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October 4, 2015

Q&A: Whatever You Do, Don't Offer 'Boardwalk Empire' Star Michael Shannon a Shot of Whiskey

by Alex Moaba, posted Oct 31st 2011 12:20PM
Michael Shannon's intense portrayal of the frightening, puritanical Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden on 'Boardwalk Empire' reached a dramatic apex in Sunday night's 'Age of Reason' episode. Thrust into a state of anguish and guilt over an agent he thinks has been burned to pay for his sins, Van Alden watches his web of lies unravel as his wife discovers the twisted game of house he's been playing with Lucy.

We talked to Michael Shannon about the difficulty of playing such a deathly serious character and discussed whether the jig is up for Van Alden in Atlantic City. Shannon revealed that his biggest challenge as Val Alden wasn't whipping himself or drowning Agent Sebso but downing a shot of whiskey. The Academy Award-nominated actor also divulged his personal beverage of choice (yes, it contains alcohol) and shared the key to ID'ing Van Alden as the father of Lucy's baby. Read on for the full interview!

'Age of Reason' was such an intense, suspenseful episode for Van Alden. What was your approach while filming it?
All I knew going into that episode was that Van Alden needed to be in a lot of pain. This young fellow [who got burned in the distillery explosions] was a good agent -- kind of like a little Van Alden, in a way. He reminded Van Alden of when he first came to town, the zeal he had for his job. This kid got burned up because of Van Alden, because of his corrupt activities. I think it was a lot harder for him to swallow.

I think Van Alden is really consumed with self-loathing right now. It's hard for him to be comfortable in his own skin, or to look at himself in the mirror without feeling like he's just revolting. I think he's very lost, he's lost his compass entirely.

What do you think is driving his self-hatred?
Well, he's no longer actively pursuing his job, his crusade against liquor and against sin. That's been over for a while now. He's basically just trying to -- you know, he's been living with Lucy, which is very hard for him because I do think he genuinely loves his wife, Rose, and misses her a great deal. That's why Episode 1 this season was Rose coming for a visit. I think Van Alden really enjoyed spending that time with her and really wants to get this child so that he can give it to her, even though that's not only twisted but ultimately idiotic. It'd be very hard to imagine a scenario where it worked. He actually gets pretty close.

I think the real heart of Episode Six, 'The Age of Reason,' is when he's in the phone booth talking to Rose at the hospital. I think you can really see where he's at. You know, when you're asking me about the self-loathing, I think it's all there in that phone call. He says, "An innocent man's about to die and it's all my fault and I've done so many things I can't tell you about but I did it all because I love you." I think a lot of the information's in that phone call.

One thing I've been thinking about: How do we know that Lucy's pregnant with his child, or do we not?
[Laughs] That's funny. Honestly, I don't think Van Alden cares. In a way I think it'd be even better if it wasn't his child. That way it wouldn't grow up to look like him, you know what I mean? 'Cause what he's going to tell Rose is, 'Oh, I found this baby on the doorstep.' So in a way, it'd be a real stroke of luck for him if it looked more like Nucky or Al Capone or someone.

But I actually don't think Lucy is as open for business as people might think she is. I think she was pretty devoted to Nucky, actually. I don't think she was fooling around on him at all. I think she was very sad when Nucky kicked her to the curb. When our paths crossed in Episode 10 last year, it's very obvious that I'm all messed up and sad or whatever, but I think she was just as messed up as I was and lonely, and kind of out of sorts. I don't think she actually -- I don't imagine that she was with a different guy all the time. I was probably the first guy she was with after Nucky. She's not a hooker, you know what I mean? She's just kind of a chippy.

Van Alden made two odd gestures of kindness towards Lucy, when he got her that music player and then arrived with lemons after she's given birth. Does he have a heart?
Well, yeah, I think Van Alden is actually a very compassionate person. I think that a lot of his stiffness is a facade, you know. I think underneath it all he's almost a child in a way -- a case of arrested development. I don't think his father allowed him to develop his own personality, really. I think he was kind of forced into a very strict religious upbringing. He never really questioned anything. I don't think that he resented it or rebelled against it. I don't think that he ever really developed into a fully formed adult person. He just always kind of just accepted what was being shoved down his throat as the truth. He's really discovering who he actually is underneath all this facade.

You mentioned that Van Alden is much less obsessed with his crusade to eradicate liquor from Atlantic City. There was something tragically funny about watching him try to be the one-man army against such a systemic problem.
Yeah, it was ultimately a pathetic showing on his part. But he always knew what was going on. He did his job, he just couldn't arrest anybody. But he got the information. I think it ultimately drove him kind of crazy, probably. I'm still waiting for this other shoe to drop with this supervisor, supervisor Elliot, because that was always very strange to me -- how, no matter what I did, he was getting in the way.

Can I ask a personal question? What is your personal beverage of choice?
[Laughs] Oh, man. I like red wine a lot. Particularly the Spanish red wines like Tempranillo, Rioja. Yeah, I think red wine. I'm not really a liquor guy, it's just too strong. And beer is ... I like a beer every now and then, but they're so filling. I heard that red wine in moderation is maybe good for you.

Did you grow up in a religious family? Was there a model you looked to capture Van Alden's extreme religiosity?
Well, my mother is very religious, but she's very private about it. All throughout my childhood she never went to church. She would just pray and read the Bible at home. She would talk about God and Jesus all the time, but she wouldn't go to church because she thought it was kind of frivolous. But she wasn't, she isn't you know, like whipping herself, or anything like that. It's hard to base that on anything; it's so extreme. I guess I use my imagination more than anything. For some reason I always thought he came from Pennsylvania.

Amish country?
Yeah. But then, I don't know if that makes sense. I don't think Amish people whip themselves. But there's a severity of belief, you know? Just an austerity. It's mostly, to be totally honest, it's mostly my imagination. I wish I could say I read some tome that was 500 pages long and took copious notes. I just don't. I use my imagination.

Well, it certainly seems to be working. This character is definitely an original.
[Laughs] Thank you.

On our site, we do a weekly recap that we call the Boardwalk Empire Gangster Index, where we try to keep track of 'Boardwalk''s killings and political deals. Van Alden is tough to categorize because so many of his activities, sort of like Nucky, straddle that line between the law and criminality.
Well, he's definitely breaking the law right now. He's generating income for himself in an underhanded way. The whole subplot with him and Mickey Doyle -- that's pretty crooked.

I think he's taking money because he's gotta pay Lucy to have this baby; that's part of the deal. He's not getting paid enough by the government to afford that, so he's looking the other way in some situations, and taking some money that he probably shouldn't be taking. He's really abandoned the whole crusade.

It's almost like he's traded obsessions this season.
Yeah, exactly.

When did those two lines cross on the graph, so to speak?
I think once he spent that night with Lucy was probably when that happened. In Episode 10 of last season -- that was the first time he drank in his life, when he was in that speakeasy and he has a shot of whiskey. And then he orders another. For me, that was very unusual.

You know, people say, "Oh, wow when he drowned Sebso, or when he had sex with Lucy, and all these crazy things." But what was craziest to me was when he actually ordered a shot of whiskey and drank it, because that was fundamentally negating his whole identity. Taking that shot of whiskey is saying, "I'm no longer Nelson Van Alden." Everything that I stand for, believe in, or thought I believed in, [I'm] throwing it away. And I'm going to be somebody else." I'm not sure who that is yet, but we'll see.

That was the hardest thing for me to do, was to drink that whiskey. I worried for Van Alden, from that point on. I worried that bad things were going to happen.

And they have.
Yeah, it's pretty bad. Basically the only bit of luck that Van Alden got was that he hadn't been outed as corrupt by his fellow agents. But other than that, everything kind of ... well, I guess he has a baby now. A baby is always a gift to the world. [Laughs]

Is Van Alden nearing his swan song with Atlantic City?
Well, it is interesting. I don't know, I can't say for sure. But, it's an interesting thing about the show because it does take place, it's branching out into other cities, you know? There's always been the Chicago storyline with Capone and Torrio out there, now they're making all these trips to Philadelphia. So yeah, it could, even though it's called 'Boardwalk Empire,' it could wind up going national at some point.

And you wouldn't be surprised to see Van Alden go national with it?
Well, it's hard to imagine how much longer Van Alden can stay in Atlantic City. He's had a lot of trouble there, and at some point it would seem it would catch up to him, but we'll see. These guys, they certainly know how to keep a storyline going.

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