Michael Shannon's summer will start on familiar ground with Mud, which opens nationwide Friday.
The Southern story about the unusual title character, played by Matthew McConaughey, is Lexington native Shannon's third film with writer and director Jeff Nichols, who also guided Shannon through a lead turn in Shotgun Stories (2007) and an acclaimed performance in Take Shelter (2011).
"Both of those films were very gritty," Shannon said last week from his New York home. "This one is, too, but it's more of a fairy tale. It's kind of reminiscent of Huck Finn, or something like that, with two boys going out on the river exploring."
The boys find Mud, who lives in a boat stuck in a tree on an island in Arkansas. They become involved in getting his life on track. Shannon plays Galen, the uncle of one of the boys, who dives for oysters to scrape out a living. Reese Witherspoon also stars.
Shannon was scheduled to come to Lexington this weekend for the opening of Mud at The Kentucky Theatre, a fundraiser for Friends of The Kentucky Theatre, which is working to raise money for needed updates to the theater, including a digital projector. But organizers said he had to cancel last weekend when shooting schedules changed for Boardwalk Empire, the HBO series in which he co-stars as Nelson Van Alden, a straitlaced but deeply disturbed former federal agent.
Friends of The Kentucky leaders say they hope to bring Shannon in for an event later this year, possibly coinciding with his next film, which will be a change of pace for the Oscar-nominated actor known for playing off-kilter characters in small independent films such as Mud.
On June 14, Shannon will be seen in theaters playing a key role in one of the summer's most highly anticipated spectacles: Man of Steel, the reboot of the Superman franchise.
He plays the evil General Zod, Superman's fellow Kryptonian, who leads a force that invades Earth and expects Superman to join him.
"It's a real long process, the process of making one of these movies," Shannon said of Man of Steel. "It's like Christmas Eve lasted two years or something, like a little kid squirming around in bed waiting to see what they're going to get Christmas morning.
"I still haven't seen the movie yet. They added in a lot of special effects and stuff, so I'm sure whatever the movie winds up being, it will be pretty different from what it was like when we were shooting it. There were a lot of things that weren't there when we were shooting that we were imagining and pretending were there, and I think it will be neat to see all those things added in there."
Shannon has had experience with big Hollywood movies, including one of his earliest efforts, the Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day in 1993. He also appeared in the Michael Bay historical saga Pearl Harbor in 2001. But the big comic book film Man of Steel, produced by genre master Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight series), is new territory. Don't look for any indie-film snobbery out of him.
"They're a lot of fun," he said of big Hollywood productions. "It's like going to Six Flags or something. It's a lot of fun, and I don't mind having fun.
"There's still a lot of hard work involved in something like Man of Steel, a lot of training, learning fights and things like that — a lot of preparation. So, it's serious fun. But I don't have to think of dying kittens or anything to make myself upset. I just go out and play. It's like being a little kid, when you go out in the backyard and play some superhero or villain or something."
Shannon says he has been so busy lately, he hasn't had much time to get wrapped up in the Man of Steel hype. He created a viral Internet sensation this week on Will Ferrell's website Funny or Die with his dramatic reading of a deranged, profane email from a University of Maryland student to her sorority sisters. The video played on Shannon's talent for channeling unhinged characters, including John Givings in Revolutionary Road, the 2008 performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
But part of this summer's busyness will be a return to the stage in a play that will bring him very close to his Kentucky home: Sam Shepard's Simpatico, a mostly Kentucky-based play about a horse-racing scheme among three friends.
The script was turned into a 1999 film, partially shot in the Lexington area, starring Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte and Sharon Stone. Shannon will play Carter, one of the owners of the title horse, in a production at A Red Orchid Theatre, his theater home in Chicago.
That again brings Shannon into the sphere of Shepard, who owns a horse farm in Midway and is seen regularly around Central Kentucky. Shepard, who also is an actor, is in Mud too, but Shannon says he has not met the multitalented artist.
"I heard from Jeff that one of the reasons he wanted to do Mud was he (Shepard) saw Take Shelter and he's a fan of Jeff's work," Shannon said. "And Jeff told me he's a fan of mine as well, which was a pretty awesome thing to hear: Sam Shepard watching me do anything and liking it."
Shepard, it seems, is part of a growing club.