TORONTO – “Take Shelter” has emerged as one of the most acclaimed films of the fall season, thanks in large part to a devastating performance by star Michael Shannon.
His quietly powerful turn as a small-town family man beset by increasingly horrifying dreams drew whispers of Oscar predictions when the movie screened at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
But co-star Jessica Chastain says there were indications early on that Shannon’s performance was special.
Back when they shot the film, she says a crowd of about 100 extras erupted in applause after watching Shannon command a pivotal scene in which he explodes with emotion.
“After the first take they all clapped — they all just lost it,” Chastain said during a round of interviews at the Toronto film festival.
“I think they had to be reminded: ‘This is scary. Pretend you don’t know he’s acting, pretend this is real,’ because (Shannon) was just so good.”
Chastain says she, too, had to remind herself to keep herself “in the scene” while playing against Shannon’s tormented alter ego.
The towering actor, who earned an Oscar nomination for a supporting role in 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” stars as the devoted family man Curtis, a construction worker who is consumed by wild dreams that convince him the end of the world — or something like it — is near.
Possessed by a persistent sense of duty to protect his family, Curtis does whatever it takes to build a storm shelter in his backyard, even if it means taking out a risky bank loan behind his wife’s back and borrowing construction equipment from work.
Chastain plays the iron-willed Samantha, a devoted wife who watches helplessly as her husband succumbs ever deeper into his fears.
The lithe redhead, an “it girl” of the moment for a string of roles in A-list films including Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” and “The Help,” says she seeks out projects that involve collaborators she admires. And she found Shannon particularly awe-inspiring.
“It was hard to just be there and be like, ‘OK, I’m in the scene.’ I even had to check myself many times in scenes with him where he’d be doing something and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, what a beautiful actor.’ And then go, ‘Oh no, no, no, stay in the scene!’ Because really, he’s that good.”
Director Jeff Nichols, who first teamed up with Shannon for his first film “Shotgun Stories,” says the actor possesses a unique intensity that made him right for “Take Shelter”‘s demanding role.
Nichols says he wanted “Take Shelter” to be infused with a “constant fear” of simmering tensions — something Shannon excels at. Nichols describes the conflicted Curtis as essentially pragmatic, but also a “boiling pot with the lid on.”
“You’re just not sure when that lid’s going to come off,” Nichols says.
“The great thing is when you then add Mike Shannon, you get two awesome things: one, is a man who can, I think, very capably tap into emotions and create a sense of empathy with the audience, like you really care for him, you know. He’s this gentle giant, he’s this guy that you actually can identify with…. But at the same time, he’s Mike Shannon and you never know where that guy’s going to go.”
Add to that, the odd amalgam of genres that “Take Shelter” encompasses. It at times displays the easy naturalism of a quiet family drama, the intensity of a psychological thriller, and the gut-wrenching anxiety of a horror, with mind-bending visuals of a fantasy.
The key was keeping it all from veering into melodrama, says Chastain, who credits Nichols with achieving a delicate balancing act.
“As serious as the situation could be he’s very subtle and sensitive in his way of telling a story,” she says.
Samantha, too, is a delicate bundle of contradictions, notes Chastain. She appears as a simple, loving wife as the film opens, but as tensions escalate, the layers come off and she takes on a more central — and grounded — role in the story.
“Samantha doesn’t suffer fools — she rules the roost in her family, she wears the pants, she says what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, she is definitely a strong woman,” notes Chastain, who adds that she and Shannon spent much of their off-screen time developing a familial bond by playing with Tova Stewart, who plays their onscreen daughter.
“A lot of the film is just heartbreak — what happens when your partner that you’ve known for so long turns away from you and he won’t explain why.”
Chastain’s subtle performance is just the latest in a string of standout roles, many of which were shot back to back last year. In addition to “Take Shelter,” Chastain appeared in Ralph Fiennes’ Shakespeare adaptation “Coriolanus,” the crime film “Texas Killing Fields,” the period piece “The Help,” and another Malick film.
Next up, Chastain says she’s excited by the prospect of tackling a horror film — the Guillermo del Toro production “Mama,” being shot in Toronto. Chastain plays a bass player in a punk band who becomes the guardian of two girls.
“She’s a different character from anything I’ve played before, which is really exciting, and also the genre aspect is really exciting,” she says.
“I’ve never done anything like that, it’s a whole different style of acting. That’s a bit of a challenge. I hope someday to do a western, I hope someday to do a sci-fi film, maybe a musical. I want to always ask myself: ‘How will this film challenge me and force me to rise to the occasion?'”