Michael Shannon Talks Boardwalk Empire with Movieline

HBO's sprawling Boardwalk Empire is a character actor aficionados dream come true; after all, the lead is Steve Buscemi. So it isn't all that surprising to see someone like Michael Shannon killing scenes on a weekly basis. The very definition of "that guy" -- having appeared in everything from Revolutionary Road to World Trade Center to Bad Boys II -- Shannon stars as Agent Nelson Van Alden, a G-Man looking to keep both alcohol sales and his sexual desires bottled up during the era of Prohibition. The Oscar-nominated star rang up Movieline to discuss his role, the way Boardwalk Empire treats its ladies, and just what he made of that now infamous self-flagellation scene.

You're obviously known for film and stage work. What made you decide to take the leap into serialized television?

I had a meeting with Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter and they made it sound like a very exciting project. Which it is. Obviously, the chance to work with Scorsese on the pilot was a big draw, and the rest of the cast is a really exceptional group of actors to be associated with. The scripts have been outrageously good, too. I really have no complaints. It also doesn't take up that much time; it's not like network television where you're stuck there year-round. You work a few months, then you can go to other things.

You're so perfect for Van Alden, it's hard to imagine another actor in that role. Were you their only choice?

I think it was more Terry's idea. I had auditioned for Scorsese a couple of times. He knew who I was because his casting director, Ellen Lewis, is a friend of mine and she put me in front of him. It was really Terry, though, who had seen some other work. Hey, look: They saw other people for Van Alden -- I wasn't the only guy. But I never auditioned, really; Terry just turned to me and said, "What if you were this guy?"

And there you go. Did they give you any backstory on Van Alden before you accepted?

They just gave me the premise. They don't tell you what will happen the whole season, they just give you the fundamental premise of the character. For Van Alden, that's incredibly uptight, super fundamentally religious, and crusader against alcohol who is incredibly outnumbered and understaffed. That was basically all they said.

You're not necessarily used to television, obviously, so is it hard to not know the end point for your character? You just have to go on those broad strokes.

It's exciting, you know? As long as you trust the writers. And on Boardwalk Empire, it's a really good group of writers. I'm actually getting to work with a writer who I've really admired for years: Howard Korder [who wrote the episode "Family Limitation" and the upcoming "Paris Green"]. One of the first plays I ever did, he wrote. So that's exciting. And Terry and Tim Van Patten are fantastic writers. As long as you trust the writers it's good.

Were you a fan of their work on The Sopranos?

I mean, I don't have like the box set or anything. But every time I saw it, I was impressed. I'm not a big TV watcher in general. I don't even get reception in my house. We just watch DVDs. I can't even watch Boardwalk! I don't get to see it. I guess I'm going to need to watch it all at some point, but hopefully they'll send it to me.

You had that big scene at the end of "Family Limitations" where Van Alden self-flagellated himself, and a lot of people online thought it was sexual in nature. How did you read that moment?

I don't see the sexual angle, really. Otherwise I would have dropped trou. It seems like it was straight-up punishment. He's trying to get rid of this desire he has for Margaret. He's trying to condition himself -- looking at the picture and whipping himself at the same time, hoping that will drive the desire out of him.

It was a pretty big scene, especially coming at the end of the episode like that. Were you excited to get to perform something so out of the ordinary?

Oh, I was pretty stoked. It's cool -- that's one of the things you start to realize when you're working on a show: Who gets the last scene in the episode? It's cool to end an episode, it's kind of an honor.

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