Winter in Los Angeles usually comes with at least three things: holiday cheer, complaints of 55 degree weather and over-hyped films. Revolutionary Road may not tickle your holiday funny bone or particularly make you feel warmer this winter. However, it is one film that not only lives up to its hype, this must-see novel-turned-film beautifully reminds us why movies were ever made and why we pay 12 dollars to see them. Director Sam Mendes brings us a film that presents drama like we rarely see it; not an exaggeration about something that might happen, but as a representation of events that we go through time and time again. The pain and love feels more natural, not because the characters are people we could know, but because they are images of our own selves. Revolutionary Road is a film that is so special in that it doesn’t just create drama, it points it out to us in ways we never knew existed before.
Frank and April Wheeler are a thirty-year-old married couple in suburban New York, living the quintessential American dream. Not satisfied with the satisfactory, Frank and April dare to break the mold of everyday life, fuelled by the dream that ambition doesn’t have an expiration date. The story, therefore, introduces the dangers of a relationship where aspiration and conformity conflict. It teaches us that insecurities aren’t necessarily a vice, they are a sign that we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the road. We fall into roles we may not be comfortable with, but allow ourselves to grow accustomed to them as long as we’re not the only ones playing along.
But what happens when the ugly head of guilt impedes on our everyday footsteps which robotically move us through our daily routine? What happens when we realize that emptiness and hopelessness are one and the same? What happens when the questions about what we could become blind us from what we already have?
John Givings (brilliantly played by Michael Shannon) says what we quietly think but don’t have the courage to say. A ward at the state insane asylum, John doesn’t have the family that Frank and April Wheeler have nor does he have the love that they share. Unlike the Wheelers, there are no children’s birthday parties to celebrate. He has his mother’s anxious warnings and his father’s hollow stares. He is a mathematician who has lost the ability to solve equations, but still finds the truth when life’s problems don’t add up. With nothing to lose, and almost just as less to gain, John breaks open the divide wearing thin between Frank and April Wheeler’s reeling marriage.
I talked with Michael Shannon about the creation of a complex character, which was imperative to the success of the film. Shannon openly discusses his role as John Givings with Acted By magazine and dissects the character, explaining how he came to be:
I think as troubled as John is…he has a playful sensibility about him. In his first scene, he very much looks forward to meeting Frank and April, and we see how much he’s looking forward to it as the scene plays out. It’s interesting that you put it that way because people think it’s hard to get into the mindset of someone who is very troubled. It was actually a lot of fun to do.
Did you look at it like you didn’t have any rules (acting-wise) because your character was “insane?” Is that where the fun comes in as the actor?
I know that John has given up on trying to maintain any appearance of normalcy. He’s not interested in what other people think of him very much, and he doesn’t have any responsibilities or obligations in his own life. He’s a ward of the state. When you’re unencumbered of any responsibility, it becomes easier to call it like you see it.
The film focused so heavily on family, relationships, love. Did you feel distanced from those elements playing a character who, as you just mentioned, has almost none of those things in his life?
The character exists in relation to the struggle. He exists to show the opposite, particularly, if you look at April, who is teetering between the sane, natural world and the insane world. John seems to be a symbol of what April could turn into if she goes too far down the road of “insanity.” It’s very interesting to see Frank and April’s reaction to John. I think its important John comes over to their house because he helps move along their story and their relationship, helping them notice how they feel about each other.
Did the character of John Givings evolve much from the first day you saw the script to the character we see on the screen?
About 95% of my inspiration came from the book. The descriptions that [Richard] Yates uses are so eloquent and so specific. I’ve said, and other members of the cast have said, that it’s kind of all in the book. All the work that you would have to do by yourself, if you just pay attention to what you see in the book, it just fills out the character. The rest of it was just listening to Sam [Mendes], and being in the moment with the other actors, the spontaneity of being in the event.
They’re both very smart people. They’re both very kind. I think they know it’s important to let the people around them know that they’re on the same playing field…that everyone is on an equal level. We’re all peers trying to tell this story as best as we can. We were all united by our love of the book and the material and I think we all wanted to make the best version of the book that we could.
The actors of this film all had such a strong grasp of their characters, enabling the book to come to life on screen in such a natural way. Is this a credit to Sam’s directing or just the ability of great actors who do their homework and deliver on screen?
I think Sam, like most directors, would concede that one of the biggest elements of being a director is in the casting. I looked across the board with everyone on the film and I think he found people that were so close to what Yates seemed to be going for in the novel. But I definitely think that Sam…he’s incredibly thoughtful as a director. As much as I thought about John, I’m sure he thought about it even more. We did a lot of takes and he always had something interesting and helpful to say after each one. He’s a pretty, bottomless well of inspiration.
Yeah, it’s hard to stop doing a scene when you have a character that you can play in so many different ways. When I watch it, I’m happy with my performance, but I still can’t stop and think about all the different manifestations it can be. I think we did hone in on the one that tells the story most effectively.
You play a character that says some evil things during your scenes. Regardless, you’re one of the funniest characters in the film. How did you get away with making the character so abrasively direct and yet so funny?
I think people are kind of disarmed by candor. It makes people kind of giddy. They always seem to bask in the fact that they don’t know what the character is going to say next.
You have one of the most powerful lines of the film, when John talks about the realization of life and its “hopeless emptiness.”
When I read that line in the book, I was flabbergasted. There are a number of lines that strike you dead in your tracks. There are things that come out of John’s mouth and things that come out of other characters’ mouths, and it’s amazing to think it all comes back to the imagination of one man. One of the things I hope with the release of the film is that it encourages people to read the book.
I think that Sam wisely focuses mainly on the relationship. He gives a form to the story which is very much that of a funnel. He starts encompassing the culture and the characters and gradually throughout the film, it gets more focused and narrow until you’re left with these two people. It’s just two people beyond language–shots back and forth between Kate and Leo, enduring a suffering that you can’t put words to. I think that is something you can only achieve in cinema.
Kathy Bates gives a great performance as Mrs. Givings, your mother in the film. She does such an amazing job of introducing your character to us and who you are before we even get to see you.
I thought her performance infused the character with a vulnerability that may not be apparent in the book. Kathy found the heart and soul of the character, making it sympathetic. One of my favorite scenes actually, was when she first comes over to the house and performs her monologue about John and his situation. I just think she performs the heck out of that.
Could you sense that this film was going to be special while you were filming it?
What I did know was that Kate and Leo were nailing it with Frank and April. They turned in the magnificent performances that I had experienced with the end result of the film. Being that they are also two of the biggest stars in the world, I figured that it would probably be pretty undeniable that it would generate some excitement.
Of the hundreds of things that the film says, what do you think is the main theme of the movie that the audience will take home with them?
No matter how many obligations you find yourself encumbered with in life, you need to stay true to yourself. You need to remember your dreams and the hope you had for yourself in that period of life when you were still young and everything is exciting and you were still curious. To not let go of that despite how many obligations you may be saddled with.