On the day Emmy nominations were announced (before the SAG-AFTRA strike was declared) Michael Shannon spoke with Awards Radar once again (after a pre nomination conversation with Joey here) about his work as George Jones in the acclaimed Showtime series, George & Tammy. Shannon, who was nominated for as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for his work in the series, tapped into what is at the heart of the story – the relationship between George and Tammy Wynette (fellow nominee Jessica Chastain) which inched ever so close to happiness only to see it self-destruct – and of course the music. Shannon discussed the challenges the duo faced, the emotional connection created by music, as well as how he and Chastain prepared to both impressively perform their all their own singing for the series.
You can listen to my full interview with Michael below. George & Tammy is now streaming on Showtime and Paramount+.
Steven Prusakowski: Hi Michael, how you doing today? I’m guessing pretty well.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, thanks. Sure. You must be very busy.
Steven Prusakowski: I’m quite busy, but it’s good busy. I get to speak with people who are having some of the best days of their lives. So I can’t complain, right? So seriously, how are you feeling right now?
Michael Shannon: I’m thrilled. I mean, I’m very proud of the show, I’m very proud of what Jess and I and the whole team put together… and this year, getting acknowledged in this way is it’s very moving, because it wasn’t easy. It was a big challenge trying to walk in these people shoes for Jess and I. We overcame a lot of fear and anxiety to get the job done. We relied on each other, and the fact that we’re both getting acknowledged in this way, it’s very moving. And I’m happy for Mitchell Travers, our costume designer, I’m just very happy – the acknowledgement is means a lot.
Steven Prusakowski: It’s gotta be great knowing that you’ve worked on this together, with the struggles and the challenges that you had to overcome and to bring this to life – just the effort and the blood, sweat and tears that you put into these characters. To look over and see on the nominee list that Jessica is also acknowledged must all you to just go out and just really celebrate and take it all in.
Michael Shannon: (laughs) Yeah, that would have been really awkward if like one got nominated and the other one didn’t. It’s a real relief that- but it really is. I mean, I think it’s a real 50/50 deal with me and her I mean, I think we both just put in the work.
Steven Prusakowski: What did you meant the most to you when telling this story of Tammy and George?
Michael Shannon: Oh, it’s such an epic story, but I feel like the connection between them was just one of the most profound connections I’ve ever seen between two people that it was indestructible, even in the face of the addiction and the divorces and the marrying other people – nothing would destroy this disconnection they had. When they got together to sing, something went on between them that was completely private, even though it was a public performance in front of hundreds or 1000s of people. There was something that happened when they sang that was just between the two of them and just so magical, and mysterious and primal – that’s what really drew me.
Steven Prusakowski: There’s so much more to the story than you would expect. That’s the thing. It’s not some simple career story, or a love story or anything easy to define. It definitely has its ups and ups and downs and challenges throughout, which is what makes it so captivating for me.
Michael Shannon: And then really just explores… what is that question? ‘Why is it so hard to be happy?’ Like, you look at these people, they got so close, they get so frickin’ close to just being completely happy and then it just all unravels and goes to shit. Like, why is it so hard to figure out? I don’t know.
Steven Prusakowski: It’s true. It’s so true. You have those days. I don’t know about you, and maybe you don’t, but everyone’s in a good mood, and you’re just not and it is like you’ve decided, ‘I don’t want to be in a good mood.’ There must be some kind of weakness in the human brain, the self destruct mode of sorts.
Michael Shannon: Sabotage. I mean, we all have this. A lot of us have this pension for self-sabotage. Particularly in this industry. You see it all the freakin time.
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, you even see it when people taking a compliment and try to talk it down and like. I always think, ‘No, enjoy it. Take to take a look around. You’re, you’re doing well and you should be proud of what you’ve done.’ It’s just sometimes tough to do that, but I want to talk about the songs real quick. So you have to put in a lot of work to act to perform these. Can you give me a little bit of what that process was like, but also, how did that change your understanding of George?
Michael Shannon: Oh God, well, working on the song there’s some things you realize pretty quick, it’s a lot of the way a person’s voice sound has to do with their anatomy, their bone structure, and their vocal cords, obviously – and just the way your head and your chest carry your voice. You can try as hard as you want to replicate someone else’s voice, but it’s just, you’re gonna sound different unless you go out get reconstructive surgery or something. But I loved studying George so much and it didn’t even really bother me. I wasn’t necessarily obsessed with trying to imitate him. I just loved watching him sing so much, because he was so emotional. I think something that he doesn’t get as much credit for as he should, he’s just very intelligent, as a singer. There’s this clip, I got to watch once of him singing ‘Take Me.’ and he’s by himself, he’s not with Tammy and it’s not in public. It’s just in studio, in this weird little experimental movie. George is sitting, he’s got a beer and a cigarette and he’s not even putting any effort into it particularly. He just sits there and he sings the song. It’s just the most extraordinary performance I’ve ever seen him do, because it was so it’s just so personal and matter of fact. The way he could juxtapose those lyrics, which are incredibly hopeful, kind of aspirational about love – then just seeing it, totally matter of fact you just see the depth of what he’s gone through in his life, the agony, his relationship with women cost him. And he does it, effortlessly. Our singing teacher was always like, ‘The number one mistake people make when they sing is they think they got to pour their heart and soul into it,’ like they think they’re an opera singer or something and they want to give the performance of a lifetime or something. He was like, ‘That’s not how you do it.’ Because the second you let that overtake you, you’re going to constrict and constraint your voice. You have to stay relaxed. Honestly, the more matter of fact you are, the more emotional the song is going to become for the audience. It really blew my mind figuring that out, because it’s not something I was aware of, beforehand.
Steven Prusakowski: That’s the amazing thing with music, and people who write it and can put their heart and soul into, sometimes just a few lines is the way that it connects universally. The way that you connect it with a small moment, not some big grandiose thing – it’s the smaller moment and just a few lines you can feel sometimes. Johnny Cash was great with this. You could feel the wear and tear on his life, just in delivery of a line or two. It can make you weep. It can make your blood pumping. The power of music is incredible.
Michael Shannon: It’s like they barely survived in order to get to sing us a song. It’s like they’re working a night shift or something and the sun’s coming up and they’re like, ‘Oh, God, I’m out here in five minutes. All right, here’s the song.’ And yeah, it just destroys you when you hear it, like a real weird phenomenon.
Steven Prusakowski: Yeah, it’s a little bit of magic, and the fact that it will last – we’re still humming and singing songs that have been hum, sang and performed for hundreds of years. You kind of put this stake in the ground and say, ‘Hey, this is a little bit of George and Tammy.’ 20 years, 30 years from now my kids or grandchildren will still be listening to the same things and having their own kind of relationship or reaction to the song. There’s something special about it.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, I agree. That’s one of the reasons I was happy about doing the show, is because maybe, George and Tammy may not be at the height of their popularity right now, I mean, there’s still fans out there, but they’re not in the center of things. So if the show introduces people to them and their music, that’s a good, that’s a good thing.
Steven Prusakowski: Your next thing – you need a tick tock dance for them. And then next thing, them my daughter and their friends will be singing and dancing to it. That should be next. (laughs)
Michael Shannon: (Laughs)
Steven Prusakowski: Before we go, for those who haven’t seen the show is there, you know, what’s the best reason to watch? What do you hope people enjoy and take away from it?
Michael Shannon: Well, you know, and I don’t think this gets talked about as much, possibly as it should, but I think it’s an amazing looking show – the photography, the design, the costumes, all that it’s just a really, very sensual, from a visual standpoint. It’s an extraordinary cast, you know, outside of me and Jess, we got gamers all over the place – frickin’ Steve Zahn’s killing it, David Wilson Barnes, Kelly McCormack, just really great performances all around, a lot of support. I think the music’s worth listening to. And, you got me and Jess on this roller coaster that these people lived on. The part of the show to move me the most it just how close they get to happiness and that no matter what devastation follows it that connection is indestructible. I find that very romantic.
Steven Prusakowski: I agree. Thank you so much for your time. Congratulations on this series and best of luck.
Michael Shannon. Thank you so much.