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 Mafia hitman Richard Kuklinski. The film not only chronicles the scores of people Kuklinski was hired to kill in order to provide for his family, but also the denial his wife took on about her husband’s career, as she came to appreciate their flourishing lifestyle.
‘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.
Ryder generously took the time recently to discuss filming ‘The Iceman’ during a roundtable interview at a New York City hotel. Among other things, the actress discussed how Kuklinski’s wife’s continued denial about his career, and her contentment wit the life he was providing for her and their children, allowed her to be happy with their life; how Shannon’s intensity while filming helped develop their working relationship; and how she doesn’t like to take on a role until she reads the script, and feels connected to the character.
Question (Q): Ariel has said that you didn’t want to know anything about Kuklinski’s life before you began filming. Then when you first watched the movie, it was like when his wife was in court, in that you were horrified. So what was your approach to playing Deborah?
Winona Ryder (WR): Well, there wasn’t a lot available about her, that I knew about, at least. I met with Ariel a year before we began shooting, when they were still trying to raise the money. That’s when I checked out some of the interviews that Kuklinski did, and I found him repulsive, so I had to turn them off. I had a friend fast-forward to the 40 seconds that referenced his wife (whose real name is Barbara).
Later, when Ariel asked me to do the movie, I knew I would have to sit through hours of Kuklinski talking about shooting people in the face, or tying them up and having them be eaten by rats. That’s stuff that would not have helped me.
I just saw the movie, and I know people may see her as being completely oblivious. I really didn’t want to play it that way. What I tried to do was play the denial. I think that’s what drew me to the whole project to begin with, the deep denial she was living with for so long. I know we all deal with denial, and we have friends who deal with denial, as it’s a very human thing. But she was flourishing on this blood money, and I think she knew it wasn’t clean money, and to an extent, what he was doing; it was impossible that she didn’t know. This was the ’70s where they had offices and secretaries, and he had a beeper.
But to acknowledge that would have meant that she would bear some responsibility, and she would have to leave with the kids and be a single mother. She liked her life, and she liked the money, which is really twisted in a way. I do not see her as a victim, at all. I’ve been getting mixed feedback. I do believe violence is reciprocal; he grew up terribly abused, but people do overcome it. I do believe there was also greed.
You hear people talk about strong roles for females. But I think there’s something to be said about playing a role of a weak person. I’m not saying she was a weak person-that might not be the right word-but she liked her life. I didn’t have a lot of opportunities, but there were a few scenes that were difficult. The scene where I talk about God with my daughters is terrible. Then there was the scene where she said to Richard, “Oh, I found $30,000 in your pocket, that’s great!” (laughs) Who wouldn’t be like, “Where did you get $30,000? What’s going on?”
I do know there’s a confrontation scene, and I do think people can do that so they can later justify themselves. They can say, “Well, I did ask him about it.” People can confront other people, even though they already know the answer. So I was interested in exploring the denial.
Q: Did you ever actual meet the actual wife in real life?
WR: Oh no, she’s changed her name, and I didn’t get to speak with her. This is the first time I’ve played someone without speaking with them. Usually I like to have their blessing. But in this case, she’s always stuck to her story that she knew nothing. So I don’t think she would want to talk to me.
This was also an adaptation. Obviously, there was a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the movie. That’s why I’m not a director, because I would ask, “Why isn’t this in the movie?” (laughs)
Q: What was it like working with Michael Shannon? Were you intimidated at all by the intensity in his performance, or was it more inspiring?
WR: It was great. But it was also a bit of an adjustment because he doesn’t like to rehearse. I mean this all in a very great way, but you really don’t know what he’s going to do until the cameras roll.
Q: Did you improvise at all in front of the camera?
WR: Well, kind of, but you really don’t know. What that does to me or the other actors is that it pulls you into the moment, and you have to be present. You can prepare for like five years, but all of that will crumble if you’re not present in the moment with the other actor.
The way he works, with that spontaneity, is that it pulls you in and makes you present, and I really appreciated that. I felt a protectiveness, which was nice, which may have to do with the role.
When I was saying goodbye to him, it was funny; he was in the make-up trailer, and I went in. He was like, “I can’t talk, I have the facial hair on.” (laughs) I was like, “Oh, this whole time I thought he was glaring at me, or at least not smiling.” (laughs) Then I realized that was very restrictive. So I give props to Troy (Breeding), who did the facial hair, who passed away recently. He did such an amazing job.
Q: You’ve appeared next to some great villains in your career, such as Dracula. Have you ever thought of playing one yourself, or maybe a really dark character?
WR: I wish I could talk about this role I’m about to do, but they haven’t announced it yet. I still have to sign something, but you’ll find out.
That’s one thing with my career-I’ll say something off the cuff, and then I’ll see it as the headline after my dad sends it to me. Like someone once asked me if something took a toll on me, and I said, “Oh, sure.” Then I saw that as the headline. So you get nervous sometimes about what writers choose to be the headline. I know they need to pick out a headline, but it’s just funny. I’m not denying I said certain things, but it’s funny how quotes are presented.
But it’s always been this way. I’ve never known what role I want to play until I read it. Like in ‘Black Swan,’ it was a very small part, but that was a great little thing. I was really thrilled that they asked me to do that. I know it was very tiny, but it was great to do.
But it usually happens with books, though. But I think I’m one of the only actors who doesn’t want to direct. (laughs) I read a lot of books, and I’m like, “Wow.” But I’m also very protective of certain books, and I’m like, they shouldn’t be adapted.
Q: You’ve been acting since you were very young, as a pre-teen. How do you handle the ups and downs of the business?
WR: Honestly, what helps me, which was true in the beginning, too, was that I never moved to L.A. When I first started, it was a fluke. I had to stay in school and maintain a 4.0, and I could work over the summers. Then when I graduated, I moved, but I maintained a home in San Francisco, and I still do. So I think that helped.
In the clique of actors I was in, all that mattered was if you were in a good movie. We didn’t even think of box office. But it changed a lot. It helps me not get too caught up, and not engaging, in the Internet. I know there are a lot of pluses to it, as well.
I just think Googling yourself is a bad idea. (laughs) The one time I did it, a friend had to talk me off a ledge. (laughs) I know this is very old school, but you have to think about the work itself, and you don’t think about the end result as much. The reward is in the work and the moment, and that’s a good way to live your life. It’s like what John Lennon said, “Life happens when you’re busy making plans.” The work itself is the reward, it’s not to get somewhere. When you start thinking that way, I think your work starts to not be as present.
Written by: Karen Benardello