Ky.'s Michael Shannon stars in HBO's 'Boardwalk Empire'

Kentucky native Michael Shannon plays Treasury agent Van Alden in HBO's series Boardwalk Empire.
Kentucky native Michael Shannon plays Treasury agent Van Alden in HBO's series Boardwalk Empire.

Michael Shannon doesn't know whether his Oscar nomination has anything to do with it, but he's been busy ever since the 2009 Academy Awards.

"I haven't stopped," Shannon says. "I haven't had any time off."

Shannon, 36, who was born in Lexington and had his initial stage experiences here, has been a professional stage and screen actor for more than 20 years. But his nomination for best supporting actor in 2008's Revolutionary Road boosted his name recognition among film fans and producers. Now the words "Oscar-nominated actor" precede Shannon's name in most mentions of him.

Recently, he's been getting mentioned for his latest role: as Van Alden, a Treasury agent in Atlantic City at the dawn of Prohibition in Boardwalk Empire, HBO's latest series.

"He's a very conservative, religious, fundamentalist person," Shannon says. Furthering the characterization, he says, "I believe very deeply in what I am doing."

Shannon can see echoes of Eliot Ness, the hero of The Untouchables, in his Alden, but he says, "he may be a bit stranger than Eliot Ness. I don't think Elliot Ness was as religious as this guy."

At this point in his career, Shannon has worked with numerous iconic directors, including Oliver Stone (World Trade Center, 2006) Werner Herzog (My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, 2009, and others), Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, 2007), John Waters (Cecil B. DeMented, 2000) and Sam Mendes, who guided him to that Oscar nomination.

Boardwalk Empire placed him under the direction of another icon, Martin Scorsese, who is executive producer of the series and directed Sunday premiere episode.

"For any student of film or film aficionado, he's obviously in the upper echelon of filmmakers over the last 30 years," Shannon says. "He's really masterful in how he deals with the visual component of the show in terms of creating the look of the show. I was really in awe of his work with the camera and his compositional skills. He's pretty unsurpassed."

To illustrate his point, Shannon says, "There's one big set piece with me and my partner in a phone booth, watching all these criminals come into this hotel. ... That's the scene that really shows off what I'm talking about."

Boardwalk Empire is getting rave reviews from critics who say it might help HBO reclaim the penthouse status of its Sopranos years, which it has ceded in recent years to AMC's Mad Men.

The series, created by Sopranos executive producer Terence Winter, centers on Nucky Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), the treasurer of Atlantic City, who aims to make it the bootleg capital of America, all while sweet- talking the ladies of the Temperance League. TV critic Heather Havrilesky writes, "It's hard to think of a series that's looked more likely to succeed. From its breathtaking cinematography to its meticulous period costumes to its smart, snappy dialogue to its talented cast, Boardwalk Empire presents a TV program that's so polished and beautifully executed, each episode feels as rich and memorable as its own little Scorsese film."

Likely to succeed also means there probably will be more seasons. Shannon has never been a regular on a TV series before, but he finds he's enjoying it.

"It takes a long time to shoot a season, so it's a long commitment," Shannon says. "But on the other hand, you're getting new material every couple of weeks, so you never know what's coming next. I'm constantly surprised by what the writers are coming up with. I never would have guessed at the beginning of the season I would wind up doing what I do at the end of the season.

"It's really exciting seeing where the writers' imagination takes them."

Being on TV would make Shannon eligible for another awards ceremony. That's particularly true if Havrilesky's suggestion that the Television Academy should save itself time and "roll a big truck full of Emmy statuettes over to the Boardwalk Empire studios right now" proves prophetic.

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