What Skill Did Michael Shannon Hone for His Role in Frankie and Johnny?

The Oscar and Tony nominee returns to Broadway opposite Audra McDonald in a classic by Terrence McNally.

After a three-year absence, Michael Shannon is back on Broadway, starring alongside Audra McDonald in Terrence McNally's Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The 1987 two-hander, directed now by Arin Arbus, takes place over the course of one evening, when a waitress and short-order cook who've just slept together discuss the possibilities of turning their one-night stand into a relationship.

The love-struck Johnny is a departure from Shannon's career of playing idiosyncratic and menacing characters. It's perhaps his most tender role to date, a move that was strategic. In a complicated world, Shannon felt the need to do a play where two people figured out how to understand each other. This play captures that that essence, he said…and learning how to cook was an added bonus.

Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune at the Broadhurst Theatre.
Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune at the Broadhurst Theatre.
(© Deen van Meer)

Tell me about your first exposure to Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune, and how this production took shape.
I had seen it at Steppenwolf with Laurie Metcalf and Yasen Peyankov, directed by Austin Pendleton. That was a long time ago. I had never actually read it, so I wasn't terribly familiar with it. I have to give a lot of the credit [for this production] to Debbie Bisno, who produced Grace. She pitched it to me, and she pitched it to Terrence and Tom. I had never really crossed paths with them before, but apparently they've been watching me through the years.

It was nice to be able to turn off the world for a few hours and go see a play that's romantic and warm.
Yeah. There's so much cruelty and insanity; everything seems so touch-and-go right now. I thought it was a good time to do a play about — even above and beyond the love aspect of it — people simply trying to understand and listen to and value one another. I guess one of the reasons why this play is so popular is that it's very relatable. We can all see ourselves in this play, and that's what Terrence's strength is as a writer. He wrote this play in a period of time when there was a lot of loneliness and isolation and despair in New York City. It was not a great time to be a New Yorker. He really captures that zeitgeist, if you will, through these two characters.

Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
(© David Gordon)

It's a very quiet piece, and it's also very frank in it's discussions of sex and longing. What has it been like to build this kind of onstage partnership with Audra McDonald?
Honestly, you just have to be patient. It's a matter of baby steps. A lot of the early rehearsals were spent focusing on very mundane things, to try to get us to the point where we're comfortable enough, where we're not worrying about silly things, so we can just focus on one another. The way [sex] is dealt with in the play is very humane, and it's not for titillation. It's literally about intimacy in all its myriad forms. How close can people get to one another? I think one of the reasons why the production is so alive is that we're still building it. We didn't come up with a solution. We keep looking for it.

I will say, both Audra and I are shocked about how demanding this show is. We're both exhausted. Despite all the humor and romance and liveliness in the show, there is a lot of darkness in it, and it requires you to think about some pretty grizzly stuff. I think maybe we're just getting used to it. Previews are always a little daunting.

There's a point in the second act where you make a western omelet onstage. I was very impressed by the way you wielded the knife.
Oh, good! [laughs] You know who taught me? James Lapine's daughter Phoebe. She's a chef. It was kinda funny, though. Terrence wants it to be very flashy, and what she showed me…Really fine chefs, they move as little as possible. They make everything as safe and efficient as possible. Terrence came in after I learned what she taught me, and he's like, "Oh, can't it be more?" And I'm like "I guess it could be, but I might cut my finger off." So it's a fine balance.

Are you enjoying this experience as much as it looks like you are during the show?
I feel very fortunate to be delivering this to people every night. It's a very auspicious occasion — it's Terrence's 25th production on Broadway. He's also getting his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys. I think this production means a lot to him. He seems very moved by it. He's 80. He's a cancer survivor. I feel very fortunate that I have him in my life.