Michael Shannon turns in a riveting performance as notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s crime thriller, “The Iceman.” The real-life hitman, who in 1986 was convicted of murdering 100 men for various crime organizations around the New York area, was also a devoted husband and father whose family was unaware of his real profession until his arrest. The film’s cast also includes Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, Robert Davi, David Schwimmer, Danny Abeckaser and features cameos by Stephen Dorff and James Franco.
At a roundtable interview, Shannon talked about his character, how he researched the role, bringing out the human side of Kuklinski to make him an empathetic character, working with veteran actors like Ray Liotta, playing opposite Chris Evans’ Mr. Freezy, the rehearsal process, how the suppressed rage of his character in this compares to that of Van Alden in “Boardwalk Empire,” and the satisfaction he gets from playing guys that aren’t always on the straight and narrow. He also discussed the fun he had playing General Zod in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” and the new play by Sam Shepard called “Simpatico” that he’ll be doing for the 20th anniversary of Chicago’s A Red Orchid Theatre.
Question: I don’t know what we should congratulate you on first: this, “Mud” or the upcoming “Man of Steel.” You are just a man of many faces, all of them wonderful.
Michael Shannon: Yeah, and a lot of facial hair.
Q: We just heard about the facial hair. Winona (Ryder) was telling us how it was hard for you to talk with the facial hair when she was trying to say goodbye to you.
Shannon: Sometimes I wouldn’t talk unless I was doing a scene, because I didn’t want this stuff to fall off. I didn’t realize that they could go in and fix a lot of it in post.
Q: You were trying to be frugal about it.
Shannon: Yeah. Save a penny, save a pound. Right?
Q: Kuklinski is not really that well known. Were you familiar with this story and did you look at all of the interviews? Was that important to you or did you just want to capture the essence of who he was?
Shannon: I had never heard of him. That’s for sure. But I did rely on the interviews. I actually got the unedited interview which is very long. It’s over 20 hours long. I watched it a lot. It’s an interesting contrast, because on the one hand, the script, the written materials, there’s no way it’s going to encapsulate his entire life in 90 minutes. That would be a ridiculous task. But you want to approach what is there with as much authenticity as possible. I was trying to be like him. There’s just certain things that were not…like I’m not a giant Polish man. I’m a rather large Irish man. So, it’s a different thing, but I tried to get larger and more Polish.
Q: What distinguishes this film from other mob-based films is the fact that we’re looking at the human side of Kuklinski as opposed to more of the criminal side. How did you tap into that and find the humanity in the performance?
Shannon: A lot of that starts with the script and with Ariel (Vromen). It starts with Ariel letting me know the kind of film that he wants to make. He was very adamant from the get go that he wanted Kuklinski to be an empathetic character, or not to be entirely menacing all the time. Ariel found that Kuklinski had a certain charisma that he wanted to capture. I couldn’t say I disagreed with him. When I watched the interviews, he was very engaging, and if you didn’t know what he did for a living, you could probably talk to him for quite a long time and have an interesting conversation. But, in terms of capturing that human element, I don’t know. I find it very easy when you put me in a room with Winona and the girls playing the daughters. It’s just an instinct. It’s not anything I write notes about in my script. It’s just a natural human instinct, because I have a family and I love having a family. Who doesn’t love having a family? It’s nice to have a family. It’s nice to have people that you care about and that care about you. It’s something to fight for. If anything, it’s what makes the story interesting. If he was just a loner, I don’t know what story there would really be to tell.
Q: Could you talk about working with veterans like Ray Liotta and people like that on set?
Shannon: Ray was awesome. Ray really kept me on my toes. Ray was the first one I worked with – Ray and David (Schwimmer) and John (Ventimiglia) – that whole storyline, the Roy Demeo storyline, is how we started shooting. I just never knew what to expect with Ray from take to take. He would always throw something different in there. You could never quite tell when he was maybe pulling your leg a little bit. He’s got a nice sense of mischief. I think more than anything he’s trying to entertain himself a little bit and keep himself interested. But I’m very grateful that he agreed to sign on to the project. I feel really blessed to be surrounded by [actors like him]. The fact that my name is the first one in that list of names is pretty bizarre.
Q: Apparently everyone wanted to do it because of you.
Shannon: Oh shit!
Q: They said, “I love the script and I love Michael Shannon.”
Shannon: I should run for office.
Q: How do you get over those moments when you’re going in and you’re genuinely excited to work with whoever you’re about to share a scene with, but you can’t use that excitement in what you’re doing. You’ve got to set that aside and go to work. How do you navigate those kinds of great opportunities?
Shannon: Fortunately, the adrenalin that you get from working with people you admire is usually beneficial to the scene, because usually there’s meant to be some adrenalin in the scene. I do honestly think that one of the few people who made Kuklinski nervous was Demeo. Another one that made him nervous was Mr. Freezy. These are two men that he actually managed to have some modicum of respect for. And so, it’s actually kind of cool if I’m like, “Oh that’s Ray Liotta. He’s a badass.” That makes sense.
Q: What about Chris Evans? He surprised me in this. I didn’t even recognize him. Did he surprise you?
Shannon: He was totally ready. He wanted to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mud. He was ready for a little break from “Captain America.”
Q: You can still see those muscles.
Shannon: You can’t hide the muscles. He’s been so squeaky clean for such a long time. He was very excited about being a scumbag.
Q: His character is a loner.
Shannon: He makes Kuklinski look warm and fuzzy. With Kuklinski, it was an outcome of a great rage and this vitriol that he had inside him. With Mr. Freezy, he was actually trying to figure out ways to kill people that were not messy, not loud, and happened instantaneously, where there wasn’t even any emotional satisfaction. The ideal to him is you just walk down the street and you sneeze, and the guy you walk past dies, and nobody knows how it happened. There’s no celebrating. There’s no release or catharsis of any kind. It’s just like swatting a fly. Very weird.
Q: On a low budget film like this, how much rehearsal time are you afforded in the process, especially with so many characters?
Shannon: We didn’t rehearse before we started shooting. We didn’t have a rehearsal period really. I mean, we would rehearse on set a little bit each individual scene. You always show up and break it down for a little while, but you had to think on your toes. You had to be prepared. You had to come in with your idea or your something, or at least be paying attention. Oddly enough, very seldom do we rehearse movies very much. And sometimes, when they try to rehearse, it’s like they don’t even know how to do it very well. It’s not like plays where it’s a ritual and everybody is pretty accustomed to it. A lot of the film rehearsals I’ve gone to historically just wind up with people talking, chitchatting about things. It’s a weird thing with filming. On the one hand, you want to be prepared and you don’t want to waste time. But, on the other hand, something completely spontaneous is supposed to be happening, not something that’s been methodically thought out and premeditated. It’s a very tricky thing.
Q: I see a similarity with your character in this and your character in “Boardwalk Empire” in terms of that same kind of suppressed rage.
Shannon: I guess I can see that. Yeah. They’re both full of something that they can’t handle, that they can’t process, which is eating away at them. That’s true. But Van Alden does not enjoy the violence. He is a self-flagellator or was. He hasn’t done it in a while.
Q: He likes to kill his partner.
Shannon: No, he doesn’t like to kill his partner. That’s not how I would describe that event. I would describe it as a little more complicated than that. But there are some similarities. I should have seen that.
Q: What’s the satisfaction in playing these guys who aren’t always on the straight and narrow?
Shannon: It’s always different. I don’t know. “Premium Rush” I wanted to do because I thought it was funny. I thought David Koepp was a good writer. I went and met him. He’s a good Midwestern boy. He’s from Wisconsin. He’s polite. He made me laugh. It was a fun job. I got to do a little improv. That’s always fun. But my reasons for doing “Premium Rush” are totally different than my reasons for doing “The Iceman” and totally different than my reasons for doing “Boardwalk Empire.” I did “Boardwalk Empire” because it shoots a few blocks from where I live. It’s a good, steady job. My mom would be proud. When I signed up for “Boardwalk Empire,” I went in to meet Terry Winter, and Terry and Marty (Scorsese) were sitting there, and I was very impressed. My heart was beating 200 times a minute, but I still said, “Oh you want me to play the thug?” And they said, “No. You’re going to be the good guy. You’re the man with the heart of gold, and you’re very religious, and you really want to enforce Prohibition to stop people from drinking.” I was like, “That sounds great. That sounds like such a departure. And I won’t have to answer that question anymore about how come I always play the same character over and over again.” Terry’s like, “Are we in?” I’m like, “We’re in.” I shake his hand, and then, three episodes later, I’m sticking my fucking hand in somebody’s gut. What can you fucking do? You can’t win. You just can’t win.
Q: How was it playing General Zod in “Man of Steel”?
Shannon: That was fun. That was a lot of fun. Zack Snyder is an amazing person. He’s a really beautiful man and a lot of fun to work with. You would think there’d be a very high pressure environment because of all the money flying around, but Zack keeps it very down to earth. With Zack, it’s a very physical approach. He wants everybody to be in on the physical side of things. That’s how you start. You work with the trainer, Mark Twight. You do the workouts. You do the stunt training. You do that for a few months. It was interesting. I never had a job like that before where that was the way into it, and I enjoyed it. I actually enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. It was just weird because I would spend months working out and practicing karate chops. And then, all of a sudden one day, I had to say a line of dialogue. I thought, “Oh right. That’s what I do. I’m an actor.” I thought I was a body builder.
Q: Did you have to say the line of dialogue and do the karate chop at the same time?
Shannon: Yes. The line was, “I’m ripped now.”
Q: Now you have something you can talk to Chris (Evans) about, too.
Shannon: Yeah. He’s much more ripped than I am. He’s the most ripped. Oh no, Henry Cavill is the most ripped.
Q: How well did you adapt to the movie magic that needs to be made on a movie like that?
Shannon: I didn’t mind it at all. I mean, what’s the alternative? Anytime there’s a green screen, it usually means that whatever is supposed to be there is impossible to make happen. It’s supposed to be like the cosmos or something. So, I might as well stare at a green screen. I’d rather stare at a green screen than a black poster board with little holes punched out of it. Then I would feel silly.
Q: Your other love is theater. Is it something you love more or is it all part of the same creative body of work?
Shannon: No, I love theater the most. I don’t keep that under my hat. I’m a theater guy. I always go do the theater. I’m going to do it this summer.
Q: What are you going to do?
Shannon: I’m doing a play called “Simpatico” by Sam Shepard in Chicago. My theater, A Red Orchid Theatre, it’s our 20th anniversary and this is our big show. It’s all the ensemble members getting together to put on a play.
Q: When you approach theater, doing the same role night after night, do you try to change it up from night to night or is your approach more consistent?
Shannon: Yeah, but I don’t change it up because I feel like it’s necessary to change it up. I change it up because it can always be better. For me, a really sad thing about acting is that it’s never as good as it should be no matter what you do. In films, that can be very hard to deal with, because you shoot a scene all day, and then you leave, and you’re like, “Well that’s going to be it.” But with a play, you always get a chance because people are endlessly complicated and the whys and wherefores of humanity require constant deliberation.
Q: The audiences are always different each night.
Shannon: But they don’t know any better. (joking) It’s just a bunch of morons.
Q: At the end of the day after a film like “The Iceman,” what do you take away from that personally or learn about yourself through the process?
Shannon: It’s interesting. I remember the first time somebody asked me a question like this was at the Toronto Film Festival. “What did you learn from doing the film?” I was shocked. I was like, “I don’t know what to say.” You would think you would learn something from doing this. You would think, “Oh yeah, I’ve learned a valuable lesson.” The only thing I say is that I think the film makes a pretty good case against living a double life, like double lives are bad ideas, like you should try to live a single life and not keep big secrets because they can eat you alive. Ultimately, Kuklinski’s downfall was that he actually wanted to get caught because he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t take all the secrets. They were driving him crazy.
Q: When you play a character like Kuklinski, is there a process you go through as an actor to cleanse yourself of that character before you move on to the next project? Do you take a hot shower, shave him off, cut his hair, put on different clothes?
Shannon: Yeah, I visit a sweat lodge. I burn a lot of sage. Whirling Dervishes. No, I mean, it’s gone by the end of the day. When they say, “Wrap,” I’m ready to go. I’m gone. I want to eat. I’m hungry. We shot this movie in Shreveport, Louisiana and the restaurants closed very early, so I was always very anxious to get to the restaurant. I’m usually starving by the end of the day because I can’t eat and work at the same time. If I’m acting and I’m digesting food, I feel like it’s not fair to the audience because it’s depleting my energy.