Last night’s episode of Boardwalk Empire marked a pivotal turning point for lawman Nelson Van Alden, who has spent the first half of this season trying to keep his baby mama Lucy a secret from his loving wife (to say nothing of his fellow Prohibition agents). We talked to actor Michael Shannon — currently in the midst of a busy year that includes the recent release of the lauded Take Shelter and production on 2013’s Superman reboot Man of Steel — about the big developments in last night’s episode. (As a bonus, he talked a little bit about taking over for Terence Stamp as General Zod, too!)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Van Alden clearly considers himself to be a righteous man. How did he justify his relationship to Lucy to himself? Was his plan to give this baby to his wife?
MICHAEL SHANNON: The idea was that he could somehow get away with claiming that this baby was left on a quote-unquote doorstep. He somehow managed to almost pull it off. If you step away and look at it, it is a ludicrous plan.
He almost feels like a different character this season. Last season, he was Mr. Untouchable; this season, he’s trying to balance bad things and good reasons. Is his character arc all about witnessing his slow corruption?
It’s like he’s underwater, and he’s trying to get back to the surface. It reminds me of this time that I was in Hawaii, and I thought I’d teach myself how to surf. I paddled out on this surfboard, and I turned around, and I noticed that I was very far away from the beach. I turned the board around, started trying to paddle back, and I couldn’t get any closer. Sometimes, when I think about Van Alden, I think about the way I felt when that happened. Like, “Oh my god, I’m just gonna float out into the ocean.”
Last season, he was very focused on what was going on around him: The external. This season, he’s very focused on himself, and trying to salvage himself. He’s really defiled himself. It’s very pathetic and sad.
Is his mere presence in Atlantic City changing him?
I think that’s something that [creator] Terence Winter was going for in regard to all the characters, whether it be Van Alden or Margaret or even Nucky. It’s like you’re mixing colors. Van Alden’s blue, Atlantic City’s yellow, and it becomes green. It does distort you, and change you. On the other hand, if you really are a righteous person, you should be able to be stronger than that. If Mother Theresa went to Atlantic City, I don’t think she’d start playing Blackjack.
Ultimately, I think there was a deficiency in Van Alden before he got to Atlantic City that allowed this to happen. I don’t think he’d been anywhere. He lives in White Plains with his wife. He probably grew up in a very, very small community. Very sheltered, very strict. When he went to Atlantic City… it’s kind of like your kid going to college. I don’t think he’d really ever made his own decisions. He was very happy to believe in everything he believed in. I don’t think he believed in it because he’d discovered it. He believed in it because he was told that’s what you believe in. That’s part of what’s going on this season: He’s discovering who he actually is, underneath all the artifice of his dogma.
The first half of this season, Van Alden’s been very focused on Lucy and on the baby. In the back half, does that continue? Does he get enmeshed in the mob war?
Well, I think anybody who’s had a baby can tell you that once you have a baby, they kind of become the main focus. I don’t think there’s gonna be a lot of room for anything else. It’s not like they have the baby and then the next episode it’s gone.
There’s also a pretty desperate need, in Van Alden’s life, for maybe another person other than the people he’s currently dealing with. Someone to give him some guidance or perspective. He’s really lost. There’ll be some new characters coming into his life that’ll maybe give him a little bit of direction, and maybe a little bit of peace.
Along with Boardwalk, you also have something like five movies coming out in the next year. As a performer, is it nice to go back and forth between being in a movie and a TV show?
The difference is, when you go to Boardwalk Empire, you’re living your life. It’s not just this one story where you know the beginning, and the middle, and the end, and then it’s over. You know that it’s going to continue. After a season of being in Van Alden’s shoes, and worrying about all the various things he has to worry about, it’s nice to go off and put on another costume. It gets to be a little uncomfortable. I sometimes wonder how much more the poor fellow can take.
Was that fun to step out of Van Alden’s shoes and into General Zod’s for an out-and-out villainous role?
General Zod is, I think, a bit stronger than Van Alden. General Zod would not go to the speakeasy and have a shot. General Zod will stop at nothing to get the job done. General Zod doesn’t have a supervisor.
Were you a fan of the Superman comics, or Terence Stamp’s Zod in Superman II?
I don’t read the comic book, although when I got the job, they sent me a giant DC Comics book that weighs about a ton. It’s got the whole history of DC in it. It’s fascinating, actually. I looked at it with my daughter. She’s really fascinated by it.
I remember Terence Stamp doing it. He was phenomenal. I have to try and figure out a way to do something different.
So you’re not saying “Kneel before Zod” while wearing parachute pants?
[Laughs] Yeah, the flowy costumes don’t really…that’s not the style nowadays. Everything’s skintight.
Do you have a costume? A Krypton outfit?
There’s two different modes. There’s something that I have to wear a motion-capture suit for, because if I actually wore it, I wouldn’t be able to move. It’s a very big…thing. I actually don’t know what it’s going to look like, I just know that it’s very cumbersome. There’s another thing that I wear that’s an actual costume. It’s pretty simple. There’s no paisley or anything.
You don’t get to wear a flowing cape or anything like that?
I don’t know. That’s the thing about these movies. I could have an elephant head.
That would certainly be a new interpretation of the character.
Like Ganesh, right? Isn’t that the god that has the elephant head?
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