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Interview with Michael Shannon

Ep 10: Van Alden visits Margaret

HBO

You play one of the so-called "good guys," but you may be one of the darkest characters on the show&

Michael Shannon

It's obviously a lot harder to try and be a good guy than it is to be a bad guy. The world is a fundamentally evil place, it seems like. So in order to be a good person, you have to fight temptation and vice. That's what the show's about. So the person who's trying hardest to fight against that has the farthest to fall.

HBO

What is it about Margaret that so captures Van Alden's attention?

Michael Shannon

He would like to think of himself as an angel, like St. Michael or something. And Margaret is his cause: To protect her from this evil world. At the beginning anyway, he sees her as very pure and feels like she got dragged into a terrible situation that she couldn't help herself out of. I also think it's simply because he finds her very beautiful - people fall in love with people that they like to look at. So that's part of it too.

HBO

When she rejects him, he turns to Lucy. Why?

Michael Shannon

One thing that Lucy and Margaret have in common is that they're both attached to Nucky. As much as Van Alden fancies Margaret, he also has a fascination with Nucky. Two people at odds, on different sides of the line of good and evil, they're fascinated with one another. Van Alden wants to find out who these women are and why they're drawn to Nucky - why they'd fall in love with a man like that. He knows full well that Lucy was Nucky's girlfriend. There's no doubt about that. And a lot of these things are fun to talk about, but they basically come down to pretty animalistic impulses. They're pretty primal. There's nothing too intellectual about it.

HBO

Though his relationship with Rose seems like it might be an intellectual exercise&

Michael Shannon

Well, they're not in love. I imagine they got married pretty young. It was probably somewhat arranged. I don't think they were ever running through the fields holding hands, smiling at the sun. It seems like it was a pretty stoic relationship from the get-go. It reminds me of a family I knew when I was growing up. This boy I was friends with, I used to go over to his house and his parents were like the Van Aldens. They didn't seem to like each other very much or have much connection. I always thought it was very strange because I'm actually from quite a hot-blooded family. Passionate people. So I kind of think of them every time I do a scene with Rose.

HBO

Rose wants to have a baby. Would Van Alden make a good father?

Michael Shannon

After drowning a man in a river? I don't think that's great father material. I don't know where he's going though. That's the great thing about doing this. I mean right now, he's going insane. So he needs to get his act together. The insane thing needs to stop happening. Then maybe fatherhood.

HBO

Did he plan to kill Sebso?

Michael Shannon

No. I think it was very spontaneous. I really think he just wanted to baptize him and I think something happened. I think he kind of lost his mind. It started out as a simple thing: He wanted Sebso to do something and Sebso wouldn't do it, so he started to punish him by dipping him in the water. And then he got so upset and he just lost control of himself and wound up drowning him. But I think he really did just want to baptize him. See people say, "Wow, this Van Alden's really messed up." But I swear to goodness he has good intentions, pretty much all the time. I actually think what he does in Episode 10 is more reprehensible  even though I'd never endorse murder in any circumstances  the whole getting drunk and screwing Lucy was very upsetting. Filming that whole episode made me upset.

HBO

That was harder than the baptism?

Michael Shannon

Yeah, it was disappointing because I, like everyone else, thought I was playing the one person on the show who was gonna fight against all this crap. And then he just gives up. It made me very sad.

HBO

What was it that drove him to give up?

Michael Shannon

He's not getting any support at all from his boss. And he can't do it by himself. He doesn't have the power. I think he was starting to feel very lonely, to be honest. Think about it: He doesn't have any friends, nobody to talk to -- he can't even trust his partner any more. And everyone else is getting drunk except for the women at the Temperance League and who would want to hang out with them?

HBO

Does he feel betrayed by Sebso?

Michael Shannon

Of course! If Van Alden could just get Jimmy Darmody to a maximum security prison for the rest of his life, he'd be a happy man. But he just can't seem to make that happen. And Sebso is hugely responsible for that. So I think he feels very betrayed by Sebso.

HBO

How did you prepare for shooting the flagellation scenes?

Michael Shannon

There's no real preparation. I tell people who think it's strange: I feel like people punish themselves in a variety of different ways. This is an extreme example, but that's what people do. They get disappointed in themselves and whether it's that they eat too much ice cream, stay out too late and wind up feeling crappy the next day  people hurt themselves. So to me it's not a real foreign concept. I mean I know there aren't a lot of people whipping themselves with a belt, but I just think it's a progression from things I think a lot of people do in a less extreme way. Is it a foreign concept to you? The idea of people punishing themselves if they feel like they've done something wrong?

HBO

No.

Michael Shannon

I feel like people do that. It hurts a little bit. They kept trying to tape stuff to my back  pads or gauze  but it kept falling off during the take. And I didn't want the take to get ruined by something falling of my back and it was not a real belt so I said, "Stop trying to tape things to my back because it's not working."

HBO

What's been one of your favorite scenes?

Michael Shannon

I liked in Episode 5 when I arrested somebody. That felt good. The one small victory I seemed to have  the St. Paddy's Day raid of Dante's Hall. But they're all fun. Don't get me wrong. Shooting the baptism scene was fun. Because at the end of the day, Eric didn't die. He's still alive and it was fun to do it. And I actually really liked shooting the opening of Episode 12. Because I'm sure everyone's really wondering after I drown Sebso what's gonna happen to me&

FAN QUESTIONS

HBO

Michael Shannon graciously answered some fan questions from our Facebook page.

From Chris O.

Is your character solely or partly based on a real life prohibition agent from that period of history?

Michael Shannon

No  Terry was very straightforward when I met him. He said a lot of these characters are based on historic figures but you're the one character that's pretty much a figment of our imagination because there really wasn't much opposition in Atlantic City at that time to the drinking. Nucky kind of got to do what he wanted. And nobody really fought him on it. So there weren't a lot of stories, even if you read the book, there wasn't much about the Agents. So Terence Winter said: This guy, we're making him up.

From Summer M.

You seem to really get into your role as Agent Van Alden. What do you do after filming to get back into real life?

Michael Shannon

Whoa. Real life. You know, you take the costume off and you put your street clothes back on and it's kind of over. It's such an extremely different person from me and an extremely different environment and atmosphere and time period that once I'm back in my tennis sneakers and my T-shirt I don't even look like Van Alden any more so it's kind of over. Maybe it would be different if it was a contemporary thing. But it happens pretty quickly.

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