Why Is Michael Shannon So Good at Being Bad?

Hollywood's go-to villain tackles Superman after starring as America's most famous hit man

michael shannon general zod man of steel
Warner Bros. Pictures
Michael Shannon as General Zod in 'Man of Steel.'
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Square-jawed and hollow-eyed, Michael Shannon plays evil exceptionally well. In The Iceman, he portrays contract killer Richard Kuklinski, who famously claimed he'd murdered more than 100 people. In Boardwalk Empire, as disgraced G-man Nelson Van Alden, he smacks a hissing iron into a man's face ("I was told I was going to be the good guy on that show," he complains). And audiences will soon see him as Superman's nemesis, the unrelenting General Zod, in Man of Steel. So what's the secret to good villainy? "There's a phrase for what I do," Shannon says. "I comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

Superman's Superhero Evolution

On his building's roof, with Manhattan's skyline in the distance, devouring a pulled-pork sandwich and drinking a glass of red wine, he’s the picture of a mellow Brooklyn dad (earlier in the day, he'd been playing in the park with his five-year-old daughter). Despite such wholesome appearances, he admits he's attracted to antagonistic characters for a reason. "I have a dark view of the world," he says. He points to the enormous building across the East River: the Freedom Tower. "Is that supposed to make us feel better? I don't get it. Is that supposed to make it go away? The fact that that ever happened to begin with should be enough to keep people uneasy for their entire lives. What kind of stories are we supposed to tell? Am I supposed to tell stories about someone making caramel apples?"

Shannon seems wary of those who don't stop to consider the bleaker side of things. "To me, the people that should be getting interviewed are the ones that don't give a shit," he says. "The people that care, that makes a lot of sense to me. The people that don’t care are the mysteries."

This story is from the June 20th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1185: June 20, 2013