One of this summer's most buzzed-about shows is SoHo Rep's ingeniously intimate staging of Uncle Vanya, Chekhov's dark comedy about stifling provincial ennui devolving into frantic desperation, violence, and lust. With a fresh adaptation by brilliant playwright Annie Baker
(Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens), this "Vanya" feels incredibly contemporary, and Andrew Lieberman's remarkable set design fully immerses the audience into the action—seated on plush carpeted "levels" that rise seamlessly out of the performance space, the actors are close enough to toast vodka with.
And with a cast this exceptional, it's no wonder this has turned out to be such a hot ticket. It's not often you get the chance to watch an actor of Michael Shannon's caliber go to work just inches away. The fascinating Academy Award-nominated actor (Revolutionary Road) is riveting as Astrov, the philosophizing environmentalist doctor who becomes pitifully obsessed with the equally-spellbinding Maria Dizzia, who plays Yelena. We recently talked with Shannon about the show, his life in Red Hook, his pescetarian diet, and his rock band—which you can catch next week at Fontana's. Uncle Vanya has been extended through August 26th, and we highly recommend it. (If you're lucky and willing to wait, you can even see it for 99 cents.)
I must say I've never done an interview this early [9:30]. Oh, is this early?
Yeah, are you an early riser? Or do you like doing these in the morning? Well, my daughter woke up at 6 this morning so that's a pretty early interview. Though it's not a very substantial interview. It really consists of me saying, "Why are you awake? What happened, was there a loud noise?" And then struggling to go back to sleep. But I have a full life—I have a lot of things to do all the time, I fit these interviews in where I can.
What does today have in store for you? I assume you're doing a performance tonight, right? Yes, eventually I'll get to Uncle Vanya, but this afternoon I'm rehearsing with my band, Corporal [Facebook]. We have a big gig coming up on Monday, July 23rd at Fontana's Bar, so we are getting ready for that. So I'll practice with the band most of the day and then go get a sandwich or something and then go to the Uncle Vanya.
What kind of music is it? We play songs, mostly songs that I wrote, that are kind of eclectic in their styles. But I guess it would fall under the category of rock. Somebody said folk, punk, rock. It's been described in a number of ways. Actually, I should start cataloging them so I have them more readily available in conversation.
And you play guitar? Yeah, I play the guitar and I sing. And sometimes I play other things. I started out when I was a kid playing piano and the bass so I can play those as well. And we have a really wonderful drummer and there's the lead guitar player and then our bass player, he's coming up from Louisville. He lives in Louisville.
And you're from Kentucky originally, right? Yeah, I'm from Lexington.
Are you still in Red Hook? Yeah, I've been in Red Hook like 6 years now.
What drew you to that neighborhood? I still go to Sunny's sometimes. Are you happy there? Do you feel like it's home? Yeah, I was drawn into Sunny's just last night actually, Smokey Hormel was playing. I was walking home from Vanya and it's a nice spot. I wound up in Red Hook because my girlfriend's sister has lived here for a very long time. My girlfriend and I met in Chicago, and we came back to New York and we didn't have anywhere to live, so we stayed on her couch in Red Hook for a while and then we moved into her building when an apartment became available. So I can't say it's any great decision on my part, it's basically my girlfriend's sister kind of bailing us out and taking care of us. Because I was living kind of like a gypsy for a long time. This career tends towards a gypsy kind of lifestyle.
My impression is that you are now a constantly working actor. Do you want for work at any point anymore? No, the last kind of lull I had career wise was when I formed this band actually. And as soon as I completed my life long dream of starting a rock and roll band, then I started acting again and I haven't really stopped since then. But, yeah, I have one day off a week for the next six months.
Uncle Vanya was extended through the end of August. Did they have a sense that this was going to be such a hit and advise you to keep the next few months open? They did, they did. They asked us when we agreed to do the project to be prepared to do the show for the summer, even though they didn't announce it right away. We weren't sure what their strategy was. I guess they really wanted to make sure, because it's a very expensive show for them to produce. It's a larger show than they usually have there, in terms of the size of the cast. You know, every time you put another actor on stage it's costing the theater a lot of money. They just wanted to make sure to sell tickets.
And then they don't have that many tickets to sell because of the way the stage is configured, right? Yeah, exactly. Although it's not like normally they have, like, 500 people in there. It's a pretty small space all the time. But I think they lost maybe ten or fifteen seats over what they usually have.
Was that stage design, which is just so wonderful, was that something that was presented to you in the beginning? Did you know going in that that was going to be unique? It was presented at the first rehearsal. The process getting involved in this was that I did a couple of readings of it. I can't recall during the readings if [director] Sam [Gold] mentioned the set or not. I mean, he always said it would be really intimate. But they presented a model of the set at the first rehearsal, which I wasn't at unfortunately. But I saw it when I was able to start going to rehearsal.
Maria Dizzia as Yelena, with Michael Shannon in the background. (Julieta Cervantes)
The way it's set up, how does that affect your performance? Well, I really enjoy it because I don't feel any demand, there's no pressure to kind of carry the story to the audience. You don't have to worry about any distance. Usually there's a lot of distance that you have to overcome, particularly if you're on Broadway or something like that. There are people who are fairly close to you but there are also people that are extremely far away, and you're trying to find some sort of middle ground of what's acceptable and compelling. And with this you really don't have to worry about that at all. And Sam was very adamant; he kept telling us at rehearsal, you gotta relax your actor muscles. You know the things that you usually worry about so much? Don't worry about those. You worry about other things instead.
One of the reasons Sam's set up the play the way he's set it up—this is going to sound maybe a little cute—but he didn't want it to seem like a play. He's like, I don't want it to seem like there's a script. And I don't want it to seem like there's a director. I want the people to feel like they're in this house with you, and everything you're saying is because it's something that you thought of to say. You're not just saying some old line written by some old Russian playwright who's dead. You're having a thought and you're saying something. And nobody told you how to say it and you're just existing. So that's what he was going for. And it's surprisingly simple. It sounds very simple, like, well, duh, that's what you're supposed to do. But it's not. It is not easy.
But I don't really care about how close the people are because, I mean, for me it's like being on a film set. Any time you're on a film set shooting a scene, there is a bunch of bored, tired crew members playing games on their cell phones or eating craft service while you do a scene, and you just block them out. Same thing. Not that the audience is bored or playing on their cell phones. Although there was a guy last night who made a paper hat out of his program and wore it on his head during the whole show. I don't know if he knew that I was going to be talking to you and that it was his way to get some attention. But it was very distracting. It was a very elaborate shape that he made out of the program. I guess that's the risk you run with these programs at SoHo Rep. They do it so large format, this single sheet program, and people will make paper hats or perhaps paper airplanes. We haven't gotten any paper airplanes yet, but it's a long summer, anything is possible.
Have there been any horrible cell phone interruptions? Ah! So funny you bring that up, we've been very lucky so far, until last night when we had two of them.
Two?! EGAHHH that's just... Two. One of them happening at the end of the play after the professor and Yelena left and Sonya and Uncle Vanya are sitting at the table working.
Oh my God. And Sonya says, "I'm sad they're gone." And as soon as she says, "I'm sad they're gone," it's like "didedidi didedidi didedidi deeee, didedidi didedidi didedidi deeee." My next line is, "It's so quiet now."
Merritt Wever as Sonya, with Michael Shannon as Astrov (Julieta Cervantes)
Whenever this happens I want one of the actors to reach into the audience and grab the phone and stomp it into bits. I actually broke. Yeah, I was bad, I broke. I started laughing a little bit under my breath because to me it was so— you know when something's funny because it's just so painful? And it kind of makes you laugh? The absurdity of life becomes, in a moment, completely lucid to you. It was like that. But yeah, I don't want to go to jail so I'm not going to touch anybody in the audience. It's more important that I'm here for my family, at the end of the day. But they should know that the feeling is there. It's just we resist the urge to act on it.
I wish there was a solution to this problem because it just keeps happening. I mean, they make announcements, it just doesn't seem to make a difference.
Well, to be fair, we've really had very, very few of them. Matt Maher, who plays Waffles, makes an announcement at the beginning of the show that is pretty effective. When a member of the cast comes out and looks everyone in the eye and says, "Please turn off your cell phones, obviously I'm in the play, we will hear them, please, I'm begging you," it's pretty effective.
There was only one other time and it was kind of funny because Sonya, Merritt Wever, was doing her speech in Act I, when she's telling Yelena, Yelena's just told me that forests are boring and Sonya's saying, no, they're fascinating, and she's saying why and she has this long beautiful speech about why forests are fascinating. Basically all things that I've told her. And it becomes apparent during the speech just how much Sonya is in love with the doctor. And so, someone's phone goes off at the beginning of that speech but it starts very quietly, and it's almost underscoring her speech because it's this like classical music, and it's very dramatic, and it starts very quietly and it gets louder and louder. And it was almost like we just added a sound cue to the show to help illuminate the subtext. But Merritt was very thrown by it. That person took a long time to turn their cell phone off.
I think they need to make an announcement after intermission because what happens is people go for intermission and they turn their phones on and then they forget to turn them back off when they come back in. Yeah, that's how short our attention span has gotten nowadays. I think it's a loop, you know with the cell phone, the thing is damaging your brain to begin with so, probably, the brain cells that are getting cooked are the ones that help you to remember to turn off your cell phone.
I loved this production so much. In some ways it reminded me of the great film adaptation that Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory did, have you seen that? Yeah, Vanya on 42nd Street, I saw that when it came out. I haven't seen it literally since the first time it came out in theater. I remember Larry Pine in it, mostly just his presence and not any specific details. But I always find that a little awkward. For me it's awkward doing plays out of the theatrical canon that have been so thoroughly tread over.
For example, this summer alone, there are three Uncle Vanyas in New York. Before we opened there was Target Margin's deconstructed Uncle Vanya version. And then Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving are pulling into town with their ginormous Uncle Vanya from Sydney, Australia. So at a certain point you're like, this is sort of ridiculous. This play's been done a lot. Are we sure there's a reason for us to be doing it? I usually tend to work on, or get more enjoyment out of, working on new plays. But, having said that, I found Annie's adaptation incredibly compelling. And I'd been wanting to work with Sam and Annie for a long time, and I'd known Reed for a long time and really wanted to work with him again. So that's what drew me into it. But I don't cross-reference these things. It's so hard to get ownership of these characters.
Did I read something that you had lost some weight to prepare for the role? I didn't really say I needed to get down to X amount of pounds in order to play Astrov, I just— there are two things that occurred to me about Astrov: First, he doesn't eat meat. And that's something that I had been curious about for a long time myself, because obviously there are some questionable things going on in the meat industry so I thought I could probably not eat meat and be okay with that. So I did. I mean, I'm not like a vegan or anything. I still eat eggs, and cheese, and fish, but that's one thing.
The other thing was I don't think he eats much at all, period. Because every time Nanny offers him something to eat at the beginning of the play he says, no, I don't want anything to eat. Then Sonya offers him something to eat in the middle of the night and he says this is the first thing I've eaten all day. So I don't think Astrov really is— you know a lot of people, particularly nowadays, derive a lot of pleasure from food. But I don't think Astrov is one of those people. I don't think he enjoys eating. I think he spends too much time around sick people to enjoy eating. Because that's one of the things about being a doctor that's always fascinated me, is you know how human bodies function. And you know it very well. And once you have that knowledge so firmly ingrained in your head, how do you not think about it all the time? How do you not look at people and think, oh, this is what's happening inside of them. So if you do have that kind of sensibility, I could see how eating could be quite disgusting.
What do you have coming up after this? Are you doing any films? What's on the horizon for the rest of the year? Well, I'm shooting Boardwalk right now. And then after Uncle Vanya I'm doing a play called Grace on Broadway with Paul Rudd and Ed Asner and my girlfriend, Kate Arrington, that previews in September at the Cort Theater. It's by this fellow Craig Wright who wrote Mistakes Were Made, a play I did, and another play I did called Lady.
Oh, I loved Lady! I saw that at Rattlestick. Yeah, same writer. And then that's going to get me through 2013. Beyond that, I got a couple of pictures coming out this year, this Premium Rush movie's coming out.
I'm looking forward to that. It seems like it was supposed to come out awhile ago or something because we've been following that. Yeah, these big studios, they put a lot of thought into when they release these things. They don't like to compete against themselves. And then I did this Iceman movie, I think that might come out in the fall. That's going to premier at the Venice Film Festival.
The Iceman? It's about Richard Kuklinski. He was a contract killer who lived in Jersey and he was called the Ice Man. He kept what he did a secret from his family for decades and was very good at what he did, and very good at keeping it a secret until one day he wasn't so good at it anymore. But it's one of these classic double life stories. Jekyll and Hyde kind of situation. So I've got that going. And my softball team... no, just kidding.