But for all the craft he’s cultivated, there’s still something feral. His friend and fellow actor Amy Ryan says, “He’s one of those actors you swear is not an actor. You hold your breath ’cause you feel he’s a real person and you’re spying on him.”
After many years in Chicago and two in L.A. (he was in three Jerry Bruckheimer films), Shannon now lives here with his girlfriend, Steppenwolf ensemble actress Kate Arrington, and their 6-month-old daughter. (“I have issues with the marriage thing. But I’m super in love with this woman, so I’ll probably get over it.”) He’s working a lot: His other great role in 2008 was the lead in the haunting Arkansas revenge drama Shotgun Stories, in which he’s relatively subdued (relatively—inside, his character is roiling, at a loss to express his anguish over a father’s abandonment). In just the past year, he’s appeared in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Philip Seymour Hoffman killed him), the Off Broadway play The Little Flower of East Orange (Philip Seymour Hoffman directed him), and Craig Wright’s Lady (also Off Broadway). He was supposed to be in Letts’s August: Osage County but dropped out to do Revolutionary Road. Shannon had been in Letts’s other plays, and the writer worried that he was losing his good-luck charm. They laugh about that now.
At lunch, Shannon is very smart and hugely likable, but his easygoingness seems just a mite practiced. The danger is still palpable. Ryan goes on strolls with him and sees people cross the street because “he’s such an intimidating character. He can break your heart and at the same time scare the shit out of you.” Noah Buschel cast him as a stuporous, alcoholic private investigator—the world’s least inconspicuous tail—in the delightfully strange noir The Missing Person (it premieres at Sundance), and says he has heard the actor compared to both DiCaprio and Richard Kiel, who played Jaws in the James Bond films. There’s a bit of both. “He looks like an eccentric slacker who just rolled out of bed,” Buschel says, “but he sees every fly in the room.” Some damaged people are like that.
Shannon wants to keep doing theater—new plays, he says, not chestnuts like A Streetcar Named Desire or True West. He’ll soon head off with Werner Herzog to shoot a movie in Peru, the site of a legendary psychodrama between that German director and his incorrigibly mad leading man, Klaus Kinski. But Shannon promises he has his own madness on a leash. “You have a lot of wind inside you,” he says, “and acting is the kite.”