, couples waiting for brunch. A few halted and stared as he passed, though none approached. (St. John Frizzel, a writer and the owner of the Fort Defiance cafe in Red Hook, said later that Shannon seems comfortable here now, but "when he first moved to Red Hook, he would sit by himself, shy, quiet. He was odd. I got a sense he had a hard time getting out of character.")
We stopped in front of a brownstone.
"This is where it started, where we first lived," he said. "Kate and I met in Chicago. She was doing 'King Lear' at Goodman; I was doing 'The Pillowman' at Steppenwolf. About eight years ago. We started seeing each other. 'Lear' ended. Kate wanted to go back to New York but didn't have a place, and so we slept here, on her sister's couch."
He continued on. "The neighborhood's changed some. We got here seven years ago, after the Fairway (supermarket) but before the Ikea. Kate is from North Carolina and went to Northwestern, but she loves it in New York. I told her, why not move to Chicago and just work here all the time? But she would rather live here. Myself, I don't care. I think cities are getting the same, all this globalization. Cities used to seem more different. It's like, you would go somewhere, and it wouldn't be the same place you left. Now you go to London, they have Chipotle. Here a Chipotle, there a Chipotle. I don't know. I guess I like it here, maybe."
We turned on Van Brunt Street, the main strip.
A school principal was killed here once, I said.
"Yeah, long time ago, 20 years ago, famous," he said. "I know it used to be 'most dangerous place in America.' But, nah, it's not now. Nicest playground here is in a housing project. In Chicago you wouldn't dream of going near a housing project. Red Hook is safe. I don't know if it's hip, but it's quiet. What makes me nervous: hurricanes. During Sandy, all this flooded. My daughter wants to live here forever. I don't know how to tell her: We're on the third floor, but we're going to have to move eventually. Our street ponds at high tide! Fairway was closed for months after Sandy. Which I didn't mind too much."
Eventually, we arrived back at the Fairway. "I literally can't look at it," he said. "It's better without cars."
Maybe he could live in Ikea, I said, joking.
"Yeah, I went into that Ikea once," he said, not laughing. "I got dizzy. I get overwhelmed in places like that. Too much stimulus. I had a panic attack in Ikea. It's too much. I will never go in an Ikea as long as I live."
Through Jane Brady, Shannon landed his first movies — "Groundhog Day," Chain Reaction" — and though the roles were slight, by the late 1990s, film work arrived at a relatively steady clip for a Chicago actor. So much so that Shannon got a manager, Lee Daniels (later an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, best known for "Precious"), who suggested the actor move to Los Angeles. Shannon lived there two years, then moved back to Chicago. LA didn't take, he said. Indeed, it's hard to imagine Shannon there, a place so sweaty with passive aggression. He's too direct.
Playwright Craig Wright, whose stage work with Shannon includes "Mistakes Were Made" and "Grace" (he also is a member of Red Orchid's ensemble), remembered: "Just after we first met, we were sitting in this bar in Chicago talking about the best bands of the past 25 years, and I said that I thought (the ethereal Icelandic) Sigur Ros were one of them, and Michael looked at me that way he does, like he's looking at you through frosted glass, and said: 'Oh, I like to listen to them. I listen to them when I'm putting on my prom dress.' Then, to kind of rub it in, he mimed putting on lipstick."
At the time, around a decade ago, Shannon was beginning his slink into the pop consciousness, as a creepy white supremacist in "Bad Boys II," as a creepy villain in the kids flick "Kangaroo Jack," as Eminem's mom's creepy boyfriend in "8 Mile." To watch those broader creeps now — alongside later, more thoughtful creeps (in "Take Shelter," "The Iceman") and Oscar-bait creeps ("Revolutionary Road," for which Shannon received a 2009 best supporting actor nomination as a troubled neighbor with a talent for unnerving a polite room) — is to realize how many shades of vulnerability Shannon has actually brought to creeps.
"'Boardwalk' probably exploits his roar and wingspan," Bullard said, "his thing for walking that line between sane and truly dangerous, but watch something poetic like 'Take Shelter,' where he's a working-class guy with apocalyptic visions, and what's unnerving is how you can't accept him as just crazy. That's his talent."