“The Iceman” stars Michael Shannon as notorious real-life Mafia hit man Richard Kuklinski, who killed between 100 and 300 people for more than two decades until his arrest in 1986. (He died in jail in 2006.) Kuklinski got his name because he was coldblooded in his assassinations and also because he came up with the idea of freezing his victims so nobody could tell when they were murdered.
Directed by Ariel Vromen, “The Iceman,” in theaters this Friday, May 3, is a grim but powerful movie with a strong central performance by Shannon, who manages to imbue the character, who should be a total monster, with real complexity, so that occasionally, unsettling as it is, the viewer even feels empathy. Shannon, who received an Academy Award nomination in 2008 for “Revolutionary Road,” watched 20 hours of unedited interviews with Kuklinski to find his way into the character.
The movie also has a strong ensemble, featuring Winona Ryder, who plays Deborah Kuklinski, who claimed she knew nothing about her husband’s crimes. Ryder is so good in the film that it recalls her early work, which earned her two Academy Award nominations (“Little Women” in 1994 and “Age of Innocence” in 1993) and also leaves hope that she’ll soon make her way back into more starring roles.
The cast also includes David Schwimmer (“Friends”), Chris Evans (“Captain America”), Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”) and James Franco in a cameo.
Next up for Shannon is General Zod in “Man of Steel,” in theaters June 14. And to see how really hilarious he can be, check out his Funny or Die video (NSFW!) where he reads a nutty letter from a sorority sister.
The role of Richard Kuklinski is so intense, serious and focused; how much did you stay in your character between takes?
I’m not really that kind of guy. I find acting kind of tiring so if the camera’s not rolling, I prefer not to be acting, ’cause nobody’s ever going to see that.
Between takes, I sit in my chair and try to relax because it’s all about conserving energy to me, making sure you’re putting everything on the screen.
Your performance is very menacing, but also very restrained at the same time. Talk about the scene where you’re careening in the car, especially in one of the scenes where you think you’re being tailed.
You’re right — we didn’t have a huge squadron of stunt men or cars or things like that. But we did have a very good stunt coordinator, and he did get some amazing shots of the car driving in oncoming traffic. We were not involved with those at all. That was his own thing, but I did actually drive the car pretty fast with them in it. I think it was Winona’s first day of shooting, that scene.
I think it’s something not everyone can identify with, but it’s certainly a prevalent problem in the United States, the road rage issue. There was one point where I went to make a turn and the back end of the car went up on the sidewalk. For a second, it seemed like we might have a little accident on our hands, but I managed to control the car and keep that from happening. I’m no stunt driver really, but it was an automatic. Those are pretty easy to drive.
How was your rapport with the other actors between takes?
It’s different with everybody. Ray [Liotta, who plays gangster Ray Demeo] is obviously playing a person everyone’s intimidated by, even Richard, so to try and maintain that sense of danger, we never really got too chummy with each other. He was pretty quiet. He would goof around with the people who were in his group, like David [Schwimmer]. They developed a kind of rapport. I was supposed to be kind of isolated to myself, so I didn’t get involved in that so much.
But Winona and I got along quite well. Most of the scenes we have are kind of fraught and her emotions are very accessible to her, so she does get very worked up. It is hard for her to calm down. But fortunately, I also had some scenes that weren’t so dramatic, particularly with our daughters and kind of the family scenes. I thought they were fun, a relief to do where something terrible wasn’t happening all the time.
How did watching the Kuklinski interviews help you find the character?
An imitation is pointless if that’s all you’re doing, because I’m not going to do the interview better than he did it. I think the value of doing the film at all, when you’re watching an interview, is that you’re seeing somebody at the end. Their lives are pretty much over and he’s going to die in jail and that’s it. Just getting an opportunity, and it was very much a process of imagination, imagining what he would have been like throughout these decades of his life, was actually more artistically stimulating than simply trying to make a facsimile of his life.
Did you have empathy for him?
I have to have empathy for him. If I can’t have empathy for him, then I can’t be in the movie or I’m not the right person for the movie. I actually found him to be a very fragile person embalmed in a façade of machismo. I think underneath it all, he’s a very delicate person.
What surprised you about the interviews?
How I wound up finding him to be a very sad person. Like the initial response to him usually is — this man is a monster, a cold-blooded ruthless killer, assassin. The way it’s edited on HBO, that’s the presentation. But I honestly just thought the more I watched him and listened to him talk, the sadder and more tragic I found him to be.
Talk about the Funny or Die video with the cheerleader rant. Considering how popular that video has become, will you consider doing more comedy?
I’ve done comedy historically. I did improv in Chicago for years, and I’ve been in some films that I would consider there to be some comedy in them. So I don’t feel like I’ve never done it, but I think honestly, maybe those films don’t get as much attention as the films that are dramatic in nature.
Was it fun to make?
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. I didn’t go to university and I wasn’t in any of these groups. It’s completely foreign to me, so I guess maybe that’s what makes it so bizarre and funny is that I don’t know what this girl’s talking about. I don’t even know what I’m talking about.
How do you feel about being yourself as an actor and as part of an ensemble in “The Iceman,” compared to being part of an ensemble in the new Superman movie (“Man of Steel”)?
Well, I’ve seen “Man of Steel” and I’ve seen “Iceman,” and I’m proud of both of them. “Man of Steel” is a very exhilarating movie to watch. It’s a very powerful film. It also has surprising gravity to it. It’s definitely intended to be hugely entertaining, and I feel it is. It’s not completely without some subtext or moral, but I don’t know if I can say that I am more or less proud of one or the other. They’re very different processes.
“Iceman” was a very difficult movie to make. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we didn’t have a lot of money. There were days when we literally didn’t think we’d be able to shoot the whole movie, that we would have to cut scenes out of the movie because we were going to run out of time or run out of money. The fact that when I go in and I sit there and see that it’s all there, it’s something that I’m proud of.