Actor Michael Shannon says the ‘Rust’ fiasco is about more than gun safety — ‘this is what comes of making a movie on the cheap’

In October 2021, when “Rust” star and producer Alec Baldwin accidentally shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a pistol containing live ammunition that should not have been on a movie set, a lot of actors nowhere near that incident in New Mexico thought a lot of things.

For Michael Shannon, “the main thing was: This is what comes of making a movie on the cheap.”

A Chicago stage veteran and two-time Academy Award nominee for supporting performances in “Revolutionary Road” (2008) and “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), Shannon, the co-star of Showtime’s “George & Tammy” and the recent, bullet-strewn theatrical feature “Bullet Train,” has played his share of gun-wielding hit men, lawmen and underworld adversaries in a prolific 31-year career in film and television.

He has worked around massive, deafening explosions coupled with hazard-prone strafing from the air (“Pearl Harbor,” one of two Michael Bay projects he’s in). He has followed gun safety protocols on low-budget, medium-sized and nine-figure film projects. “Fastidious” is his word for the on-set armorers he has worked with. He has, he says, also seen younger fellow actors “do some crazy, stupid (stuff) with guns over the years on set. Like it’s no big deal.”

Last week, Baldwin was charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter by the Santa Fe County, New Mexico, district attorney’s office. The “Rust” armorer responsible for firearm safety on the set, Hannah Gutierrez Reed, was likewise charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Meanwhile, “Rust” first assistant director Dave Halls agreed to a plea deal on a charge of negligent use of a deadly weapon. Halls allegedly is the one who called out “cold gun,” meaning: The pistol about to be handed to Baldwin for his next scene is safe, either empty or containing decoy or “dummy” rounds.

Was Baldwin criminally negligent for not checking his pistol before rehearsing, with his finger on the trigger? Shannon has some thoughts on that. I talked to him because I wanted to hear an actor discuss his experience with firearm safety protocol, in Shannon’s case on everything from “Boardwalk Empire” to “The Iceman.” More recently, the actor made his feature directorial debut on “Eric Larue,” based on the Brett Neveu drama (first a Chicago premiere, at A Red Orchid Theatre) set in the eerie aftermath of a school shooting.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: We’ve read a lot from variously informed people about whether Alec Baldwin deserves these involuntary manslaughter charges, whether they’ll stick, and what appears to have failed completely with the safety protocols on “Rust.” For those of us who’ve never handled firearms on a movie set, walk us through the process.

A: Sure. It’s not a sloppy procedure, in my experience. It’s very, very meticulous. On most sets, if there is any activity that’s considered potentially risky in any way, shape or form, they start the day with a safety meeting the assistant director runs. They go through all the possible dangerous on-camera activity, and how we’re going to handle that to make sure nobody gets hurt. That’s how the day starts. And all of the armorers I’ve worked with have been super fastidious about what they do.

But “Rust” is an example of a problem I see in filmmaking more and more these days. On smaller productions, independent productions, the producers keep wanting more and more for less and less. They don’t want to give you enough money. They cut corners, ridiculously, every which way. And they get away with it. (“Rust” began shooting with a $7 million production budget.) So every time someone makes a great movie for a million dollars, it sets a precedent. The financiers say, well, Joe Blow made a movie for a million, we’re gonna give you a million, too. And you’re, like, “But I need $3 million to make it the right way.” And they say “Well, I guess you won’t do it, then.” They whittle the budget down to the bare minimum — but the one thing you can’t cut corners on is your armorer. If you have guns in your movie, that’s no place to cut corners.

The person on “Rust” clearly was not qualified for the job. She should not have been there.

Q: According to the prosecutor, it was up to Baldwin, in addition to the armorer, to ensure the safety of the pistol Baldwin was using for the scene. After the charges last week, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists responded in part with this union statement: “The prosecutor’s contention that an actor has a duty to ensure the functional and mechanical operation of a firearm on a production set is wrong and uninformed. An actor’s job is not to be a firearms or weapons expert.”

A: That’s right. If it were up to the actor to determine whether a firearm is safe or not, you wouldn’t need an armorer in the first place. Being an armorer is a hard job, a demanding job, and I have nothing but respect for them. But in this instance, it was going into the ER and finding out your doctor isn’t a real doctor.

When you’re rehearsing a scene with a gun in it, and you’re on set, the gun you’re given almost always is not a gun. It’s a rubber replica. Maybe a plastic one. It is not a firearm. (Video of Baldwin rehearsing a cross-draw before filming a scene from “Rust” reveals the actor with his finger or near the trigger of the weapon that ultimately killed Hutchins.) That’s what you have during any sort of rehearsal or walk-through, right up until you’re figuring out the shot, and what your firing line will be, all of that. You shouldn’t have the actual weapon in your hand until immediately before doing the take.

Now, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes they’ll give you the actual gun to rehearse with a little closer to filming. But there’s a procedure for that. They open the barrel. They show you there’s nothing in there. They show you the chambers, they show the assistant director, and it’s a visual confirmation. The AD’s supposed to check it, the actor checks it and the armorer has checked it. All three of those people have to see there’s nothing in there. And then they hand it to you.

With “Rust,” before that gun went into his hand, (Baldwin) should have seen with his own eyes there was nothing in it.

Q: But not on his own initiative?

A: No. The armorer should’ve brought the gun over to him and said: Here is your firearm. It is empty. Or maybe (the gun) has decoy or dummy rounds in it; you pull the trigger, nothing happens. But you never settle for walking up to an actor and handing the gun over without showing them what’s inside of it. Ever. That was the cataclysmic event on “Rust.” (There have been widespread reports of problems on the “Rust” set prior to the fatal accident involving the accidental discharge of firearms.)

As an actor, if I’m handed a weapon, my finger does not go in the trigger hole at all. I learned this at a very young age as an actor. You lay your finger outside, along the barrel of the gun. You do not put your finger in the trigger hole unless you’re going for a take. If you’re holding a firearm between takes, which you shouldn’t be, you point it at the ground until somebody comes and collects it from you.

I’m not condemning Alec. I feel horrible for the guy. It’s a nightmare. I feel terrible for everyone on that production. But this is what happens when you lowball and cut corners and hire people that may not be qualified, and pay them next to nothing, and make the movie on the cheap. People get jobs in this business because they’re willing to work for a low enough fee. I see it all the time.

Since this happened, I think the armorer might become obsolete. There’s a big push now to do (all the gunfire) in post, you know, postproduction. No more live firing on set, period. So you act like you’re firing a gun when you’re not. It’s called “acting.” And it’s truly not worth dying for.

The other thing you could do, I guess, is take the frickin’ gunplay out of movies in general. I mean, enough, already. You want to watch somebody shoot somebody? There are 500,000 movies already with plenty of it.

Q: Well, that would take care of “Bullet Train” and a few other movies you’ve ...

A: Yeah, but I mean, “Bullet Train” isn’t really based in any conceivable reality that I know. And most of the time I was using a sword in that one. Look, I’m not the poster boy for anything here. But it’s something to think about. Sometimes I wish or wonder if it’ll ever get old.

Q: As an actor do you feel at all conflicted, though? Recreational screen slaughter is still a very big American export. For the average action moviegoer anywhere in the world, it’s the commodity they want.

A: I don’t know. That’s what video games are for, I guess. It’s imaginary and there’s no risk of hurting anybody, as long as it doesn’t inspire you to go out and wreak havoc in real life. Some people draw a connection (between gaming violence and real-world shootings), some people don’t. I guess I don’t see what’s entertaining about it to begin with — this notion of getting vicarious thrills from firearms in the movies. Where’s the thrill? Do we all secretly want to know what it’s like to shoot someone?

Q: You’re coming off your first feature film as director, “Eric Larue.” I saw the world premiere on stage in Chicago 21 years and something like 400 school shootings ago. I wish that were an exaggeration. The story deals with a sobering subject, treated in an unexpected way, with what happens after a school shooting as seen through the eyes of the mother of the killer.

A: Who knows, maybe for every “Bullet Train” out there, we can get behind another, smaller movie like ours to counteract it, and to remind people that (gun violence) is no joke. That it destroys people’s lives. That’s my tit-for-tat idea for the day.

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Shannon’s feature directorial debut “Eric Larue,” adapted from Brett Neveu’s play, is now in postproduction, starring Judy Greer.

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