One of the best things about “The Iceman,” a grim story about real-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) is Winona Ryder’s terrific performance as his wife Deborah, a woman who claims she knew knowing about her spouse’s dreadful crimes. We haven’t seen nearly enough of this fine actress lately, although she had a small but important role in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” in 2010.
Ryder received two Academy Award nominations and was a major movie star in the 90’s. She’s best known for her collaborations with Tim Burton, including “Beetlejuice” (1988) and “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). Last year she was the voice of one of Burton’s characters in his animated film “Frankenweenie.”
In her long career – she started when she was very young – she had a period of time where she was fodder for the gossip mills. And then she decided to lead a quieter life out of the Hollywood glare and moved back home to San Francisco, where she resides happily, she said at a recent junket for “The Iceman.”
She’s only 41 and still beautiful. As Michael Shannon noted (read his Q&A here), she’s a woman whose “emotions are easily accessible” and you could feel how much her performance in “The Iceman” means to her and also her desire to be as honest as she could about expressing her opinions without revealing too much of herself.
The good news is that although she’s not as busy as she used to be – primarily by choice – she still enjoys making movies and has movie projects lined up for the future, including “Homefront” and “Automata.”
Here are edited highlights from her interview with journalists about the film, which opens Friday, May 3.
Your character has a lot of denial about knowing what her husband does. How did you approach her level of understanding of that?
I know the movie sort of plays like that, but I’m of the school of thought that she did know more than she let on. And what I tried to do, and hopefully this came through a little bit, is infuse a little bit of complexity, because I do feel that she had to have known … I was very interested in exploring that level of denial. Deep down, she must have known it wasn’t clean money and to acknowledge it would have meant taking responsibility and also leaving with the children, which would have been hard. So in a way, I think it says a lot about who she was in terms of what kind of responsibility she bears. Like the women who are married to people like Bernie Madoff to warlords. She was flourishing. They weren’t just scraping by. They were doing really well. And she liked her life and I think – I don’t know, and this is obviously based on the stories – I do think there was a level of encouragement.
How protective were you with the two girls who played your daughters, McKaley Miller and Megan Sherrill (15)?
They were amazing. I totally credit them with [a lot that’s] good in my performance because they were the exact age when I started acting. So even though I don’t have kids, I had this weird primal protective thing going on. It wasn’t a very kid-friendly set to be on, and they ‘re so sweet and impossible not to love and want to protect. But they really helped me tremendously as very talented actresses but also as wonderful girls, and it just really added a whole new element to what I had to do … I feel like I’ll hopefully forever be bonded to them. They’re just really special … I was just texting them yesterday.
“The Iceman” is based on interviews with contract killer Richard Kuklinski. This is the first time you’ve worked on a film that had a documentary feel to it. What was that like?
To be honest, I didn’t watch the whole documentary. I started to when I first met Ariel [director Ariel Vromen], which was a year before we did the movie when we didn’t have the money yet, so it was just a general meeting … And I watched [the interviews] … I probably had the opposite reaction than Michael and Ariel in terms of I was very repulsed by it and deeply disturbed by what I saw, and I had to stop watching it … Normally I would watch a documentary and do all the research I could for a film, but because she [Deborah] was in denial, I didn’t think it would help me to have those images or thoughts in my head. It really was a question of locking my ears and closing my eyes even on the set when they were talking about scenes having to do with murders. I just didn’t want to know. I kind of mirrored what she was doing in a weird way.
Did you have any access to Deborah, who is still alive?
No. I feel like, from what I know, she’s always denied any knowledge … I know that she was actually facing charges at one point, so I knew she had to say that, but even years later … I actually just found out at a junket in L.A. that she wrote a book. So I hate to speculate on someone I’ve never met, but I don’t think it would have been of great use to talk to her in a way … Obviously, I would want to have the blessing of the person I’m playing, but in this particular situation … I think, if she’s not ready to acknowledge it, then I don’t know what she could have told me that I don’t know.
With a movie this intense, what did you do on set to break up the tension?
Nothing. I would say it was a very intense set. Obviously, we didn’t have a lot of money or time, and we had a lot to do in very little time. There wasn’t a lot of time to sit around and talk about deeper aspects of what was going with my character because it really is Michael’s film and he’s wonderful in it, and it was a pretty dark time. It wasn’t a long time that I was there, but it was dark and intense. But I appreciate the experience and obviously getting to work with everyone.
This is the first time you’ve done a true crime genre movie. Is that what attracted you to the role?
No, the thing that attracted me to it was the denial. Who was this woman who was with this guy so long? She had kids with him, came across as this perfect American family and was flourishing and [yet] she claimed not to know. That was very fascinating to me. But I am reluctant to talk about him being so fascinating, because I just don’t feel that way about that kind of violence. He was murdering people for a lot of money.
Some people are describing this film as a comeback for you. How would you describe it?
Honestly, I just don’t think about that much. When something comes along that is special, that I want to be a part of, great, and if they want me to do it, great. If not, there are a lot of other things [I can do]. I’m very happy in my life. I do think there’s something to be said for just being grateful to get to an age, and I’m grateful for the work … I wouldn’t want to be working the way I used to be working, because I think it does become all about you and you do start to lose perspective a little bit. But I had an amazing time, so I guess if what you’re asking — slowing down or whatever — for me, it’s been really nice. It’s been nice to come out and do things that I really like.
Are there any actresses that remind you of you when you first started?
Not really, but I’m very blown away by a lot of the young actresses today and so impressed by their composure in this day and age of the Internet and instant access. I don’t know if I could do it, but it’s amazing how they keep their composure.