Any story can be drastically changed being looked at through the eyes of the antagonist. What might be seen as an apocalyptic attack that kills millions from one point of view could be an attempt to save millions of lives from another. This is the riddle that any actor has to look at when taking on an antagonist role. And when Michael Shannon took on the part of General Zod in Man of Steel and saw the story through his perspective he came to the conclusion that the rogue Kryptonian actually isn’t a villain at all.
I recently had the chance to sit down with the Oscar-nominated actor to talk about his latest role and delve into the mind of character. Check out our conversation below, in which he talks about not only the “villainy” of Zod, but also the collaborative process with Zack Snyder, and the wave of top tier stars moving to the superhero genre.
Warning: There are some minor, minor spoilers in this interview. We please ask that you judge your own sensitivity.
I have to say that I think that this take on General Zod is a really interesting one from a psychological standpoint. It’s kind of a big question, but I’m curious if you see him as a villain?
You don’t! Why?
Well, on Krypton, he’s a hero. I mean, he’s a legendary warrior, guardian of an entire civilization. All he’s trying to do is his job.
Do you think he has any doubts within his own mission or is he purely mission-driven and there is no second option?
Well, he certainly doesn’t seem to have any doubt. I suppose you would think there would be a moment where he would look out the window of the ship and think, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be doing this,” but it doesn’t seem to be within the confines of the movie. I just don’t think he can really help himself. We Earthlings, we like to think of ourselves as the most important thing in the universe, but you know, we’re not, and you know, if a lion runs up to you in the jungle and eats your ass, it’s not like, “Oh, that evil lion,” because it’s what a lion does.
Totally. And I think it also brings up an interesting question, because the thing about this take on the character is the fact that he’s not only alien, but he also happens to be genetically engineered – this is what he was born to do. He was born to protect the race of Krypton. So, when you are approaching this character, just from a mental point of view, how were you implementing that element into your performance?
Well, it just sets up the matrix of the consciousness of the character. For example, it eliminates any notion of doubt, like you were mentioning earlier, because it’s just not available to him, because of who he is. Yeah, it’s funny, I didn’t really honestly think about it very much when we were shooting it, the fact that he’s genetically engineered. It didn’t really pop into my mind very much, but it is something that Faora talks about.
I think it gives a really interesting twist on the morality of Zod’s action. The lion metaphor you used to very apt. It’s a matter of perspective.
You see examples of it in our own world, people who are actually, you know, Earthlings, making collateral damage, as they call it. They’ll have a purpose or goal or some sort of mission in mind and they know that in the process of attempting to fulfill that mission, they’re going to wind up hurting perhaps innocent people and they do it anyway and that’s our own race doing that to our own race. So, I honestly find those people a lot more suspect than someone who’s not even from this planet.
You said that you didn’t really think about the fact that he was genetically altered - what kind of stuff were you thinking about when you were approaching this character? How to win. How to be successful at my mission, like any good general would, you know? He’s very single-minded. Zod doesn’t daydream. He’s always focused on what he’s trying to accomplish. He obviously has, I mean, in a way, this is the most significant mission of his entire career. He’s never done anything more important than what he’s trying to do in this movie.
You could almost say that he was born for this exact purpose.