See that smile? Any time Shannon Brown enters the room, he fills it up with positive energy. His colleagues praise him and describe an incredibly pleasant experience working with him.
Brown is an award-winning actor and producer, who has starred in upwards of 100 projects, ranging from short and feature films to commercial and stage. After winning Best Actor at the Actors Awards Los Angeles, Festigious International Film Festival and LAFA, Shannon has become a juror at the Los Angeles Film Awards.
So what's his secret weapon? In the following interview, Shannon takes us behind the scenes of his recent projects, shares his thoughts about acting and filmmaking, and reveals why he never asks himself "Whose ass should I kiss and who do I need to impress?".
Tell us a bit about how you became interested in being an actor. When did it all start for you? What training did you go through and when did you decide to move to LA?
It's a funny story actually, it kinda of started as a dare. I was in college and I had a crush on this theater student. She wouldn't give me the time of day, so I thought I would pretend to be an actor and connect with her through our passion for acting. Her, as well as a few friends, knew I was full of it. So, they challenged me to audition for an upcoming play. Of course I was trapped, to avoid embarrassing myself, I privately worked my ass off to learn the lines and connect with the character. I ended up being cast the lead, opposite the girl I had the crush on. I instantly "caught the bug". The rehearsals, the creativity, the connection with cast members and the director, the indescribable rush on opening night. The irony is that I never got the girl, but I did get a career path.
As far as the training I had, I obviously learned a lot about the craft as well as myself doing theater. During the summer, I had a chance encounter with Samuel L. Jackson at an event, he told me something that essentially set my course - "If you want to be famous, move to L.A., if you want to be the best actor you can be, move to New York." I was so young and ignorant at the time, I didn't really grasp what he was saying, so I dropped out of college and moved to L.A. to pursue a career. As my journey progressed, the one thing I was smart enough to do was listen to those that knew more than me, that were more accomplished than I was and that was most people. I knew I had to take it serious and work my ass off if I ever wanted to be a professional. I've been blessed to work with amazing talent and learn from dedicated instructors along the way. My first acting class was at Brian Reise Acting Studios in West Hollywood. I learned a lot, which was key since I was so green so I had a lot to learn.
After having to move back to Chicago for personal, family reasons, I took a few years off with the intention of moving back to L.A. to continue my career. Before doing so, I took classes at the Acting Studio Chicago and that was very key to the success I've had these past few years. Dedicated and supremely talented instructors including Chris Agos, Adrianne Cury, Mathew Miller, Rachael Patterson and the late, great Jane Alderman were vital to my success as a working actor.
Who were some of your earliest influences and who influences your work now?
There are many, especially early on in my career. The usual suspects, Pacino, Denzel, DeNiro and Brando, but perhaps the most influential would be John Malkovich. I feel as an actor that most of your work is done in prep, peeling back the layers of the character until you get to the point where you are no longer "playing" a character but you ARE the character. Once you get in front of the camera, its just a matter of executing the choices and the work that you've already done.
I always felt that guys like Malkovich, Brando, Daniel Day Lewis told the truth better than most. I always admired that, but now after doing this for a while, I appreciate their work even more because I realize how much genuine and raw work that is needed during prep to bring some of these challenging characters to life in an honest and powerful way.
Not many people get to start their professional careers on the set of an NBC hit series the way you did! You probably get this question a lot but... What was it like on the set of Friends?
It was a very small part, but it was a massive learning experience. I was so green at the time, so I feel that it was such a blessing and a huge advantage to learn from these accomplished talents. It was my first network credit and I can't imagine a better environment to learn in. I was able to spend the week with the entire cast, all 6 of them were very warm, generous and gracious. It is arguably the greatest sit com of all time, so to be a tiny, tiny part of it is a great honor. Seeing the way they treated others, regardless of job title, was a great lesson that I still incorporate today whenever I'm on set. Whether you are the director or a P.A., the lead of the film or a background player, we are all a necessary part of a team and should be respected as such. That's probably the best lesson I learned from working with those iconic stars.
How did you approach your role in Halloweed, the raunchy dark comedy you starred in opposite Tom Sizemore, Danny Trejo, Simon Rex and Jason Mewes?
Halloweed is available for streaming on Netflix, VOD, iTunes as well as other platforms. This was a unique challenge. I've been a lead dozens of times, but for this particular character, I had to play it somewhat like a supporting role that just happened to be the main character. I played a normal, ordinary guy that was surrounded by these extraordinary, outlandish characters that were larger than life. As an actor, you typically feed off your scene partners and ideally the goal is to connect and collectively bring the scene(s) to life at a very high level and that's where the magic truly happens. For this role, I had to fight those instincts to a degree. Our director wanted the audience to witness these over the top characters through my character's eyes. When you factor in the talent that I worked with in practically every scene, it made it that much more challenging to stay level, on the Merry Go Round and not join them on this wild and chaotic roller coaster. Particularly my co star, Simon Rex, he's so talented, so funny and a lot of scenes were improv.
Our director brilliantly allowed Simon to go off the rails quite a bit which really made the film a lot funnier, but it was so hard to stay grounded and true to my character. This was also the case with Robert Craighead and Jim O'Heir, both so funny, so talented. My instincts were to go off the rails with them and play, but that would have hurt the film overall. Nonetheless, it was a great experience working with so many actors that I admire and our director's vision was spot on. I don't think the film would have played as well if he had me play the character differently.
While filming Halloweed, you were cast as the lead in Weichert Media’s hilarious comedy, Smothered by Mothers, which led you to win multiple Best Actor award from various festivals, including Los Angeles Film Awards and the Actors Awards. How did you prepare for the role, and what was the trickiest scene to shoot?
The main challenge with this role was that our first day of filming was scheduled in beautiful Naples, Florida 5 days after I wrapped on Halloweed in L.A. Usually it takes me a lot longer than a few days to prep for a character, especially the lead character. Luckily I was working with a phenomenal director, Brian Herzlinger, a supremely talented cast and a great script with very well developed characters. I simply cannot overstate how vital a well written script, with great and well developed characters is for an actor. Kurt Weichert delivered just that. I had a lot of fun prepping for this role and it absolutely made my job easier because I was set up for success right from the jump. You mentioned all the awards that I was fortunate enough to win as the lead actor, I am very grateful for all of them, but I'm a firm believer that even individual awards are actually team awards in this business. I always say that you are only as good as those you work with and I worked with stellar talent on both sides of the camera on this project.
As far as the "trickiest scene to shoot", I would say all of the scenes I had with Heather Matarazzo. They were tricky, but in a very good way. Just about every scene we did was predominantly ad lib. We had great chemistry playing the sibling rivalry dynamic and it ended up being some of my favorite scenes from the film. She is unbelievably talented and a lot funnier than many might give her credit for.
Tell us about your experience working with director Brian Herzlinger (My Date with Drew, Baby on Board) and opposite Heather Matarazzo, Burt Young, Jim O'Heir, Alice Amter, Jamie Bernadette, Juliette Bennett and Robert Craighead.
This was my first time working with Brian, it was an experience I won't soon forget. I have been very fortunate to work with some truly gifted directors in my career and I would have to put Herzlinger at or near the top of the list. We had a great working relationship, an instant bond and a sharp and concise shorthand. I don't recall any long discussions re: character and/or story. Don't get me wrong, he adjusted me and gave me notes throughout filming, but he was very good at communicating quickly and clearly. The man is a comedic genius and he knows how to get the best out of his actors without over explaining. If he likes what he sees, he moves on. No pat on the back, no cheerleading, he just moves on to the next set up/scene. Most actors, myself included, appreciate that. When he didn't like something, a quick note or adjustment and we were right back up there for another take. He kept us all fresh, which only makes our jobs easier.
A couple members of the cast needed a bit more coddling, perhaps an occasional pat on the back and he obliged. I think that is most important attribute for a director, you have to be able to manage and motivate people in different ways to get the same, desired result.
As far as the cast, it was such a thrill to work with them... ALL of them. Production really nailed their casting choices. Above, I mentioned how much fun it was working with Heather. This project was the second time I got the chance to work with Robert Craighead, I believe he is a very underrated talent. I've seen him play pretty much every character you could imagine, and a few that most people couldn't even conjure up, and he always delivers. Jim O'Heir is another one that I've worked with multiple times, similar to Robert, Jim always finds a way to keep you on your toes. I've learned so much from working with those two and it has absolutely made me a better actor. I'm proud to call them both friends and honored to have shared the screen with them.
Working with Burt Young was surreal. I grew up watching him in the Rocky franchise, like most of us did. I never could have imagined as a kid that someday I would get the chance to work with him. A legendary talent and behind the scenes, you'd be hard pressed to find a kinder and sweeter man. Alice Amter is a riot, loved working with her, another underrated talent in my opinion. Jamie Bernadette was an absolute joy to work with, I recently had the pleasure of working with her again on the film Every 21 Seconds. She is another one that I'm proud to call a friend and I look forward to getting back on set with her soon. My co star, Juliette Bennett, was great to work with as well. We had an instant connection which I believe plays really well in the film.
I know you didn't ask me, but I have to mention Ken Weichert, the late Will Haze, Chuck Ardezzone, Whitney Kimball Long, Marilyn Bass, Joseph Ferrante and Ali England as well. This cast was masterfully constructed from top to bottom, I genuinely had a blast working with everyone on this project.
In 2017 you booked an amazing role in Ben Hickernell's upcoming dramatic thriller, The Buried Girl, which also stars Oona Laurence (Southpaw, Pete’s Dragon) and Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, Revolution). What can you tell us about your character, Art?
Well, I can't say too much about this character without dropping a spoiler, but I will say that he's not exactly a good guy... not even sort of. Oona is the lead and I play her character's father and I might not be the best father or husband, but I'll leave it at that. I can also add that Elizabeth's character doesn't like him very much either.
This was a challenging role to play, but that's what makes it that much more appealing as an actor. Working with such immense talent like Oona and Elizabeth made it that much more rewarding. It really is a powerful script and if you haven't heard of Ben Hickernell, trust me... you will! He is definitely a legit talent and it was wonderful working with him as well. This is a powerful, dramatic and intense piece that deals with a very real and gut wrenching subject matter. I'm honored to be a part of it and I can't wait for everyone to see it.
You’ve played a wide variety of characters in the full spectrum of genres. What are some of your favorite characters you portrayed, and why?
I've probably been asked this question the most and I honestly don't have a favorite. I genuinely love them all, kinda like my kids. They are all very different and unique, but I love them equally... the same. Probably the best advice I ever received in the business was "Don't overthink it, just stay present in the moment and focus on the work. Treat each project, each character as its own evolution and its own journey to that particular evolution." - Cuba Gooding Jr.
One of my first gigs was on a film titled Men of Honor starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert DeNiro. I was only in one scene and it ended up getting cut. I got paid for the day, but no residuals, no footage... they don't even give you your credit in the end crawl when your scene is cut in a major studio project. Of course I wish my scene made the final cut, but in spite of that, this was probably the most important and influential project in my career and it had nothing to do with what happened on camera. Production was filming on a Naval ship about 10 miles off the coast of Long Beach. So transpo ran lil power boats back and forth from set to the shore. I had a later call time and as luck would have it, I hopped on the boat to head to set just as Cuba Gooding Jr. was coming out of the wardrobe trailer. Transpo of course waited for him and there I was, just me and Cuba Gooding Jr. on this 20 minute boat ride to set. He was very cordial, immediately introducing himself. I told him the character I was playing and that we had a scene together. I was nervous as all hell, at the time I was still VERY green in the business. Regardless, I wasn't gonna miss this opportunity to talk to him. He was fresh off his Oscar win for his performance in Jerry Maguire, obviously a comedy. Men of Honor was very clearly not a comedy. So I asked him if he preferred to play comedic roles or dramatic roles. His response, which led to his advice that I quoted above, was the most powerful and influential perspective I've ever been told since I've been in this business. It's hard to quantify how well that 20 minute conversation has served me. It helped me grow and cultivate my perspective in this business, it helped me formulate a plan that I still adhere to today, damn near two decades later.
There is a very clear and pure component of this business that will naturally tell you what your niche' is, you just have to be willing to listen, to see it... to embrace it. I never set out to be a "lead" actor, I never set out to be a "comedic" actor or a "dramatic" actor. I never refer to myself as a "L.A." actor. I'm just an actor. Once I agree to take on a role, I completely give myself to the character. As I said earlier, I peel the layers back until I become that character. I take nothing for granted, I appreciate the trust that a filmmaker has put in me to bring these black and white pages to life. I'm honored to be an actor, I feel blessed to be able to do what I truly love. If there was ever a profession that should be journey based, as opposed to destination based, it's being an actor. I don't care about going to random events to get my picture taken so I can post it on social media, I don't care about going to industry parties or so called "networking" events. I just focus on the work, I love the work. All the other nonsense is just a distraction. It's an amazing opportunity to be able to do this. What other line of work gives you the chance to be an astronaut one month, a professional football player the next, perhaps a superhero after that, then maybe a twisted, psychotic killer... so on and so forth? I love my job, I love what I do and I feel very fortunate to be able to do it. If my next project is my last or if I get to do this for another 40-50 years, either way, the journey has already been amazing.
As an in-demand actor with over 65 acting credits, it’s safe to assume your schedule is intense! What's more impressive is that in 2012, you launched your own production company - Two 9 Productions, along with your wife, Suzette Brown - an actress and a producer, and you were able to produce five feature films and seven shorts since then. How do you balance between your acting career and working on your own content?
First off, I will never complain about being busy in this industry. I know how fortunate I am and I am well aware that most actors are not that fortunate. That being said, it’s not easy, but it helps to love what you do. It REALLY helps to have great people in your circle to help make it happen. Like I said earlier, you're only as good as those you work with.
I keep a very small, tight circle, more advice that I was smart enough to listen to, but there is a ton of talent within that circle. I'm an actor first and foremost, so that always takes precedent with regards to my time/schedule. At Two 9, we are very selective on the projects that we take on. When we get a script that we feel very passionate about, connected to, we put it in the queue. We don’t make movies just to show our friends and family or just to boast on social media “Hey, look at us, we made another movie, we’re cool and stuff”. We have a responsibility to our investors and to ourselves as creatives to put out the best work possible, get it seen and get it sold.
As a producer, I do most of my work in development, a little less in pre pro and almost no work during principal photography, especially if I'm the lead in the project. I pick it back up once we get to post and stick with it until we settle on distribution. I get much more credit than I deserve as a producer, the real engine that makes Two 9 run is my wife, Suzette Brown. She is a tireless worker, very efficient as a line producer and very organized as a lead producer. On top of that, she is a very gifted actor. I've had a very fortunate run as an actor, but truth be told, I'm not even the most talented person in my family.
We are also selective on who we choose to collaborate with. For instance, our latest project, Every 21 Seconds, was a very challenging but wonderful journey. It's based on the true story of TBI(Traumatic Brain Injury) survivor, Brian Sweeney. We met and got to know Brian and his family, he was a big part of the production as he was on set everyday. He waited 20 years to realize his dream of getting this film made. So naturally, there was a lot of pressure to deliver. We had a very modest budget which required multiple people to wear multiple hats. We just got out of post and the film is beautiful! Without Suzette's efforts, without the efforts of our collaborators at Road 28 Productions as well as our talented and relentless crew, this would have never happened. I've been very fortunate to stay as busy as I have as an actor, so without the help and collaboration of others, Two 9 Productions simply wouldn't exist.
Recently, you were invited to join the jury of LA Film Awards as a lead judge. In your opinion, is there such a thing as a perfect performance?
That was a great honor, I appreciate being asked to do that. Regarding your question.... NO. I don't think the word "perfect" applies to any aspect of this business, especially performances. Can you imagine anyone else playing Hannibal Lecter? Kinda hard to top that performance, but what if Malkovich played that role? I would love to see that. What if Denzel played Forrest Gump? My point is, there is no blue print, no absolute right or wrong way to do what actors do.
Often times we are encouraged to color outside the lines, kinda hard to consider that "perfect". I believe you should never stop growing or learning as an actor. So, by definition, there is no such thing as a perfect performance, in my opinion. I have friends that aren't in the industry that always say "I can be an actor, watch my De Niro impression from Taxi Driver"... Nope, stop right there. You are copying something that was already created by someone else. You are kinda skipping a crucial step, creating that scene or that character from black and white pages. Nobody ever remembers the SECOND guy that walked on the moon.
Did you ever have to deal with bad vibes on set? What's your tip for surviving that?
Sure, it happens. You have a group of anywhere from 25 to 150 people stuck together on set for 12 hour days, weeks and sometimes months at a time. Many of whom are creative, perhaps intense, sensitive, raw, vulnerable etc... there is bound to be issues. I think the best way to deal with that is to treat everyone with respect.
Every single person, regardless of job title, is a vital part of the team with the same goal, to make the best project possible. Respect and compassion are very important in life, it's no different on set.
Collaborators praise you and describe an incredibly pleasant experience working with you. Lorrisa Julianus, for example, mentions that you’re a true pro: “He is kind, generous and fun nature that makes working with him effortless. His acting has an intense energy and layer of unpredictability that won't allow you to take your eyes off of him.”. Clearly, over the years you established close relationships with both directors and actors. What, in your opinion, are some of the best ways to create and foster relationships in Hollywood?
I'm very appreciative and humbled when I hear comments like this from fellow creatives whom I respect greatly, like Lorrisa. As I eluded to above, it's a matter of respect and compassion, regardless of job title. Just like our parents taught us, treat others the way you wish to be treated. Especially when I'm the lead, I try to set the tone and keep the mood light and keep everyone engaged and feeling positive, motivated. I'm also a big hugger... I hug everyone. Most people like hugs, so this makes me popular. :)
I believe relationships are vital in this business and I'm NOT referring to "Who do I know that can help me? Whose ass should I kiss and who do I need to impress?" Just leave that garbage at the curb where it belongs. You get a lot more respect and you'll go a lot further by being genuine and respectful of those around you. Creating a small circle of those you respect and trust, friends that you can grow with. Those are the relationships you should focus on cultivating, not fake relationships that you THINK will further your career. Anyone that's been doing this for more than 5 minutes is programmed to see through the bullshit, we're used to it... we damn near expect it. Like Jay Z said "Real recognizes real".
If you could give advice to 21 y/o Shannon Brown, what would you tell him?
Ummmm....Listen to mom, stay in school and get a business degree!!! Hahaha, just kidding. My advice would be - Stay true to your course.
Don't worry about what the haters say, you'll find out later that they end up so far behind in your rearview that you don't even recognize them anymore.
Keep your priorities straight, always place great value on those that are genuine because you'll come to learn that they are unique and not very easy to find.
Positive or negative, when people attempt to show you their true colors... let them.
You will find out very quickly, it's all about the journey and very little about the destination (this is a tough one to grasp right now, I get it, but please trust me).
Life will throw you some fucked up curve balls in the next 3-4 years, but I promise, you WILL get through it and it WILL make you stronger.
Your hair will never look better, so appreciate it... same with your abs.
Don't even think about picking up a cigarette... PLEASE!!!!
Love and passion will easily be the most valuable things that you possess, ignorance will be the most expensive.
What’s next for you?
I'm currently signed for 3 feature films so far in 2018, the lead in two of them which I'm very excited about. It looks like I'll be putting the producer hat on once again in 2018 as well, probably the fall depending on scheduling. As of now, that's it, but we're still pretty early in 2018 so we'll see what presents itself... ya never know. ;)