Growing up in a family with a veneration for violence can have harrowing effects on a child, leaving him susceptible to stay calm in the midst of chaos. This uncanny ability can lead a person to become cold and have no concern for their own well-being, as they learn to compartmentalize their emotions and motivations. This reliance on violence to get what they want, and not allow it to affect their personal relationships, was a unique ability real-life Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinksi displayed throughout the course of his career. The trait impressed crime boss Roy Demeo so much that he trusted the new-found enforcer to carry out his business for years, which is showcased in the new independent crime-thriller, ‘The Iceman.’
‘The Iceman,’ which was co-written and directed by Ariel Vromen follows Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), 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.
Liotta generously took the time recently to discuss filming ‘The Iceman’ during a roundtable interview at a New York City hotel. Among other things, the actor discussed his admiration for Shannon’s serious, intense approach to playing Kuklinski during their scenes together; how he admired Vromen’s passion for the project while they were shooting; and how he relied on the script to gather the information he needed to deliver an authentic portrayal.
Question (Q): Your role of Roy is similar to your character of Markie Trattman in ‘Killing Them Softly.’ Did you do the roles at the same time?
Ray Liotta (RL): I actually did this one right after ‘The Place Beyond the Pines.’ Actually, I’m not even sure when I did this one, but they were around the same time. I did ‘Killing Them Softly,’ ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ and this around the same time. But I don’t know what the order was.
Q: What do you look for in a character before you sign on?
RL: It changes. In the beginning of my career, if I played someone who was edgy, like my first major movie, ‘Something Wild,’ and then ‘Dominick and Eugene’ and ‘Field of Dreams,’ I was a little more precious. Then I realized, you just have to work. You might want to do something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get it.
When I first stared, I was on a soap opera here (‘Another World’), which I did until I was 25. Then I moved to L.A., and for five years, not much really happened. I was just in acting class all the time. Whenever I finished a movie, I’d go back to class.
I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do this type of character again right away, especially after the other two films. But ‘Killing Them Softly’ was softer. I got the crap beat out of me. But then I met Ariel and I liked him, and I like Michael Shannon. I also hadn’t really done a film like this since ‘Goodfellas.’
Q: In ‘Goodfellas,’ you were the one being introduced into the Mafia, and in ‘The Iceman,’ you’re the established one, with Michael’s character coming into it. What was it like, exploring the other side of that dynamic?
RL: Well, I didn’t really look at it that way. I didn’t really know anything about Roy Demeo, so I was reading about it. He was a maniac himself, maybe more so than Michael’s character. (laughs) He was one of the first guys chopping up bodies and spreading them all over the cities, so it was fun to go head-to-head with somebody.
Q: What was it like working with Michael? He had the same intensity you’ve always had, and your characters played off of each other.
RL: I’ve been lucky with the people who I’ve worked with, from Pacino to De Niro to Robert Duvall. They all take their work seriously. Michael falls right in that category. But he’s a pretty goofy guy, if go you beyond that. He had a certain intensity while working.
But we were just doing what the script told us to do, so we were just playing pretend. That was the level we needed to be at. So it was nice to work with him in that sense. You sometimes work with some actors who don’t take it all that seriously. So it’s nice to work with someone who wants to make the movie work.
Q: You’ve been acting for several decades. Are there ever moments when you’re working alongside an actor who’s really present when you’re playing a scene, and they surprise you?
RL: It’s more like, I can’t believe this person is who they are, and I can see right through them. But usually the other way. There are cameras and people around, and the actors get locked in. Pacino was like that. It was like, wow, there’s Al Pacino acting like Al Pacino. (laughs) If you’re locked into what you’re supposed to do, and they’re locked into what they’re supposed to do, you’re just thinking about that.
Q: Michael has said he really isn’t method, and he just looks at the script and plays it the best that he can. Did you enjoy having that common ground with him, in terms of your approach?
RL: Yeah. When I was younger, I held onto things more. I was more into method, because you’re finally getting your chance, so you really want to do what you’re supposed to do. So you have a tendency to hold onto it longer. But once you start doing it longer, and get more experience, you get more comfortable. You just know it’s going to be there.
On the day you’re going to film your scene, like the scene with Michael in the car, I had to be wound up. So I did whatever I had to do. But I wasn’t abusive to PAs (production assistants) or anything. There’s always something around to annoy you. (laughs)
Q: Micheal has said he doesn’t like to rehearse.
RL: I don’t like to rehearse, either.
Q: So that worked for the two of you?
RL: Yeah, I like it better that way. If we ever did have to rehearse, we just did it by the beats. You just say the words as flat as you can. Some directors have their own way of rehearsing. Some say, “The camera’s going to be here. You’re going to be here, you’re going to do this around here.”
Sometimes when you rehearse, you have to get a little bit more into it. You go over where you’re going to be and what you’re going to say. The director comes over and says, “Face here and say this.” A good director will be open.
Q: What was it like working with Ariel as a director?
RL: It was great. I was a little hesitant, because he hadn’t really done anything before. I kind of had my fill of first-time directors. The only other first-time director that I knew had his act together as soon as I met him was Joe Carnahan, who I did ‘Narc’ and ‘Smoking Aces’ with.
But when you met Ariel, there was such a passion. There’s a common denominator I’ve found with every great director, and that’s passion. They’re really excited by the film, and its shots and everything they’re going to do. They also have this knowledge from all the homework they’ve done. I got that from Ariel.
Q: Did you improv at all on this film?
RL: I think it’s better not to ad-lib. Most actors, when they’re ad-libing, just say f*ck a lot. (laughs) You have to really know your character and what you’re doing. Usually, most ad-libing is just relying on the facility you got with other things. There was some improv, but not as much as you think.
Q: How did you prepare for this role, and how did you get inspired by this character?
RL: Well, I read the script, as it pretty much gives you all the information you need. I did read biographies on him; his son wrote a book, and I read that. There were also sections about him on Mafia books. But that was more for knowledge. I find these kinds of people fascinating. That’s a whole world unto itself.
Q: You were born in Newark. Were you familiar with Kuklinski’s story at all?
RL: No, I only knew about it from the HBO documentary (The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman’). But I didn’t know anything else about him. I just watched pieces of that.
Q: Can you talk a little about Roy’s craziness? Was it true that he had Kuklinski shoot the homeless man?
RL: Yeah, I think so. Ariel really did a lot of research on it. I don’t know if it was that specific situation with the bum, but he definitely challenged him to do something.
Q: What was Roy’s relationship with Josh Rosenthal (played by David Schwimmer), who worked under him in the crime family?
RL: I think they had a really close friendship. He was like a son to Roy. That’s why he was really emotional during some of their scenes together. But I think some of the books about them said some of the crew Roy had was a handsome crew, and looked a certain way, which is why there were questions over whether they were lovers. But if anything, Josh messed with Roy by dealing the drugs.
Q: What projects do you have coming up?
RL: I just finished a movie with the Muppets (‘The Muppets…Again!’). I also have a part in ‘Sin City (A Dame to Kill For),’ and I have this drama coming out, ‘The Identical.’
Written by: Karen Benardello