Michael Shannon isn't a stickler for rules. In his career, he's ignored most of them, especially the mandate that a theater-trained, Oscar-nominated actor should shun the large roles in dumb movies that let him afford the smart ones. (See: Kangaroo Jack, Bad Boys II, Premium Rush, Man of Steel.) Shannon's great in those movies, too. He takes his work seriously but himself less so, bopping into a Sunset Strip diner in shorts and mint-green socks emblazoned with the Mona Lisa. Still, when he sits down to set up a game of Monopoly, the rules take him aback — he's stunned by how much they've changed.
"'If you just roll snake eyes, get $500,'" Shannon reads. "I've never heard that. 'If you land on Free Parking, take all the collected taxes and fees. If you land on Go, double your salary and take $400 instead of $200.'" And he quickly spots more tweaks. Since he last played, Parker Bros. has added a cat-shaped piece, changed the currency from dollars to something that "looks European," repainted the houses gold ("If anything would be gold, it should be the hotels"), streamlined the income tax ("They figured people were too lazy to calculate?") and degraded Baltic Avenue from purple to brown. Nods Shannon, "Maybe they just wanted to augment the fact that this is really, like, a grim neighborhood.
"It's all upside down," he says. The new rules give players money for nothing, which defeats the capitalist lessons of the game Parker Bros. has published since 1935. So it goes, he says, with America. "There's a lot of people that have a lot of money rather inexplicably." He places his thimble on the board and volunteers to be banker. "I'm very trustworthy."
His character in Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes? Not so much. Shannon plays Florida real estate mogul Rick Carver, who's made a fortune evicting families from their homes. All the victims beg, most scream, a few grab guns. Rick doesn't care: Rules are rules, and he's not sentimental over houses. "They're boxes," he tells his protégé (Andrew Garfield). "Big boxes, small boxes. What matters is how many you've got."
His performance has been called an updated Gordon Gekko, which Shannon dismisses. "Gordon Gekko, that's in New York City. Orlando is much bleaker than that. Wall Street is exciting. Even when Rick has a party at his mansion, there's something kind of sad about it."
In the last century, while Parker Bros. has made Monopoly easier, the game of life has gotten more cruel. In Florida researching the film, Shannon visited a young couple's abandoned, foreclosed home. "On the floor there was a photo album. It was pictures of their wedding," he says. "It was one of the saddest things I've seen in my life. I couldn't stay in there five minutes."
He didn't attend any evictions in person. Imagine if a confused kid thought General Zod stole his bedroom. Yet the property brokers he met weren't bad people. "They're very nice. But this one guy couldn't sleep at night," Shannon says. "My advice — and I say this, but I don't even follow my own advice — is just stay the hell away from banks."
For today, playing Monopoly, that also means him. Like Rick, he's buying up the whole board. In a few laps, Shannon's snapped up two railroads, as well as Marvin Gardens ("That's a good movie") and built a house on Boardwalk, which he's landed on three times in a row. "Maybe it's because I was on a show called Boardwalk Empire?" Shannon muses. "Ventnor Avenue, that sounds like a really sad soap opera."
Mostly, he keeps landing on Chance. "It could be bad — it's chance," he says, drawing a card. The system has awarded him a $25 consulting fee. He'd rather earn it. "Need a consultation?" Shannon asks. Um, could I use a haircut? "Like a bob? Yeah, I can see you like that. That would be nice."
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This afternoon, he'll be beautified for a photo shoot. He tolerates grooming. "Sometimes you go in and they'll have airbrush and they'll spray like it's a restoration project, like you're the Sistine Chapel," Shannon jokes. He squints at the board's wrinkle-free drawing of white-haired Mr. Monopoly. "There's no way that's his real complexion. But I never sit and look at dudes on the cover of a magazine and think, 'Oh, I want to look like that.' Well, maybe Bradley Cooper. I'm kidding. Am I kidding? You'll never know."
He lands on Income Tax. "Oh, for fuck's sake." He's almost out of money. I offer to buy his railroads at a discount. "No, that's insane!" We negotiate my purchase of "stinky-ass" Marvin Gardens. "If I've learned anything over the years," Shannon says, "the yellow properties are a drain."
He plays fair but strict. Forget to collect $200 on Go and he won't remind you. "You gotta watch out for yourself," he cautions. "That's Rick's whole thing: 'Who's going to take care of me?' I don't think he's a shining example of the best human beings can offer, but I don't think he's the devil." Who is a shining example of mankind? Shannon doesn't pause. "LeBron James."
Property-rich and cash-poor, Shannon is comfortable with his place in the game. The world has enough tycoons. "A lot of Trump's buildings aren't full. I couldn't live in a building that said 'Trump' on it." Besides, though Shannon is grumblingly making peace with today's loss, he'd rather be happy than rich. "I was certainly broke in my 20s. That's back when I used to act for free for nobody to even watch," he says. "If you don't struggle, then you don't ever build your identity." Shannon adjusts his Mona Lisa socks. Freedom is the ultimate win.