INTERVIEW: Michael Shannon Cries Uncle Vanya

The popular star discusses starring in Soho Rep’s new production of Anton Chekhov’s classic play.

Merritt Wever, Reed Birney, and Michael Shannon
in Uncle Vanya
(© Julieta Cervantes)
Merritt Wever, Reed Birney, and Michael Shannon
in Uncle Vanya
(© Julieta Cervantes)

Michael Shannon made his Off-Broadway debut over a decade ago in Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and has since carved out a thriving stage and screen career playing darkly offbeat characters, from paranoid gulf war veteran Peter Evans in Letts’ Bug, to prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, to crazed theater producer Felix Artifex in Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made.

Now, Shannon — who will star this fall on Broadway in Wright’s Grace — is back on stage in Sam Gold’s intimately staged production of Annie Baker’s new adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s
Uncle Vanya at Soho Repas Doctor Astrov.. TheaterMania recently spoke with Shannon about the work.

THEATERMANIA: What drew you to the role of Astrov?
MICHAEL SHANNON: I like the forest too and have always been a very staunch environmentalist my whole life. I’ve never understood in a larger sense human cruelty towards nature or human’s obliviousness to nature or the notion that we are somehow superior to nature. Not just nature in the sense of trees and birds but nature in terms of our own human nature. I agree with a lot of what Astrov says in the play, so it makes it easy to say.

TM: Did you discover that kinship reading Chekhov’s original or through Annie Baker’s adaptation?
MS: I would have to say Annie’s adaptation has a lot to do with it. My girlfriend bought me a copy of Uncle Vanya as a gift when I started rehearsing. I read the first three pages, and I haven’t looked at it since. It was just very alienating compared to what Annie had done. It’s a nice-looking book, though, so I put it on the shelf.

TM: What did you do to prepare for the role?
MS: That’s a complicated question. I think when you do Chekhov it takes over your life and your mind. You’re constantly thinking about it. There’s no sort of research that I’ve found to be terribly helpful. I’ve felt like throughout the process that the most crucial part of telling a story is the relationship with the other people. I’m kind of an extrovert in my work that way. I don’t really focus on who I think this person is or what I think they had for breakfast. I just look more to the people around me.

TM: What surprised you most during the rehearsal process?
MS: I thought Sam Gold was going to be a lot smarter. (laughs). No, I’m kidding. I think one of the great things about our production is that even though we’re all very racked with anxiety and doubt, we’re all very nice to each other, which is lovely. Maybe that happens with all Chekhov productions. We all have a lot of empathy for each other because we’re in the same boat.

TM: Even though the play is named Uncle Vanya, your character is so central to the relationships of the people around him. Do you find that interesting?
MS: He is and he’s an outsider too. It’s interesting. I guess in a way he kind of creates the orbits of the play. All the characters are kind of planets that are in some way orbiting him. I’ve got to assume that’s why Chekhov gave him a name like Astrov.. It’s a celestial-type name.

TM: Let’s talk about Andrew Lieberman’s set, which feels like a carpeted cocoon when you first walk into the theater. How is it for you playing on it?
MS: The thing that’s really neat about the set is the effect of it changes throughout the evening. When you come in it feels one way, and by the end of the night you’re feeling a different way. Even though the room itself doesn’t change, it feels by the end of the play like a totally different place.

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