Interview | Michael Shannon on the Sticky Morals of ’99 Homes’

Michael Shannon currently has over a dozen major feature films currently in production. The tall, vaguely threatening, stone faced actor has become one of the most in-demand performers in modern Hollywood, and he has worked with a slew of notable directors, including Oliver Stone, William Friedkin, Werner Herzog, Michael Bay, and John Waters (he was the one with the Fassbinder tattoo in Cecil B. Demented). 

Shannon’s latest, 99 Homes, is about a super-aggressive, morally dubious real estate broker who learns to thrive in the eviction market following the 2008 housing crash. It’s a salient and timely movie about the current moral bankruptcy that seems to be infecting the post-crash world. 

Check Out: Michael Shannon and Ramin Bahrani Discuss ’99 Homes’ at Sundance

Shannon was kind enough to talk with Crave about 99 Homes, and also give brief words on the audience reaction to the divisive Man of Steel, William Friedkin’s Bug, and how the truly amazing Premium Rush is most certainly underrated. 

Crave: How much of 99 Homes is based in fact? I remember hearing that scams with realtors and bankers was a real thing.

Michael Shannon: Well, I’d have to give [writer/director] Ramin [Bahrani] the lion’s share of the credit for the research. He decided he wanted to make a movie about this subject, and he went down to Florida and interviewed countless people. And he went to these courts, the foreclosure courts, he saw the process happening, he spent time with brokers. One broker in particular, I also ended up spending time with. It’s not based on a true story – not any one particular story – but it’s a composite of very authentic, accurate events. It’s a depiction of the landscape down that that is, I think, pretty hard to dispute.

Tell me about the broker you spent time with. Was he like your character? Aggressive?

Not exactly. I didn’t, like, mimic him or anything. But he gave me an impression of what it was like. Because, honestly, I’m not predisposed to be interested in real estate as an individual. It’s not really something I give a shit about, honestly. But I didn’t know the ins and outs. I didn’t know the terminology. I didn’t know any of it. But, you can say “aggressive” or “ambitious.” The guy I spent time with just wanted to be a good real estate broker. Properties that were foreclosed on were foreclosed on, no matter what he did. Whether he showed up to evict the people or not. If he didn’t do it, someone else would do it. He would flip foreclosures, because that was good, sound business.

It kept him up at night; he knew, ultimately, that there was something rotten going on. But it’s hard to get real mad at him. It’s not really his fault.

That is a tricky moral place. He’s just doing his job, but there’s also an air of injustice. Even if there’s nothing too illegal going on.

Yeah, towards the end he does make some pretty heinous decisions. Ultimately, what he does to Frank Green [Tim Guinee’s character] is pretty repellant. Most of the ways people were getting screwed out of their homes during all this, was remotely. By the banks. Letters in the mail from faceless people that don’t go out and mix and mingle with the general population that their so desperate to screw over.

So it’s being done from afar. From a distance. Rick has to bear the brunt of people’s displeasure, even though it’s not really something he’s entirely responsible for.

Broad Green

Broad Green

What kind of discussions did you have with Ramin Bahrani about the meat of the movie?

The meat of the story is the relationship between Rick and Dennis [Andrew Garfield’s character]. For me, anyway. In most acting jobs, you’re looking for the central relationship. That’s what compelled me to the script to begin with. Ultimately, I think Rick is a very lonely individual, and that the majority of people he comes in contact with can’t stand him and hate his guts. And I think he looks at Dennis… not as an apprentice so much, as someone that could potentially understand his point of view. “If I explained everything to you, and showed you show this works, and why I made the decisions I made, and you can tell me you understand why I’m doing this, then maybe I won’t feel so bad.”

Rick claims to be numb, but I don’t think he’s numb. The guy I talked to wasn’t numb. I think he knows when he’s breaking the rules. It’s like it says in the movie: He just wanted to sell real estate. He’s a real estate broker. When the foreclosure crisis happened, it was like the plague rolling in. Someone had to clean the bodies off the street. It’s an unpleasant job, but somebody had to friggin’ do it.

You’ve had the chance to work with numerous notable directors in the past – Oliver Stone, Werner Herzog, John Waters, Sidney Lumet, and others. Is there a secret to attracting the eye of interesting filmmakers?

It’s hard to make a generalization about that. Everything had different circumstances. Working with Oliver on World Trade Center, I think it was hard to find someone to do that part. It was a hard part to cast. That guy is about as far a thing from an actor as you can imagine. He was a very stoic, tough, son-of-a-gun. I just went in and read for it, and Oliver thought I could do it.

It’s not like I shoot out a flare into the night sky and they all run to find me. It’s really probably dumb luck more than anything.

Also – not to flatter you – your talent.

I think the one thing I pride myself on – and maybe one day I’ll find that this isn’t true – I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a director that wouldn’t work with me again. I’m pretty well-behaved. And I always try to understand the director’s vision and help them. I never put myself above the movie.

I see that sometimes in actors – and I really don’t understand it – where they think that they’re more important than the movie. I despise that quality in people. It’s a group effort, and I’m there to help. To me, movies are a director’s medium, and they’re the ones who are bringing the thing into the world. They spend the most time on it, and so much time working on this before any of us actors showed up. And after we all left, they spent time on it. And [in the case of 99 Homes] he doesn’t have a penny to show for it.

Broad Green

Broad Green

For what it’s worth, I gave it a positive review. Can we talk about Cecil B. Demented?

John Waters, right! How did I get that job? [Laughs.] I don’t know. I was just willing to run into it. ‘Cause I auditioned, and I screamed “Tell me about Mel Gibson’s dick and balls!” and that was about the long and short of that.

He seems like a director who asks his actors to do some pretty outlandish things.

We had such a blast making that movie, man. That was just a good time.

You were the one with the Fassbinder tattoo. Did you know a lot about Fassbinder going in?

Fassbinder tattoo, yeah. No, not really. I knew the names of some of his films, but that was about it. It was so interesting too, because Maggie [Gyllenhaal] was in that movie, and Adrian [Grenier], Stephen [Dorff]. It was interesting to work with people back in the beginning, before they all got super-famous.

Same with you. Don’t you have, like, fifteen films currently in production?

[Laughs.] Yeah, I had a pretty nutty run this last year. It’s like monkey bars. One to the next to the next. I got some blisters on my palms, I’m pretty sure about that. I need to take a break! But it’s hard, because people will, for whatever reason – and I appreciate it – but people want to work with you. I don’t like to disappoint people. I’m very sensitive. If someone says “please,” I’ll say, “okay.”

Have you had to turn down anything interesting yet?

It’s not like that. It’s not like that. I would say that it’s something… I’m trying to not work for free as much, you know? I would like to actually get paid a little money. This whole business. This whole industry. It’s like “Where’s the money?” Why does everything have to be done as cheaply as possible?

Although you have worked the blockbuster circuit. You were in the divisive Man of Steel.

I’ve run into a lot of people who seemed to like it. I went to a Q&A last night at The Landmark [theater in Los Angeles], and afterwords, there were people waiting outside on the sidewalk with General Zod pictures. I think the natural tendency is, if people don’t like something, they don’t tend to run up to you and say how much they don’t like what they do. They’re more inclined to keep it under their hat.

But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of negative stuff about Man of Steel. For me, I like the movie. I really like Zack [Snyder]. I believe in him as a filmmaker. I think he’s got a really interesting vision. Particularly visually. I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.

Broad Green

Broad Green

You did seem to have fun, especially with wacky dialogue like “Activate the World Engine!”

[Laughs.] I also like my little speech, when I’m on my knees, before our little last showdown there after he blew up all my stuff. And I’m telling him about who I am and why I do what I do, and how he was taking that away from me. I thought that was a killer little speech. From Zod’s perspective, he’s not the bad guy at all!

I would say your best performance was in William Friedkin’s Bug

I’d had a lot of practice with that one because I had done it as a play. I did 200 performances of that role before I even made the movie. [Friedkin] saw it in New York. He originally said – and God bless him for saying this – that he was going to try to get the entire cast from the play into the movie. Unfortunately that wasn’t too realistic. The way financing works and all that. But the fact that he insisted, no matter what, he wouldn’t roll over on me. And I really appreciate that.

Looks like we’re running out of time, and I didn’t get to talk to you about Premium Rush! That’s one of my favorite films of the last decade!

That’s so awesome! I’ve had such an interesting time with Premium Rush today! We were at Rotten Tomatoes talking to Grae Drake, and she was raving. And Jeff Wells was just in here, and he was like, “Premium Rush. You don’t need to be doing anything like that anymore.” I’m like “What are you talking about?” That movie’s fun! It’s a fun movie! And it was a fun comedy. People always ask me why I always play so serious. That was a fun, goofy flick.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

I bought a cassette. Phil Collins, No Jacket Required. I wore it out too. And then Steve Wonder, “Part-Time Lover.” Got No Jacket Required when I was 10 or 11.

Top Photo: Lauren Weissler

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.