Some people will do whatever it takes to provide for their family, even if it means breaking the law to give their loved ones the best possible life. They come to justify their actions, no matter how violent or despicable, if it means their loved ones are cared for. That’s certainly the case in the new crime thriller, ‘The Iceman,’ which is based on the true story of hitman Richard Kuklinski. The film, which stars Michael Shannon in the title role as Kuklinski, details the lengths a person would go to in order to provide a better life for their children, even if it means breaking the moral and legal structures of society.
‘The Iceman,’ which was co-written and directed by Ariel Vromen follows Kuklinski, a hitman who was convicted of murdering 100 men for various crime organizations around the New York and New Jersey area in 1986. Despite being a cold-blooded killer, Kuklinski was also living the American dream with his wife, Deborah (Winona Ryder), and their two daughters. His family and close friend, Dino (Danny Abeckaser), were unaware of his real profession until he was arrested. While determined to support his family and keep them safe, Kuklinski resorted to working for mob boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) in the 1960s as a way to move up in society. His ease at compartmentalizing his brutal killings from his love for his family allowed him to keep his true profession hidden for almost a quarter of a century.
Shannon generously took the time recently to discuss filming ‘The Iceman’ at a New York City hotel. Among other things, the former Academy Award nominee discussed how watching the unedited Kuklinski interviews for the HBO documentary, ‘The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman,’ helped get him into the character’s mindset; how incorporating the seriousness of the hitman’s killings, without glamorizing the crimes, was one of the most challenging aspects of making the crime thriller; and how Kuklinski and Nelson Van Alden, his character on the hit HBO crime drama series ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ are similar in their self-loathing natures.
Question (Q): The film’s director, Ariel Vromen, said when he first spoke to you about ‘The Iceman,’ you said “You can’t get this movie made with me, no one will let you do it. I’m not big enough of a name.” But you got it made anyway, and you’ve made a name for yourself with ‘Boardwalk Empire.’ Have you seen a transition in your career?
Michael Shannon (MS): Yeah, I do. The whole system now is about foreign numbers. They run the numbers globally, to see how much money people can come up with. I think I’m coming up to $10 million globally, so that’s very exciting information for all of us. (laughs)
Q: Your character is this sociopathic guy. How did you get into his mindset?
MS: The way I got into the character was that I was given an unedited copy of the first interview, I believe, he did for HBO. It’s over 20 hours long, and I would sit and watch it by myself, over and over. It became a very intimate thing, watching this guy by myself on TV. I almost started to feel as though I was the interviewer, even though I wasn’t asking the questions. I can’t think of a better way to research a part, really.
I started reading one of the books. But Ariel told me that the book I was reading wasn’t as accurate as the other book. Then I had to throw my hands up and say, all of these books are probably half true and half false.
Then watching the interview, you’re never quite sure what to believe. He contradicts himself all the time, and there were a lot of things he didn’t want to talk about. But watching the unedited version, you get to see some of the more mundane interviews that he and the interviewer had. You see the interviewer try to break him down.
One of my favorite clips from the interview is when the interviewer asked him, “Do you like sports?” He was like, “No, I don’t like sports. I went to a baseball game once, and I didn’t like it.”
The interviewer said, “Well, you must have some free time sometimes. Do you have any hobbies?” He said, “No, I don’t really have any hobbies.” The interviewer asked, “Well, what do you like to do?” He said, “I like to sit at home in my chair. If I didn’t have to leave the house, I wouldn’t.”
I found that very funny, but also very touching. I realized that this is a guy who just really wanted to be home, more than anything, but he never really had that when he was a kid. When he grew up, he tried to create it for himself.
Q: What was the most challenging part of playing Kuklinski?
MS: There were a lot of challenging aspects. I drew my own conclusions on him, and it would be false of me to claim that they were right, or the only conclusions you could come up with. But I think he was a very sad, lonely person, who was destined to lead a very bleak existence. But he met a woman and fell in love and realized that he might have an opportunity to have a home and family that he never really had.
He was also given an opportunity by Roy Demeo to turn this angst inside of him into something constructive. So he had these two golden opportunities, but he could never ultimately escape who he was.
Anytime you’re acting like you’re killing someone, it’s very tricky. Nothing’s actually happening, but you want it to have the gravity that that situation would really have. You don’t want it to seem too frivolous or like a movie. You want it to have the seriousness that it would really have.
But you also don’t want to glamorize it, or make it look like fun. That issue comes up all the time, like how does it influence the culture and young people?
Q: Do you get recognized on the street? Do you struggle with wanting to have anonymity, while also gaining increased success?
MS: Yeah, I get recognized. I think once you’re on a television show, you’re going to get recognized, because you really become a part of some people’s ritual. Some people say, “Every Sunday night, I turn on the TV and watch you.” So that’s when that really started happening, with ‘Boardwalk (Empire).”
As long as people don’t ask me for anything, I don’t really mind being recognized. I mean, there’s nothing really to talk about. When someone stops you and says, “I know you,” and you say, “Yeah, you do.” (laughs)
Sometimes people will say, “Can I have your autograph?” Then they pull out a receipt. (laughs) They’re not going to keep that. Sometimes people ask you for your autograph, and they don’t even know what your name is. I could sign anything, and they wouldn’t know the difference. So unless you have a really nice autograph book, and I could tell you’re going to cherish it for decades, the autograph thing confuses me. It’s just going to end up in the laundry. (laughs)
Q: Are you uncomfortable with your sex appeal?
MS: I didn’t know I had it. (laughs) I only have it when I’m in hotels. That makes me very happy. I’ve spent most of my life having people tell me that I look like the character Jaws (played by Richard Kiel) from the ‘James Bond’ movies (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ and ‘Moonraker’). Is that guy sexy? I guess he is if you like metal teeth. (laughs) I guess it’s a new thing. I guess the Botox is paying off.
Q: Speaking of ‘Boardwalk Empire,’ your character, Nelson Van Alden, is very repressed in the way he expresses himself. That’s not a problem for Kuklinski, who will kill at the drop of a hat. Can you talk about the comparison of those two characters?
MS: Well, I think they’re both self-loathing, basically. I think that in order to be able to desensitize yourself enough to do something like that, you have to have a low opinion of yourself. I think the thing that would stop most of us from doing what they do is not wanting to inflict harm on another human being, and the repercussions it would have on your own life. People think, “I could end up in jail and lose everything.” If you don’t really care much about yourself, that doesn’t bother you. You think, what difference does it make? I think that’s one similarity.
Other than that, I think they’re pretty different people. Van Alden isn’t a killer. Everyone says Van Alden’s the villain of the show, and I think, how many people has he killed? Maybe two? How many people has (Richard) Harrow (played by Jack Huston) killed? (laughs) So I don’t really understand that.
Van Alden’s not a mass murderer. The baptism drowning was unfortunate, and he just got carried away. The other killing was his wife’s fault, and he just had to finish him off. So I never understand when people say, “I hate you on ‘Boardwalk Empire.’” I’m like, really? They say, “Well, you’re a great actor.” (laughs) I say, “Well, I hate you, too!” (laughs)
Q: People think of you with this intensity, as you’re also going to be the villain, General Zod, in the new ‘Superman’ movie, ‘Man of Steel.’ Can you talk about the realities of being typecast?
MS: Well, I’m really happy with my career. If someone else wants to categorize what I do, that’s their business. But to me, I look at it as, I get a part and I play the part. I think that I have a lot of variety.
Written by: Karen Benardello