The Runaways - Michael Shannon
The Runaways - Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) ©2010 Apparition

Last year Michael Shannon was nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Revolutionary Road. He could be up again for his uncompromising and dynamic performance as Kim Fowley in The Runaways.

Rock impresario Kim Fowley formed the first all-female band, The Runaways, in 1975. Led by Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), with its tough-chick image, the punk rockers went on to three years of success, and five albums.

Unlike Stewart and Fanning, who worked closely with the musicians they were portraying, Shannon didn’t speak with Fowley until he had begun shooting the movie.

When exactly did you meet Kim Fowley?

The Runaways - Dakota Fanning and Michael Shannon
Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) © Apparition

We had dinner one night, Kim and me and Kristen and Joan. It was my first day of shooting, at the end of the day, Kristen was like, ‘Have you met Kim?’ I went, ‘No.’ She said, ‘That’s weird,’ and Joan was like, ‘I can call him and we can go and have dinner.’ I was like, ‘Okay.’ So that’s what happened. We met at a Denny’s and had dinner and he told me his whole life story and showed me pictures and memorabilia, and said, ‘Don’t screw it up.’

But most of the studying I did was actually online stuff, he’s got a lot of stuff on the internet, he’ll be the first to tell you. He’s got a lot of films and clips, interviews he’s done. There’s one interview on the Tom Synder Show that I found very helpful that I watched over and over again.

What about it was particularly helpful?

Well, it was a long interview, he was on it with Joan, they’re talking about punk rock, and he’s in full-form, you see all of his trademark gestures and movements and his voice, he talks a lot about what he thinks about music and the world. It’s just a classic interview. Outside of being helpful for me it was tremendously entertaining.

Do see him as a Svengali-type? What do you think his motivations were with these girls?

I think he’s motivated by his passion about music and creativity. I think he’s a very intelligent guy who obviously doesn’t fit in the normal ways of doing things in our society, he couldn’t work in a bank or something, but he had this tremendous amount of creativity and loved music. It’s impossible to deny that there’s some mercenary aspect to it, otherwise he would just do it for free, but underneath it all it’s about the music.

You had to get in Dakota and Kristen’s faces with some pretty rough language, was it tough for you to do?

The Runaways - Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart
Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) © Apparition

Not particularly, unfortunately, maybe it should have been. The thing about them is they’ve been around, been in a lot of movies, and have spent a lot of time with grown-ups. It’s pretty hard to shock them.

They’re not wild by any stretch the imagination, they’re just working actresses, they show up and they work and then they go home, they’re not out going nuts or anything. (What happens in the movie is) what actually happened. If I just came in and said, ‘Now let’s play some music,’ you wouldn’t have a movie. This was the way it was.

Do you feel like this guy was interested in fueling their creativity by provoking them, or do you feel like there was just an aspect of him enjoying it?

It’s rock ‘n’ roll, so it’s not like you sit down and draw up an outline before you write your paper, you just kind of go into the room and there’s a feeling, there’s a charge in the air. A lot of times there’s aggression there, there’s inappropriateness in it, but it’s been like that since Elvis and Chuck Berry. That’s why rock ‘n’ roll is fascinating, because there’s no rhyme or reason to it. A lot of times the best rock ‘n’ roll is created by some sort of friction.

Did you get a sense that he thought that he could actually control them?

The Runaways - Dakota Fanning, Mickey Petralia, Michael Shannon, Alia Shawkat, Scout Taylor-Compton, Stella Maeve, Kristen Stewart
Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning), Record Executive (Mickey Petralia), Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), Robin (Alia Shawkat), Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton), Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) © Apparition

Forming the band he did look at it like being a drill instructor, I even heard him say so in an interview, just get their attention and keep their attention. At the end of the day  people say, ‘Rock ‘n’ roll’s not hard, you don’t have to be a great musician, you don’t have to know how to play,’ but the paradox is not any idiot can walk up on stage with a guitar and be a rock ‘n’ roll star. So there is something you have to learn, and there is something you have to know, and I think Kim knew what that was and I think, regardless of how they felt about Kim, the girls knew that he knew.

His personality is so over-the-top, did you ever find it difficult to keep the character real?

I’ve been acting for twenty years, and I think about ten years ago I stop believing in or caring about reality in any way whatsoever. I don’t find it useful as an artist, it doesn’t bother me whether people think what I’m doing is real or not, because the bottom line is, every movie you’ll ever see in your entire life is an illusion. You may think, ‘Oh this movie’s more real than that movie,’ but they’re all fake.

So it’s more about what’s interesting to me, not what’s real. To me, I think Kim Fowley’s a very interesting person, and that’s what I pursued.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.