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Real-life couple —Michael Shannon and Kate Arrington — balance work, home and life

Actors Kate ArringtMichael Shannphotographed Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood Monday June 24 2013. | Michael R. Schmidt~ For Sun-Times Media

Actors Kate Arrington and Michael Shannon photographed in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood Monday, June 24, 2013. | Michael R. Schmidt~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 13, 2013 9:31AM

For Michael Shannon (the actor who forged his career on Chicago’s experimental stages, but these days is best known as Krypton’s General Zod in the blockbuster film “Man of Steel”), and his partner, Kate Arrington (a Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member with a long list of other theater and film credits), last weekend was frantic, but fairly typical of the couple’s lives these days.

Shannon was just back from a whirlwind press tour for “Man of Steel” in Europe, and picking up with rehearsals for Sam Shepard’s play, “Simpatico” at A Red Orchid Theatre, his storefront-sized home base in Chicago. Meanwhile, Arrington was in rehearsal for the Chicago premiere of Amy Herzog’s acclaimed play, “Belleville” at Steppenwolf. The problem was that Shannon had to be at a benefit for A Red Orchid on Saturday, the very day the fabled Mermaid Parade in Coney Island — a favorite event in the life of the pair’s four-year-old daughter, Sylvie — was to take place.

So what does a devoted dad do? He attends the benefit for the theater to which he is unfailingly loyal, while Sylvie (being cared for by her grandmother and aunts) goes to the parade. He then takes an early Sunday morning flight to New York to pick up his daughter and quickly flies back with her to Chicago.

Meanwhile, the actors (both 38), who call home a large apartment in the still untrendy Red Hook section of Brooklyn, had time for separate “he said/she said” chats. Here is some of what they said:


MS: I came to Chicago from Kentucky at age 16, after my parents’ divorce, working in the basement of Cafe Voltaire, and at Next Theatre, where I met Dexter Bullard and Tracy Letts. I am in awe of Tracy, and I really owe my career to him. His plays, “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” got me to New York. Kate and I had a similar circle of friends in Chicago. But I think things clicked after a bad performance of mine in “Pillow Man” at Steppenwolf. We had a beer, and she cheered me up.

KA: I grew up in North Carolina and came to Chicago to study at Northwestern. I first saw Mike when I was in college and he was doing “Mojo” [in 1996] at Steppenwolf. Then I moved to New York. I think he first saw me at Steppenwolf when I came back here to do “The Violet Hour” in 2003. We’ve been together since 2006.


MS: In “Simpatico,” which is the first Shepard play I’ve done, I play Carter, a successful guy who owns a horse farm in Kentucky. Fifteen years earlier, in California, my partner, Vinnie (played by my great real-life friend, Guy Van Swearingen) and I were involved in a scam that left him on the skids. So the play is about the relationship between these two men who have gone different ways, and I think it’s an interesting parallel between Guy and me, though Guy is a very functional person and Vinnie is a mess. As for playing Zod, he’s just a man trying to protect his civilization, and who, under other circumstances, would probably be a pretty chipper fellow.

KA: In “Belleville” I play Abby, a young American woman who is married and living with her husband, played by Cliff Chamberlain, in the bohemian Paris neighborhood of Belleville. From the moment I read this play I could hear my own voice in the character. She is involved in a weird, complicated relationship that feels very real to me. It’s an exhausting role to do because this couple’s relationship is exhausting — full of such quick shifts, and the feeling you always have to run to catch up and get control. Before I started work on the play I went to Paris for the first time — alone — and walked around the Belleville neighborhood, which was both amazing and awful. And I began thinking it was a bo-ho (bourgeois bohemian) area very much like Red Hook — part seedy, part with artists living in warehouses.


MS: Doing Craig Wright’s “Grace” on Broadway together was very difficult. I was playing this bizarre character whose fiance had died in a car accident, while Kate, the woman I share my real life with, was playing a married stranger who I was slowly falling in love with. It was weird.

KA: “Grace” was really hard for us because for four or five months of rehearsals and performances we were both away from Sylvie at the same time.


MS: I love watching Kate in everything; she’s consistently top notch. But I thought she was phenomenal in Bruce Norris’ “A Parallelogram,” at Steppenwolf. Kate is a very sweet, decent, kind person, but in that play she had a darkness I found exciting. It caught me by surprise.

KA: Can I name a few? I loved Mike in the film “Take Shelter” because it captured a part of him not usually revealed, in the film “Revolutionary Road.” And in the play “Mistakes Were Made,” which was almost like watching a circus performance, like doing something humans are not supposed to be able to do.


MS: I learn lines by myself; it’s a very private thing for me. I especially don’t like to run them with my scene partner because I think it can contaminate the whole process.

KA: I will run lines with anyone.


MS: I have many very genuine relationships in Chicago that are based on much more than career matters. And A Red Orchid is my sanctuary. I can walk into that dumpy room and remember who I am, with all the ghosts and history and magic. It’s a place that makes you push yourself.

KA: Being a part of Steppenwolf for the past 10 years has shaped my life tremendously; it has been a big part of my adulthood. And Mike, who is a very sentimental person, and very connected to his roots, feels the same way about A Red Orchid. Chicago theater lets you breathe.


MS: We don’t have a very extravagant lifestyle. And anyone with half a brain knows that you can’t trust these things lasting. Plus I don’t want a lifestyle that will end up dictating my choices. I don’t want to have to take work just to keep up the palace.

KA: Our only indulgence is that we have a large apartment by New York standards. It’s a real hike into Manhattan, but Mike likes to be away from the crowds.


MS: The letter itself [in which a sorority girl trashes her sisters’ lack of engagement with guys at a party] had already gone viral on the Internet. And I already knew some of the people at Funny or Die. But I was pretty shocked the day after it was posted and the numbers were up to a half million. I haven’t checked recently, but I think it’s now past four million hits.

KA: I was in L.A. with Mike when they sent him that letter and I told him he HAD to do it. I was IN that sorority at Northwestern, but deactivated after less than a year. And I immediately sent the video to every friend who’d deactivated with me.


MS: After “Simpatico” I go home to make sure Sylvie is all set up to start kindergarten. Then there is some talk of doing a gritty, low-budget film, “I’ll Die Tomorrow,” in Chicago later in the fall. It’s about a washed-up punk guitarist. Jim Sikora will direct.

KA: Right now I’m just focused on “Belleville.”

“Simpatico” begins previews July 4, opens July 8 and runs through Aug. 25 at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells. Tickets, $15-$35. Call (312) 943-8722;

“Belleville” is now in previews, opens July 6 and runs through Aug. 25 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets, $20-$78. Call (312) 335-1650;

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