This story was originally published in the Herald-Leader on Friday, May 25, 2007.
Here at Weekender Central, we often say Kentucky is the center of the entertainment universe.
There's some jest in that, but this summer, can you blame us for taking that declaration seriously? Today, for instance, both major nationwide movie releases this weekend star Kentuckians:
■ Johnny Depp, an Owensboro native who has maintained ties to the Bluegrass State, reprises his Oscar-nominated role as Capt. Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
■ Ashley Judd, whose Kentucky roots and loyalties are well-known, stars in Bug. Joining her is Lexington native Michael Shannon, a career character actor who's starting to be recognized for some high-profile performances, including his turn in last summer's World Trade Center.
Most states could rest happily on those credits, but Kentucky has a few more stars set to hit the big screen before the air gets crisp.
When Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon started working on Bug, they spent some getting-to-know-you time. Naturally, the subject of their mutual Kentucky roots came up.
“We're both huge fans of Kentucky and have a lot of fond memories of Lexington,” Shannon, who attended Henry Clay High School, says of Judd, a newly minted University of Kentucky graduate. Their most obvious common ground was “our mutual affection for the Wildcats.”
“I wish I had more witty stories about how we sat around and swapped stories about the old days, but she was so focused on the job ... and she took that as a huge responsibility on her part to do the absolute best job she could. She knocked me out with her sense of discipline, and how much she devoted herself to the role. ... It really shows in her performance.”
Bug centers on the relationship between Peter Evans (Shannon), a Gulf War veteran and escapee from a psychiatric prison, and Agnes (Judd), a substance-abusing cocktail waitress who lets Peter bunk in her rundown motel room for a night. She's being stalked by her abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) and is haunted by the disappearance of her 6-year-old son a decade earlier. Mild-mannered Peter seems to offer some security and stability.
“She's desperate for someone, anyone, to come along and pull her out of this pit she's in,” Shannon says. “It's not going to be anyone she already knows, because everyone she knows is part of the problem. She knows she needs a new person, a stranger, to come in and give her a second chance at life because this first life she's had has not worked out at all.”
The problem is that Peter's mind is loaded with delusions and conspiracy theories — some of which could be true. As Agnes and Peter's relationship becomes intimate, she begins to believe Peter's assertions that he has been implanted with insects to control him and that the military is chasing him. She joins him in a tragic descent into madness.
Shannon, 32, knows a thing or two about Bug.
He first played Peter in a 1996 London production of Tracy Letts' play. In 2001, he reprised the role in a production at Chicago's Red Orchid Theatre, and again in an off-Broadway production in New York.
In a 2001 review, influential Chicago Tribune theater critic Hedy Weiss wrote that Shannon had “‘star' written all over him.” Reviewing the New York production, The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote, “I've seldom seen a young actor turn up the volume of a performance so slowly and skillfully.” Brantley wrote that Shannon reminded him of “an off-center, intelligent Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Judd was attracted to the role when her agent gave her the script and said, “‘You might not want to go there,' and immediately that intrigued me,” she told the Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance. “I don't think she was intentionally using reverse psychology, but that's the effect it had.”
On casting Judd, Oscar-winning director William Friedkin, famous for The Exorcist and The French Connection, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “I've known her for many years. She's always been better than the material she's in. I just gave her the script. I knew that she'd had enough life experience to understand where Agnes is coming from.”
When Shannon first took on Bug, he was attracted to the chance the hysteria of the play's second half gave him to “show off,” he said. “Over the years, it has occurred to me that the play is much more about the relationship of the two characters and that it's actually more than being a horror film or a psychological thriller. It's cracked, but it's a love story about these two people. It's about the difficulty of establishing a relationship and being intimate with another person, and how much you can show and give of yourself without completely losing yourself.”
Shannon has been working steadily in film for years, primarily in character roles, but Bug and last summer's World Trade Center have raised his profile with movie-goers.
In World Trade Center, Shannon played Dave Karnes, an ultra-patriotic former Marine who put his uniform back on and marched into the Ground Zero rubble on Sept. 11, 2001. Many observers thought Karnes was fictional or was a composite character, but he was a real person.
Asked whether his career is shifting from stage to film, Shannon says, “I'll never give up the stage entirely, because I find it so rewarding,” but “I'd like to be able to straddle these two worlds ... At this point, it's probably wise to focus on the film aspect of my career and see if I can capitalize on this opportunity.”
Bug, he says, was an ideal project because “it's a great piece of writing from the theater, and I got to do it in a film format. I feel like I've been pretty lucky.”
He might add working with a fellow Kentucky film star to that list of good fortunes.