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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.
I also do want to talk about your working with Zack Snyder, because the thing is, he is primarily known as a visual director. He’s known for his style, but what is he like to work with as an actor, kind of collaborating with him and getting into the character and going scene by scene?
Well, he gets right in there with you. I mean, he doesn’t ask you to think about anything that he hasn’t already thought of himself. The characters are a mystery that you’re trying to solve together, and he’s a real collaborator. I mean, he’s very inquisitive and he wants to know, you know, he wants to know your approach and why you think whatever is happening in any particular scene is happening and why you think... He’s just constantly asking you interesting questions.
Well, you know, it’s hard to say. In a scene, like in the beginning, when I’m on Krypton and I’m talking to the council, you know, it wasn’t about, “Oh just come in and be a badass.” It was about the history of the struggle and my history with these people and having a specific relationship with each one of them, a history with each one of them and then the relationship between Zod and Jor-El, which is a very fascinating relationship, I mean, if you think about it, these two are friends and the evolution of that relationship, but it wasn’t like, Zack didn’t direct with a stylistic approach, like, “Oh, I want this scene to sound like this or look like that. I want you to act like this or act like that.” It was a very grounded approach about, these are real people and we want to see what’s happening to them.
And you mentioned that it was a collaborative process. What kind of stuff did you personally inject into the Zod character?
It’s hard to put a name on it. I mean I, it’s hard to put a name on that, it’s kind of nameless. It’s not like, I mean, the character came from my imagination, from my subconscious, you know. I mean, I guess, more than anything, I just brought my concentration to it. I thought about it a lot and I took it seriously. I took it as seriously as I would take any other acting job I’ve done, even though it’s ostensibly a comic book movie, I never approached it like it was a comic book movie. I approached it as seriously as I would approach a movie with Jeff Nichols or any other project I work on.
I think that’s incredibly interesting point, because the superhero genre is growing at a fast rate, more and more talented actors like yourself are becoming a part of it. How do you perceive that tide as changing?
Well, I don’t think it behooves anybody to look down on it. I mean, these are the most popular films being made right now and they’re not going anywhere, you know? So, rather than turn your back on them, why not try and make them even stronger or incorporate real thought-provoking, resonant content into them, which I feel like Man of Steel can provide a variety of different experiences. If you just want to have a thrill ride, it’s in there. If you want to be more contemplative and kind of ruminate about certain things going on in the universe, you can do that too.