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Macall B. Polay/HBO

With a hit show, a lauded new film and a mammoth upcoming role, Michael Shannon is learning that hitting the big time isn’t bad.

To call Michael Shannon a bad boy of cinema is misleading — though he has forged a formidable career playing volatile creatures that prowl the razor-thin borders of sanity and decorum. A Chicago theater vet; Oscar-nominated for his work in Revolutionary Road; pegged to play General Zod in next summer’s anticipated Superman reboot, Man of Steel; star of several hot new films (including Return and Take Shelter, this year’s grand-prize winner at Cannes) and HBO’s sophomore hit Boardwalk Empire, Shannon is finding out how good it can be to be bad.

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American Way: You seem reluctant to embrace the celebrity aspect of your career, as if you’d still be content to be doing plays for 50 people in folding chairs.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, there’s always a part of me that thinks I might have already had the most fun I’m going to have as an actor. Then I’m also surprised from time to time that that’s not always the case. It’d be disingenuous to say I’m not enjoying any of this. I am.

AW: You’ve become well known for playing men on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
MS: [Take Shelter and Return] are sort of a departure from that whole classification. I play fairly normal guys with fairly normal jobs. I don’t have any real noticeable kinks. I don’t think. [Laughs]

AW: Critics often describe you as being “feral.” Does that description make sense to you?
MS: When I first started acting, there was an element of that in my work. I didn’t come from a conservatory. I never studied. I just got onstage and started doing it. I probably did prowl the stage a lot, like some kind of animal. Now, 20 years later, I’ve learned how to illuminate a story instead of just acting out.

AW: Next up, you’re playing Superman’s arch nemesis, General Zod.
MS: Yeah, that’s a lot of responsibility. There was a five-minute span after I was hired for Man of Steel where I was just giddy, and then it was, like, “Oh, shoot, this is pure imagination.” I’m trying to see that as liberating. I’m trying to have some fun.