Two-time Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Winona Ryder turns in one of the best performances of her career in Ariel Vromen’s crime thriller, “The Iceman,” which chronicles the life of notorious contract killer, Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon). Ryder plays Kuklinski’s unsuspecting wife who chose to believe what he told her he did for a living rather than ask questions about what he was actually doing. The cast also includes Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, Robert Davi, David Schwimmer, Danny Abeckaser and features cameos by Stephen Dorff and James Franco.
At the film’s recent press day, Ryder talked about what attracted her to the role, how she prepared, what she suspected her character knew about her husband’s professional life, how she looked forward to working with Shannon, the directing process with Vromen and how it compared to collaborating with Tim Burton, what it was like recreating the ‘70s and bringing the style and sensibilities of that era to life, her favorite mob movies, and why she doesn’t want to glorify serial killers. She also discussed her upcoming projects including a TV series in development inspired by “Heathers.”
Question: Did you know this story? Didn’t it seem amazing his wife did not know anything?
Winona Ryder: Oh she did. I think she did. She had to have known. There’s no way to be in a relationship for that long and to have kids. And also, this is the 70s. This is the era of offices and secretaries, and he doesn’t have either, so how’s she not know. She’s doing his laundry and he’s shooting people in the face. There’s clearly going to be some blood she’s going to ask about. There are just too many things. I just think that the level of denial was so deep, and that for her to even get to a place to acknowledge it would have meant that she would have had to take some responsibility, and then also leave and raise these kids on her own, which she should have done, and many women do, but there was a real greed and ugliness, I thought. I tried getting in there in the scene in the bedroom where I say that thing about God, which is a horrible thing to say. But I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to get those things in there to make her more [plausible]. I didn’t see her as a victim. I saw her as someone who was flourishing from essentially blood money and chose not to look at it the same way.
If you look at the wives of dictators all over the world and people like Bernie Madoff who claimed they knew nothing, really? At the same time, these are all just my own personal feelings. It’s a slippery slope. There’s a quote from a Josephine Hart book, “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” And then, there’s this other James Baldwin quote, “We pay for our sins by the lives we lead.” I thought of that one when we were making this because I do think that certainly watching the film, Michael is so good, but he’s paying. He’s a miserable guy. I don’t think he’s sleeping peacefully at all. In a way, it’s kind of sick that she may be sleeping well. That’s even scarier. What’s scary to me is there’s what Kuklinski did, but then what’s really scary are the people that are so fascinated with him or obsessed with him or Jeffrey Daumer. I always found that so creepy. For me, I was just more like, “Who is she?” For actors, it’s all about reacting. However big your role is, you have to think of it from your perspective to be any good.
Q: This is one of the best performances of your career. Between the accent, the performance, the nuance, you really captured the whole era. Did you read Barbara Kuklinski’s book, “Married To The Iceman: A True Account Of Life With A Mafia Hitman And The Inside Story Of His Crimes”?
Ryder: I didn’t even know about it. That’s so weird.
Q: That book confirms exactly what you suspected about her as knowing what was going on.
Ryder: The thing was, I didn’t even know that was available. All the information and research that was available was about him talking about shooting people in the face. It would have affected the way that I think the director wanted me to play it. It’s interesting. I didn’t know that she wrote a book. I was told she changed her name and moved away and claims to this day to know nothing.
Q: No, she decided to write a book and capitalize on The Iceman fame.
Ryder: Wow. Interesting.
Q: So your suppositions really hold true because she then came out and said she was beaten and abused and so were her daughters.
Ryder: Do you think though that that’s true? I know that he mentioned something about that in an interview, but I feel like he would have done anything she’d have said at that point. He would have said, “Okay. If you want me to say that I abused you, I’ll say that.” I think she did have some control over him. There’s one scene I had where I say, “I’m really proud of you.” There was a little more to that that I was hoping they would leave in. It was like encouraging him, “I want my life this way. Keep doing what you’re doing, whatever it is.” That’s really sick.
Q: Are there some important scenes that you shot that have been left out of the cut that you hope will be on the DVD?
Ryder: Oh they do that now, don’t they? That’s scary. I heard that. Do they recut the movie?
Q: Sometimes they do a director’s cut and other times they add on the deleted scenes on the DVDs.
Ryder: I found because of the time constraints and the budget, things were getting trimmed as we went. It’s not “The Icewoman.” It’s “The Iceman.” So I had to do what I could with what I had. There’s a scene that I know got cut into a montage with the Thanksgiving toasts where I’m pregnant. That was a full scene. Like I said, there were some very small moments that I tried to make the most of. I know they want to sell it, but I just think it was darker than that.
Q: How did you feel about recreating the 70s and that whole style, sensibility and clothing? I imagine it’s the closest that you get to going through a time machine.
Ryder: I was born in the 70s. My hat is so off to all the department heads because they really worked wonders with no money. For me personally, the wardrobe helped me a lot because I tend to work from the shoes up. A woman who wears high heels is very different, I think, than a woman who wears sandals. I felt like she was a woman who really put herself together, even just to go to the supermarket. There’s a scene where I’m like, “Do you want anything from the store?” It’s such a brief scene, but it’s like a full length Valentino suit and my hair and my make-up. That’s who she was. Sometimes those departments don’t get as much credit as they deserve, and we had a great cinematographer, Bobby Bukowski. They did such a great job with zero money, like negative zero. It was costing us to be there, and also it’s Louisiana. But that’s how I saw her as very put together. She cared about what people thought of how she looked and that always helps, whether it’s a corset or something else. Any nice things that have been said about my performances I owe often to the lack of oxygen that’s going into me. It’s given me a look of repressed whatever when it’s really just physical.
Q: Can you talk about working with Michael? I understand he stayed in character all day. That’s pretty intense.
Ryder: I’ll tell you something. When they wrapped me, I went in to say goodbye. He was still working and he was in the make-up trailer, and I said, “I just want to say goodbye.” He said, (mimicking his muffled voice) “I can’t talk because I have the facial hair on.” All this time I thought he was glaring at me or he didn’t like me, and I realized he couldn’t talk because of the facial hair. It’s apparently very restrictive.
Q: It’s his version of the corset.
Ryder: Yeah. He’s a very focused guy and very intense, all of those things. Yes. They’re all true, and again, air quotes in character. I loved what it brings out in the actors and particularly me. You have to be present. It doesn’t matter, whatever you’ve prepared will go out the window unless you’re totally present, and the spontaneity and all that. Also, he doesn’t eat at all during the day. But then, at the end of the day, he goes out to dinner and is a very social person. Again, I think it’s because of the facial hair. It was really funny. It didn’t cross my mind until he said that. Oh wow, okay, that makes sense.
Q: Almost everyone who’s come through so far has had an interesting story about encountering a real organized crime figure. I’m just wondering if you’ve crossed paths with anybody who revealed themselves?
Ryder: I’m trying to think. I wonder if I have but I didn’t know. I’ve met some big, shady-seeming people, but organized crime? I don’t know. I do know I have family from Tenafly, New Jersey. My cousins competed with the Penske kids. I mean, swimming at their schools. That was pretty random. My Aunt Joan was very helpful with accent because that’s where she’s from.
Q: How is it working with a director like Ariel after working with someone like Tim Burton?
Ryder: I just did a video with Tim (referring to the clip Burton directed for The Killers’ new ballad, “Here With Me”). I have this weird telepathic relationship with Tim where literally, I don’t know how this is going to translate for you, but it’s like, “Can you just do that thing?” “Oh yeah, yeah.” “It’s like that.” Oh yeah.” And then, I get it. It’s really wonderful. It wasn’t so much like that with Ariel, and I’m not in any way complaining. This was really Michael’s film, and there wasn’t a lot of money or a lot of time to sit around and analyze and talk about her in depth because of the way that it was shot. But he was great about respecting my vision of it, too. He was a little bit flexible. I don’t know. I would like to talk to him about how he feels about the whole process and what he thinks that she [knew].
Q: He said that the family has seen the film and that they liked it.
Ryder: Really? I did not know that. I clearly don’t know what to say about it. It’s so dark. It’s such a dark thing. It’s like I don’t know if I want to read that book. It’s the violence, man. That was the thing. My first thought when they first offered it was that I don’t want to be a part of hurting anybody, any of the victim’s family members, anybody out there that’s going to be hurt by this or whose brother got killed by this guy. Ariel assured me that, if anything, everyone wanted it to be told. At least that’s what he told me. I’m just very super-sensitive to that kind of stuff.
Q: Can you talk about what you have coming up next?
Ryder: I want to say. I really want to, and honestly I’ll be able to soon. I’m not allowed to yet, but I’m very excited about it.
Q: There’s been a little bit of talk about a couple of your most beloved movies, like “Beetlejuice,” and there’s been talk of another one, and we got a little clue online that maybe the script was finished. Have you heard anything?
Ryder: All I know is that there are scripts being written. I think everyone is waiting to see what that is.
Q: And then, “The Heathers” TV show, there’s an open opportunity from them. They’re trying to develop a “Heathers” TV show. Have you heard about this?
Ryder: I heard that they’re doing one with Ashley. Is that what you’re talking about?
Q: It’s something along the lines of what they’re doing with Bates Motel. They’re doing a series that’s spinning out of the mythology of it.
Ryder: I heard that it’s supposed to be my character’s kid in high school and her name’s Ashley. This is what someone told me, but I talked to Dan Waters (writer of the 1988 “Heathers”), who’s a good friend of mine. It was just weird because neither of us knew anything about it. It was like we heard about it with everybody else and we didn’t know. That should be interesting. I mean, I love that movie so much. I can’t really imagine it on TV. Is that a channel you can…?
Q: I think it’s A&E.
Ryder: The language is so important in that, and I don’t know if it can be done at that time. It’s such a good movie.
Q: Are you a big fan of all of the Mafia movies?
Ryder: I would say I’m a fan of Scorsese. Obviously, they’re just great films. I mean, “Mean Streets” and “Good Fellas.” It’s not the Mob, but I’m hugely obsessed with “The Wire.” “Donnie Brasco” was also good.
Q: There’s always this audience for these kinds of stories that are intriguing true-crime dramas. Do you have any insight into why they’re so enduring?
Ryder: I don’t have any insight at all. If a film is well made, then great, whatever it’s about. But what I don’t like and find myself sensitive to, and I think it must be based on a couple of interviews I saw, is when they make movies about serial killers who want to be famous. Do you know who Joe Bob Briggs is? He’s this critic at Movie Guy. He once wrote this great piece. It’s an interesting argument. It’s about when Time Magazine first put the KKK on the cover, even though it was a story about how awful they were, their membership quadrupled. He was saying, “Should we ignore these people that almost want this?” There are going to be those alienated youths that are like, “We want to go join now because we don’t know where we [belong].” It was just an interesting piece that I read when I was in high school. There are guys out there that want to be famous, and so there’s this knee jerk reaction of “then let’s not even [go there].” But then, of course, you have to report on certain things.
Q: It’s like glorifying serial killers.
Q: I had a friend who mentioned that, too. After they captured the guys who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings, he said, “The media should tone it down because we don’t want to glorify these guys the way it’s happened before with other tragic events.”
Ryder: Obviously, every situation is different. There’s an energy out there that you don’t want to tap into, but you also don’t want to contribute to it. But here I am in “The Iceman.” I’m trying not to do that so much with this.