"I'm not trying to fool anybody": From Elvis to Zod, Michael Shannon is versatile but no chameleon

The actor discusses playing FBI agent Gary Noesner in "Waco" and what negotiating and acting skills have in common

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 26, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Michael Shannon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Michael Shannon (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Michael Shannon isn't an actor who disappears into his characters. It's more they disappear into him.

Whether he's playing Elvis or General Zod, he doesn't try to duplicate whatever popular image you already have of the person. Instead, he'd rather try to show you something you don't know. "It's not so much to try and fool you into thinking that I'm them," he said on "Salon Talks. "But it's trying to communicate what the experience of being them is like."

Now, in the Showtime limited series "Waco: The Aftermath," the two-time Academy Award nominee reprises his role as Gary Noesner, the FBI negotiator during the infamous 1993 Texas siege. In "Aftermath," Noesner is dealing with the fallout of the botched raid, and investigating the growing rise of domestic terrorism in America.

Noesner, now retired and a consultant on the series, "calls me his doppelganger," said Shannon, adding, "It's funny because we don't look alike necessarily or even sound alike all that much." Maybe it's because he figured out the shared skill set that put the two men at the top of their professions, and has helped Shannon embody both Elvis Presley and George Jones, a feat Shannon says "is ridiculous." Shannon also opened up to us about why he has empathy for General Zod, and his latest project that's putting him behind the camera for a change.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode with Michael Shannon here or read our conversation below.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This show takes place in the aftermath of Waco and the landscape in America with the rise of extremism and domestic terrorism. Tell me about the world that your character FBI agent Gary Noesner is now inhabiting, and who he is when we meet him in this different place in his life.

I think Gary's still picking up the pieces a little bit. Waco is such a catastrophic event, and definitely wasn't all his fault or anything. But it was just a lot to process there, going through that, and definitely wanting to avoid having that happen again in the future. It's not the kind of thing you want to have happened twice, let alone once. So probably very hyper-aware and wondering how Waco is going to manifest in the zeitgeist or affect the zeitgeist consciousness of the country.

This story tells us the origins in many ways of where we are right now. When you were doing the research for this, how much of the story did you already know? Were there things that surprised you about connecting those dots to where we are now in this country? 

"Acting and negotiating have a fair amount in common, oddly enough."

Obviously, I remember when it happened, but my exposure to it when it happened was very limited to whatever was on television. I think that's the way they wanted it. In order to find out much about it, you really have to go looking for it. They don't want it to just be general knowledge, which is why Gary Noesner writing his book "Stalling for Time," was a real generous thing for him to do, to illuminate things that we probably wouldn't know about otherwise or wouldn't consider otherwise. I was coming at it originally from probably a very similar place to anyone else, in that I just remembered it was an upsetting thing that I had seen on television.

You've played a lot of real people, but not so many real people who are still around and are consultants on the projects that you're working on, like Gary Noesner is. What was it like working with him again? What kind of a relationship do you have with someone knowing that you have been given the responsibility or the privilege of playing him?

That could be very nerve-wracking, but Gary's such a lovely person. He's really easy to be around and he calls me his doppelganger. It's funny because we don't look alike necessarily or even sound alike all that much, but he seems to trust me and he seems to enjoy watching the fruits in my labor, even if he doesn't always think it's exactly the way it happened.

He's smart enough to know that there are going to be some differences between his life experience and what's on the show, and he doesn't mind that as long as he feels like it's in general telling a story that means something to him. And so far I think it is. But I could pick up the phone right now and start texting with him. He's always sending me pictures of when he goes on vacation or whatever. He's just a real sweet guy, particularly considering what he's been through.

As this series shows, what happened in Waco, Texas in 1993 was just part of his life story.

He's seen it in all different magnitudes, from something as big as Waco to even just a domestic dispute and everything in between. He is retired now and he seems very much at peace. I don't know how he did it, but that's how he seems.

What did he teach you or what did you learn from him about the art of negotiation? Do you use that now going forward in your acting?

Not to over oversimplify it, but it's really about two fundamental things that are quite basic and anybody can do them. One is to listen. Listening is also one of the primary building blocks of acting, so there's a good overlap there. I think great listening is something that people take for granted. To really listen to somebody and consider why they're saying what they're saying and why they're doing what they're doing, it's not something that can really be taught so much.

A lot of it's very instinctual, but the other is just having empathy for other people, having the capacity to imagine what it's like to be someone else and be in their position. Again, another also has in common with one of the foundations of acting. I guess acting and negotiating have a fair amount in common, oddly enough.

You've played so many real life people, from Elvis to George Jones to Richard Kuklinski. What is the side of that person that you're trying to get to or communicate as an actor?

I'm not trying to do an impersonation. It doesn't mean that I don't study the person abundantly. Anytime I'm playing someone where I have the materials that I can study them, I do. If it's a book I can read, if it's a video I can watch, if it's an interview I can listen to, anything I can get my hands on.

"The fact that I played Elvis and George Jones is ridiculous. You should either be able to play one or the other."

A good way to talk about it is when I did the Elvis movie, I was hanging out with Jerry Schilling, who was Elvis's friend. I had a lot of trepidation going into that one. I was like, "I don't know Jerry, I don't know if I can do this. I don't really look like Elvis or sound like Elvis." Jerry basically just said, "Look, I don't really care. There's a lot of people in the world who have put a lot of effort into looking and sounding like my friend and being able to convince people that they are a version of my friend. But very few people, very few people have actually thought about what it was like to be my friend, what it was like to be him, what it must have felt like."

That was a big turning point for me in that project, because I went from being scared to death of doing it to it being the only thing I wanted to do because what he said made a lot of sense. That's my basic marching orders anytime I'm playing a real person. It's not so much to try and fool you into thinking that I'm them, but it's trying to communicate what the experience of being them is like. Because logic dictates, unless you're, I don't know, Lon Chaney Jr. or something that, you can only look like so many different people. I mean, the fact that I played Elvis and George Jones is ridiculous. You should either be able to play one or the other. But I guess I'm not trying to fool anybody into thinking that I'm anybody other than who I am, but I am trying to imagine what it felt like to be them.

You play a lot of really, really scary guys. The guy who the audience is specifically not supposed to root for. What is it about the antagonist that appeals to you?

I don't know. I'm at a loss for words and it's not like I don't understand your question. Your question is a very understandable, sensible question. I guess this sounds like a cop-out, but I just never really think of it that way. The way I look at it is that every character is the protagonist of their own story. What creates an antagonist isn't the character or the actor, it's the filmmaker or the person that's making the story. They're the ones saying, "This is the protagonist, this is the antagonist." 

"Every character is the protagonist of their own story."

As an actor playing a part, I'm not thinking about that at all. One of the reasons I was interested in playing General Zod, is because to me, he wasn't an antagonist. The world in which he is from, he is the protagonist. All he's trying to do is save his civilization, which is his job. It just so happens that in the context of the story of "Man of Steel," he winds up being the antagonist because we're here on Earth and we're like, "Oh no, don't hurt us." But I think that's important. That's an important delineation because it applies to how people behave on Earth and how people relate to one another on Earth is, everybody's the center of their own universe. 

He is God. And Zod is coming back.

Zod is coming back. He's going to be in "The Flash." They spilled the beans at the Super Bowl. I was surprised they did that. You'd think they'd want it to be some big surprise, but what are you going to do? Yes, he's coming back.

In addition to everything else you've got going on, you have directed your first feature yourself. Can you tell me a little bit about "Eric Larue"?

Of course, I'd love to. Eric Larue is a teenage boy. I think he's 17, 18. One day he goes to school and he shoots three of his classmates, and he winds up going to prison. So he's in prison. The movie is about his mom Janice, who is played by Judy Greer, and his dad Ron, who's played by Alexander Skarsgard, and how their lives have changed because of what their son did and how they're trying to cope with it or figure out, well, what do we do now? It explores a lot about religion and explores a lot of stuff. But yeah, that's the thumbnail version of it.

"Waco: The Aftermath" new episodes stream on Fridays and on Showtime on Sundays. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Gary Noesner Michael Shannon Salon Talks Showtime Waco Waco: The Aftermath