Interview: Actress Shannan Wilson

On her career, life experiences, grunge music, and more.

There are plenty of things about social media that I really can’t stand. Much of it has to do with the reflexive combativeness, blatant disinformation, and general negativity. On the other hand, there are also things I really like about social media — the top one being getting to meet and converse with interesting people I otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity to.

One of those individuals is Shannan Wilson, an accomplished actress, author, and songwriter who I met on Twitter last year when we commiserated over some particularly shameless political spin on one of the Sunday morning cable-news shows. How’s that for a random introduction?

Shannon has appeared in several movies and television shows. 2021 has been a banner year for her, acting alongside Hollywood heavyweights Ewan McGregor and Bill Pullman in the 70s-era Netflix mini-series, Halston. She played Bobbi Mahoney, the wife of Pullman’s character, businessman David Mahoney.

Since I’m always looking for ways to class up my weekly ‘Daly Grind’ newsletter, and because Shannan’s such a fascinating person, I asked if she would be interested in doing an interview with me. She generously (or perhaps charitably) accepted. Below is our conversation, and I hope you all enjoy it.

John: Shannan, Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I’m sure it went against the advice of all of your agents, so it means a lot.

Shannan: Since this is through email I must write that I literally just laughed out loud. You're funny! And thank you for the nice words. I'm happy to do it!

John: First of all, congratulations on your success! Halston, Sno Babies, A Wounded Deer, The Retaliators… the list goes on. And according to IMDB, you have several exciting films in the works. Of the many parts you’ve played, which one did you find the most challenging, and which one did you find the most rewarding?

Shannan: Thank you for the congrats! Playing Clare McKusker in SNO BABIES was the most challenging because it hit very close to home. My daughter in the film, played by the talented Katie Kelly, unbeknownst to me is addicted to heroin. When we were filming, my kids were 12 and 13 so the storyline absolutely terrified me. 

There are two extremely intense scenes at the end of the film where I had to tap into emotions that were very difficult for me to do. I wanted it to be true though to respect parents that have actually gone through these horrific experiences so it was important to not hold anything back. 

Sno Babies was also my first feature film, I didn't really pursue acting fully until I was older, so having a part like that was challenging and rewarding at the same time. As far the most rewarding, I would have to say HALSTON because it opened doors for me for other opportunities. And to work with that particular cast and crew WOW!  They were all people that have been in the business for a long time. I was quite intimidated that first day!

John: Who are some of your favorite actors and actresses?

Shannan: Gene Wilder for sure. His use of his eyeballs- no one better. :) And he and Richard Pryor- their chemistry was the best. Montgomery Clift was amazing- so much emotion, especially in the film A Place in the Sun. I love Meryl Streep for her control.  The scene in Sophie's Choice with the slow zoom in on her face- beautiful. DeNiro and Brando as well. Oh, and Paul Newman! And Barbra Streisand... I have a lot actually. And they're all different types of actors.

John: A few months ago, you posted something on Facebook that I found both inspiring and relatable. It had to do with your chosen profession — specifically when you entered into it:

There are benefits to starting an acting career in your later years. All of your life experiences- getting fired, having your heart broken, waiting tables, finding love… all help to create a canvas that allows you to play all different types of people. If you’ve always wanted to be an actor- don’t let your age stop you.

I thought it was a great message, and I believe the same is true of storytelling in general. I completed my first novel when I was well into my thirties, and I think that additional life-experience has been quite helpful in my ability to draw readers to characters and into certain situations, in a way I couldn’t have as a young man.

I won’t ask how old you are, but based on your bio, my guess is that we’re roughly the same age, which is fairly depressing on a personal level because I look waaaaaaay older (possibly attributable to my steady diet of Pringles potato chips and Diet Dr. Pepper). Can you describe what compelled you to take a risk and start an acting career later in life than most do?

Shannan: John- I think you look fantastic! And, yes, I am definitely on the other side of 40 which helps me not to care as much. Truly, what drives me to do anything I put my mind to is that I am honestly more afraid of regret then failure. I mean- what the hell do you have to lose? You want to go to law school at 50- DO IT! I read in the Wall Street Journal about Debbie Blount who is playing on her college golf team at 63. You really are never too old to try anything- there are roles, maybe not as many, for women my age. But they do exist!

John: What was it like working with such renowned, versatile actors as Ewan McGregor and Bill Pullman? Was it intimating? Did you learn anything from them? Were you ever worried about accidentally referring to Bill Pullman as “Bill Paxton?”

Shannan: Like I said earlier, I was insanely intimidated! And the director of HALSTON, Dan Minihan, has directed some of my favorite shows. Deadwood, Six Feet Under, GOT... I auditioned for another part and didn't hear anything back until a month later when my manager called and asked if I would like to play the part of Bill Pullman's wife. 

I remember saying, "I freaking LOVE Bill Pullman!" 

He could not have been nicer. In fact, when the stylist called me for my sizes she told me that he is the nicest man I'll ever meet. I didn't even ask her about him- she just offered that up! And she was right. He is kind, sweet, funny, and made it a point to know everyone's names. Oh, and I didn't worry about calling him Bill Paxton but you're not the only person who has asked me that. In fact, when I said I would be working with Bill Pullman, numerous friends said, "I thought he died!" (Huge fan of Paxton btw and miss him.)

And Ewan McGregor was so charming and kind as well. Very easy to talk to and funny. Thrilled that he won the Emmy- he completely deserved it.

John: In one of your final scenes in Halston, Bill Pullman promises you, “You will have yachts coming out of your ears.” Coincidentally, that was a pick-up line I used a few times back in college (it never worked).

Shannan: HAH!

John: Anyway, some things that really stand out in Halston are the style and fashion of the 1970s. I imagine it was a blast getting made up for, and living in that era for a while on the set.

Shannan: Oh my gosh, Jeriana San Juan, the Costume Designer, was wonderful. She was nominated for an Emmy as well. Her whole crew were sewing and putting pieces together like you wouldn't believe. And my wigs by Michelle Johnson. Heavy as hell to be honest with you. But looked fantastic!

John: You’ve worked with actor Michael Lombardi in a couple of feature films now. Fans of the great television drama Rescue Me know him as fireman, Mike “The Probie” Silletti. On that show, his character was kind of a knucklehead, and often fell victim to bullying and practical jokes from his colleagues. Because of how well he played that role, did you ever feel the urge on-set to likewise bully him, play practical jokes on him, and call him “Probie”?

Shannan: Yes, we would do things like replace his whip cream with toothpaste, throw pies in his face, etc. Just kidding. Michael cracks me up and was awesome to work with. I've been able to do two films with him and each time- he's very generous and sweet. I'm so happy that he is getting good reviews for The Retaliators. He deserves it!

John: As I mentioned earlier, in addition to being an actress, you’re also an author and songwriter. In 2011, your book “The Littlest Peanut” was released. It was a very personal project, and the Amazon reviews for it are absolutely glowing. Can you tell my readers what it’s about, and why you wrote it?

Shannan: The Littlest Peanut is a baby book specific to a baby's needs while in the NICU- Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. After having two preemies, 20 months apart, I noticed that there were no books available for me to fill in their milestones specific to their preemie journey. I started it when I had my daughter and then forgot about it until I had my son at 30 weeks. My brother-in-law, Joe Cuniff, illustrated it and made it so beautiful. At the time, in 2011, The Littlest Peanut was the only baby book of its kind on Amazon. And you're right, the reviews are so heartfelt and always bring a tear to my eye. 

We donate books to various NICU's and to charities as well so it's a little way to give back and to help other parents going through the stress of having their baby in the NICU. It really is an intense experience but it's amazing how resilient and strong these tiny babies can be.

John: My readers can find some of your music on Spotify and other places. You have a great voice. How would you describe your sound and the inspiration behind it?

Shannan: Why, thank you John! I would describe my sound as not formally trained. :)  My inspiration is Emmy Lou Harris for sure, as well as Lucinda Williams. I love when songs tell a story so I try to do that with my music too. I'm pretty shy about my music and have never performed live but recording it makes me happy. Jim Heffernan produces my songs and plays the instruments on them- he's an amazing musician and worked in Nashville for twenty plus years with just about everyone. Luckily, he lives a town over from me and someone introduced us. I have a new song I'm working with him on now. Hopefully it will be released early next year.

John: I recently discovered that we have a surprising number of things in common. Our mothers are both retired school teachers, our fathers are both veterans, we’re both Red Rocks concert enthusiasts (you lived in Denver for a while, and I grew up there), we both have strong opinions on Alanis Morisette’s stage performance, we both dig British comedy and Napoleon Dynamite, and we both have a modeling background.

(Okay, in fairness on the last one, my ‘modeling background’ basically just consists of me photo-bombing actual models during photo-shoots — a weird phase I went through in the early 90s.)

Shannan: I would LOVE to see those pictures.

John: But the part of your past that really intrigues me (and honestly makes me pretty jealous) is the job you had back in college, as a nighttime radio disc-jockey playing grunge music! Being a huge fan of grunge and other alternative rock of that era (as my readers well know), that strikes me as possibly the best job ever! Do you have any good stories about that experience?

Shannan: It is crazy how much we have in common. And to answer your question, I LOVED being a DJ in the early 90's. 90.1 KSAU. Except of course when the record had a scratch and you almost cussed on the hot mic. The Helmet album had a scratch one time and it was repeating- I almost had a panic attack! 

I met so many cool people in Nacogdoches, yes they exist, while I was a DJ.  People, mostly guys I guess, would call in and request songs and chat. My sister is 6 years younger then me and married a guy from Nacogdoches. He was very impressed when he found out I was the DJ. He said he listened to my show every night. By the way, Nacogcoches is in the East Texas pines about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Houston. They have an excellent ladies and mens basketball team and Pearl Jam played there in 1994 when they were battling it out with Ticketmaster.

John: Let’s go ahead and finish up this interview with a ‘grunge’ lightning round, if you don’t mind… We’ll start with: Best grunge band?

Shannan: NIRVANA.

John: Best ‘Alice in Chains’ song?

Shannan: Please don't judge me and this may be our only difference but I can't stand Alice in Chains. They're right up there with my dislike for Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett and watermelon. Things everyone seems to love BUT me. Layne Staley was to whiney. May he rest in peace.

John (trying hard not to judge, though I at least share the distaste for Jimmy Buffett): Did you ever play music by the Canadian grunge band, ‘I Mother Earth’? And if not, was it because of any personal animosity you may have had toward Canada?

Shannan: I've never heard of them! I'll have to check them out. Even though they are from Canada. Everyone is so touchy these days that I have to follow that up with, "I'm kidding!"

John: Better grunge super-group: ‘Temple of the Dog’ or ‘Mad Season’?

Shannan: Temple of the Dog. Those songs never get old. And thank goodness, because I literally have "Say Hello to Heaven" on repeat in my head all of the time. Just the chorus.

John: Ever hear of the band, ‘Sugartooth’? (because they might be reading this.)

Shannan: If they're reading this then YES!

John: Did you or did you not own the ‘Singles’ soundtrack?

Shannan: You know I did. My husband and I just re-watched Singles last month with our daughter. We went through a 90's phase and showed her Reality Bites and a few others. I saw my friend Alicia Roper in Singles too! So random. She was the one making out with Paul Giamatti in the coffee shop. I had no idea until I saw her name in the credits. I immediately texted her. She dated him for four years!

John: Is it fair to say that some people unfairly categorized ‘Candlebox’ as a grunge band, just because they were from Seattle around the time that grunge was really big?

Shannan: I have never ever thought of that before but now that you say that- yes I agree. It's like labeling Collective Soul as grunge.

John: Awesome. Thanks again, Shannan, for your time and also for putting up with my silliness. It was great getting to learn more about you. People can find out more on your website, shannanwilson.com. I wish you continued success, and I look forward to your future work. Is there anything else you’d like to say to ‘Daly Grind’ readers?

Shannan: Honestly, this was such a fun interview John! You're my kind of guy. And to your readers- have an amazing 2022. You DESERVE a beautiful year.

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