In Michael Shannon’s gallery of screen psychopaths, the role of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski, nicknamed “The Iceman”, might just be his most unhinged nutjob yet.
Deservedly compared to the ‘70s heyday works of Pacino and De Niro, Academy Award nominee Shannon stars in Ariel Vromen's The Iceman as the real-life hitman, convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for various crime organizations around the New York area. When not taking out hits for the mob, Kuklinski was also a devoted husband and father whose family was unaware of his real profession until his arrest.
We spoke to Shannon about researching a real-life killer, the duality of the role and the hugely successful comedy people tend to forget he was in.
GFW: This role must have demanded a lot of research. Was Jim Thebaut's documentary "The Iceman Tapes" essential in prepping for this?
Michael Shannon: Ariel [Vromen, director] got me the full, unedited version of the initial interview that Richard Kuklinski did … It’s like, twenty hours or so, and I watched it, over and over again and I still don’t really understand how people manage to kill one another, it eludes me. I can’t say even after I’ve made the movie that I understand it, but fortunately, I don’t actually have to kill anybody ... A lot of people think that he [Kuklinski] had no remorse or regrets or never questioned his actions, and I really don’t think that’s true. I think, at the end of the day, he knew who he was and what he had done, and he could just never figure out how to stop it.
As a family man yourself, the unsettling dichotomy embodied in Kuklinski must have disturbed you. How was it, taking him home every night?
I think I left it all in the film, it wasn’t like there was any residual. It’s not like I entertained the notion of, you know, getting into the business myself! Though it’s easy to forget when you’re watching the movie, what a stressful, anxious life he must’ve had … People, they think that it was easy for him or that he didn’t care or that he didn’t feel anything, and I just, I never really thought that was the case. One of the big questions is how did a guy who was so good at this for so long wind up getting caught? I mean he did this for years and years and nobody came anywhere near him. One of the theories Ariel and I had is that he literally wanted to get caught, that he couldn’t handle it anymore.
You've got Goodfella Ray Liotta in the cast, but the film doesn't glamorise the life or use clichéd period songs common to the genre. Having been on Boardwalk Empire for a long time, was this part of the appeal, that it was more a character study than a gangster film?
Yeah, definitely. You really hit it on the head. I wasn’t interested in making a mob picture. I feel like all the best Mafia movies have already been made, I don’t see how anyone’s going to make a better one. I did think that Kuklinski was an unusual person and that merited consideration or contemplation. I also look at the story as kind of a parable, of sorts. Just because I feel like there’s this situation that exists in the world where people make money off the misfortunes of other people.
You've played many psychotic characters, in films like Bug and The Runaways. The closest to Richard is probably in Take Shelter but he's trying and failing to keep a lid on it. Was it interesting taking those energies you can naturally tap into and pushing them down deep to play someone who seems on the outside, as cold as ice?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, the scenes that were the most challenging or the most stimulating to work on were the scenes where I was with the family, you know? The scene with the birthday party and then, the mail pulls up outside … Going from the house to the car and then back to the house, that was really trippy, you know? It’s a big responsibility playing this character, the fact they thought I could do it, I was pretty honoured by that.
After a series of dark roles, would you ever do an out-and-out comedy? You’ve shown you can do it only recently in that Funny Or Die video.
If you really look at most of what I’ve done, there tends to be humour dispersed throughout, you know, like a little oregano in a soup or something; it’s not like, it’s not totally joyless. I mean I’m in Bad Boys II, which is one of the most financially successful comedies ever made. It’s not like I don’t do comedy, but I just don’t know what it would be. Someone would have to send it to me and I’d have to read it, and that hasn’t happened yet, so as soon as those two things happen, I’ll say yes.
As an independent film, how was playing such an intense role over such a short shooting schedule?
It’s like a tour of duty or something. It’s like if you’re out in Afghanistan or something, you can’t wake up one morning and say ‘Oh this is too hard, I’m just gonna go home,’ you just gotta finish your tour. And so when you’re in the middle of a film, you wake up and look at your call sheet, and you’re like, ‘Oh Jesus, we’re doing this today’. But I mean, you can’t quit, you know? You’re there, they’re paying you ... I don’t goof off a lot on set. If I’m not in front of the camera, I just eat carrot sticks and keep quiet.
Is that a part of the reason for doing Man of Steel? Something more fun with a bigger budget and more time?
I can’t really fathom how someone would say no to Man of Steel. I kinda thought someone was pulling my leg the whole time until I was actually there filming. Then I realised they were serious, that they really wanted me to do this. And Zack [Snyder] is one of the funnest directors I’ve ever worked for and he’s got a great sense of humour, just a lot of fun to be around. It’s obviously a very big-budget movie with very high expectations, but I never felt that pressure on the set. I never felt like, ‘Oh I better not blow it or I’m never gonna work again’. I wouldn’t say casual’s the right word, but it was definitely fun.
It’s great to see Winona Ryder back on screen and in a substantial role. Not only that, you got to go on a date with her!
That was cool. I really enjoyed doing that because that was the one scene where I knew I wasn’t going to be killing anybody and nothing bad was happening. Honestly I think it’s a very romantic scene, so the people who wanna see me do something romantic can watch that and then they can leave I guess!
You met Kuklinski’s daughter at the premiere…
I did, yes.
What did she think of your performance as her dad?
I mean, gee. I’m playing her dad, you know? I think it was rough for her, ‘cause like any biopic, it’s not completely true all the time, and I think actually her home life wasn’t probably all that ideal … But she really loved her dad, a lot, and she seemed very moved by my efforts. Particularly the effort I made at the end of the film. Basically it’s a quote from the HBO interview. It was very emotional for her to see that. To see someone put that much effort into trying to understand her father, ‘cause I don’t think many people do. I think they just think he’s a cold-blooded psycho, but to her, that was her dad, so. It was pretty intense for both of us.
'The Iceman' is released in UK cinemas this Friday (June 7). Canadian release pending.