Standing at 6-foot-3, with a head that’s so big it’s a little too large for that body, and added to it, a deep voice that can get very loud, Michael Shannon has, for the past couple of decades, been a go-to actor for casting directors looking for someone with a menacing presence. Sure, he had a brief, goofy cameo early in his career in “Groundhog Day,” and he was a good guy in “Midnight Special,” but it’s those darker roles that people remember. Think General Zod in “Man of Steel” or the real-life serial killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.” Even when he played a lawman looking for some nasty louts in “Nocturnal Animals,” or Nelson Van Alden, the FBI agent-gone-wrong on “Boardwalk Empire,” he was downright scary. Shannon remains on the same road with “The Shape of Water,” in which he plays Richard Strickland, a bad-tempered government agent who’s overseeing a secret operation involving American scientists, Russian scientists, the Space Race, and a strange creature from South America. When Shannon rears up and raises his voice in this one, it won’t just be the characters who are frightened. Even audience members will be cowering in their seats. Shannon, 43, spoke about the film in Los Angeles.

Q: Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed “The Shape of Water,” said he had you in mind as he was writing the script. How did you feel about that when you found out?
A: I thought it was a little presumptuous. Like he just thinks I’m sitting around waiting for him to give me a call. But he was lucky that I was open and amenable to it. (laughs) No, it was very flattering. I’ve been a fan of Guillermo’s for a long time. When we were shooting this movie in Toronto, there was a screening of his film “Pan’s Labyrinth” there for its 10th anniversary. Guillermo said, “They’re playing my movie, want to come?” I said sure. Now, I hadn’t seen it since it came out. He introduced the movie, and I sat there and watched it, and I kept saying to myself, “I can’t believe I’m working with this guy. Tomorrow morning I’ll get up and go to the film set and work with THIS guy.” It just really re-invigorated that sense that this was a special opportunity.

Q: You’ve played the villain so many times before. How did you feel about doing it again this time?
A: The first thing is that I don’t think of him as a villain. The interesting thing about it is that back in the old days, when they were making B movies like “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” Strickland would have been the good guy, not the bad guy. He’d be the one who was trying to save mankind from dark forces. The fact that you can invert that (idea) in this film kind of highlights how ridiculous the whole notion of heroes and villains is to begin with. We’re all people. Strickland is a person. I think he’s a deeply damaged human being who is operating on some very erroneous assumptions that if he does X, Y, and Z, if he buys X, Y, and Z, he’ll be happy. Of course, that’s not true. It’s a false path that leads to a hollow, meaningless existence. So, a lot of people respond to that by being not terribly nice, as evidenced in the history of our country over the last 50 years.

Q: Did you change Strickland much in your initial talks with Guillermo?
A: Guillermo was very much shepherding the process. I would never presume to know better than Guillermo. The characters all represent aspects of his personality. I’ve heard him talk about how one of the inspirations for Strickland was the way Guillermo often felt when he would come to Hollywood from Mexico. As he was making a name for himself, and people were realizing his unique talents, he was spending more time here, and as much as people would pat him on the back, he always felt very anxious. (He thought) no matter how high up the ladder you get, there’s always someone who can step on your hand and send you back to the bottom. That feeling is very relevant in Strickland.

“The Shape of Water” opens on Dec. 8.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.