Interview: The Runaways' Michael Shannon

It’s unbelievable how two people can be so different, yet have such similar artistic passions. Kim Fowley is anything but conventional. He used his eccentric tactics back in the 70s to create the first all-girl rock band, The Runaways. This guy, who recently described himself as ‘the psycho Svengali,’ is portrayed by Michael Shannon in The Runaways.

Shannon is pretty much as down-to-earth and simple as they come. He’s here for one reason, to work and to do so at the best of his ability. In the film he completely lacks respect for Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, but in actuality has nothing but respect for his co-stars as well as the film’s director Floria Sigismondi.

Both Fowley and Shannon have a unique determination to excel in the entertainment industry, but do so in completely different manners. However, footage from one TV appearance and a sole face-to-face meeting was more than enough for Shannon to find the Kim Fowley within him, and bring the unconventional music producing powerhouse to the big screen.

I spoke with Kim Fowley on the phone and you nail his voice! Did you go through recordings of his to prepare? How’d you study?

When I went to meet Floria and the Linsons for our first meeting together, they showed me an interview that Kim had done on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. Kim’s on the show and he’s in full form and I just watched that interview over and over again. I watched it everyday when I’d show up for work, I’d just put it in the DVD player and play it over and over and mimic it.

You’ve got some pretty vulgar dialogue. How was that to work with?

It was fuckin’ amazing. [Laughs] It’s alright. Am I on the radio? It was, I don’t know, it was vulgar. I asked him if we could clean it up a little bit, but they said, ‘But that’s not the way it happened.’ The bottom line is, we were trying to recreate something that actually happened and so we had to stick to those parameters. That’s the way they talked, you know? And they were comfortable talking to each other that way, I guess.

Does it help when they have all of the period details down like the clothes?

Oh! Very much so, yeah! Clothes make the man, definitely in this case. That orange suit that I wear at the end, that again is just like the orange suit he wore in this interview. He’s [a] very prolifically photographed person, so we had a lot to go on. The scene where the girls get signed and we go to Mercury Records and I’m holding Cherie in my arms, that was matching a photo. In a way, it’s just a real fun homework assignment. You’re just trying to capture this historical event, just like dressing up like a pilgrim or something.

Did you talk to him?

To Kim? Yeah, I did. I got to LA, it was a crazy time because I was shooting the pilot for Boardwalk Empire at the same time, so I was going back and forth. My first day of shooting, I hadn’t met him yet and then we did a scene. At the end of the day, Joan and Kristen were like, ‘You know, you should really meet him. You’re playing this guy.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ So they set up a dinner, we had dinner at this Denny’s in the Valley and he came with all these pictures and clippings and told me his whole life story in about two hours and that was it. It was just that one meeting and then he didn’t come to set or anything. There’s a fear if you have too many different opposing points of view, it can be hard to get things done and obviously this wasn’t a huge budget so we didn’t have a lot of time so things had to move pretty quickly. So, unfortunately, he wasn’t there all the time we were shooting, but I found the one meeting we had very helpful.

Before meeting him, did you have any preconceived notions?

Oh yeah, I guess that would be hard to play somebody that you did like. I think the key is to be not judgmental. I think if you’re going to be a good actor, you can’t be judgmental about people. That’s not really my job is to determine whether Kim Fowley is a good person or not, it’s just my job to try and be empathetic to him and understand why he is the way he is and so that’s what I do. We’re not like best buddies now and in a weird way, I don’t even really feel like I know him that well, even though I played him. I don’t really know him. He’s not a very vulnerable person, let’s put it that way. You always kind of feel like you’re being presented with Kim Fowley as opposed to necessarily getting to know him very well. But we also didn’t get to spend that much time together, so that’s not even a fair judgment to make really.

My conception from my dealings with him years ago was that he’s vulnerable and very lonely.

Well, yeah. He had huge medical – you’re talking about a guy who had Polio twice when he was a kid. He’s lived through two different types of cancer and now he has vertigo so bad that he has to use a cane.

Concerning his loneliness, are The Runaways like a new family for him?

I think he was always looking for that with people. It’s tough to say exactly what his expectations were going into that. It’s weird because you’re always around people – I think that’s the one thing the music business and the movie business have in common is you’re always surrounded with people and you’re always very alone, you know? And nobody’s really quite going after the same thing or wanting the same thing. I think maybe because of how young they were and how genuine their desire was to make music, that there was no underlying motivation there. It was a very pure thing. I’m sure he was probably drawn to that.

This cast is primarily female. How was it working on a set dominated by women?

That’s an interesting question. For some reason, I don’t know if I’m just shallow or shortsighted or something, but I never really even spent much time thinking about them. I’d just kind of show up and do the work. I don’t really know how to answer that. They’re all very nice people and they were all very nice to me. There was no tension really. Everybody was so focused on just trying to do a good job. Kirsten was constantly with Joan, just trying to learn as much as she could, absorb as much as she could from her and Dakota was always practicing her moves and getting inside of Cherie’s frame of mind. It wasn’t a very social kind of thing. I don’t know if that’s what you’re asking, but - it’s just not something I really ever thought about very much.

Was it all work, no play?

Well, speaking for me, yeah. I always approached it that way. I guess that makes me kind of boring, but, you know, you get paid a lot of money to show up and do this stuff, so I figure it should be pretty much all work no play. I wish maybe I was a little like George, George Clooney and just cracking jokes and having fun, but I don’t know. For me, I was very intimidated by the prospect of playing Kim Fowley and I felt like it deserved my full attention, so I gave it.

What do you look for in a director?

I have a lot of admiration for directors. I think it’s probably one of the hardest things to do, to direct a movie. You have to be so competent at so many different things. You have to understand so many different forms of art and you incorporate them all together. You have to know how to talk to all different kinds of artists and what they’re looking for. The difference between talking to a cinematography, an actor, a costume designer, an editor, but you ultimately have to somehow get all of these people to do what you want them to do and it’s really demanding. For me, someone who’s paying attention is nice, someone who notices what’s going on, is not so bogged down that they’re just hoping to make it through the day and go to bed. Someone who’s enjoying it, someone who’s able to, despite all that pressure and stress, actually enjoy what they’re doing. That’s nice and Floria always seemed to really be enjoying herself and really getting a kick out of what was happening and that was nice.

So you’ve got Boardwalk Empire coming up for HBO, but what do we have to look forward to from you on the big screen?

I’ve done some films. I’m in this film called The Greatest, which now has the benefit of having – Carey Mulligan is in this film who’s now an Academy Award nominee. At the time she was completely unknown, I think, so that’s going to be interesting when that comes out. And Susan Sarandon and Piece Brosnan. A lot of great actors. And I did a film called 13, which is a remake of a European film, same title, 13 Tzameti. I’m in Jonah Hex for a couple of scenes. I did a little cameo in that and – what else can I surprise you with? That’s about it. This TV show is a big deal, you know, you’re kind of off the market for a little while. And I’m doing a play Off Broadway right now, playing the stage manager in Our Town, if anyone keeps an eye on the theater.

Perri Nemiroff

Staff Writer for CinemaBlend.