Actor Michael Shannon – whose film credits include “Premium Rush,” “Take Shelter” and this summer’s “Man of Steel” – recently spoke with “Breakthrough Entertainment” about his role as contract killer Richard Kuklinski in “The Iceman.”
In “The Iceman,” Michael Shannon plays a man who, appearing to be living the American dream as a devoted husband and father, is a ruthless killer-for-hire. Other stars include Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans and David Schwimmer.
Question: Between dirty cop Bobby Monday in “Premium Rush,” a family man on the verge of a mental breakdown in “Take Shelter” and Superman’s arch nemesis General Zod in “Man of Steel,” you always seem to choose very complex characters. What is the quality that you look for in a character when choosing your roles and how did Richard Kuklinski embody that?
Answer: I seem to be drawn to characters who are struggling with something and who seem to have some sort of difficulty making their way in the world and want to try and improve themselves in some way or overcome the obstacles in their past. With Kuklinski, what drew me to him is that he was a man full of rage, darkness and sadistic impulses yet somewhere deep inside of him there was also a shred of caring, tenderness and wanting to have a family, be able to provide for this family and take care of them. I found the duality of that a very interesting challenge to play.
Q: So what kind of research did you do to help prepare you to play this man who admits to having killed no fewer than 100 and perhaps as many as 250 people?
A: I started to read one of the books that had been written about Kuklinski but the director told me that I was reading the wrong one and that I should read the other one so I got frustrated and decided to read neither of them. Instead, I just watched the interview that he did for HBO. I received an unedited version of the interview, which is over 20 hours long. I would watch it repeatedly and whenever I could. It is the same approach that I used when I played Kim Fowley in “The Runwaways” and Sgt. Dave Karnes in “World Trade Center.” These are the three real-life human beings that I have played and I have kind of approach it the same way all three times. It is a very handy thing to have an interview with the person because you can get a sense of their voice and their gestures but you can also get a real insight into how they think and how they react to things.
Q: Was there anything about Richard Kuklinski that you found particularly surprising during your preparation process?
A: I was surprised by his sense of humor. People generally think of him as a very foreboding and frightening individual – and understandably so. What they showed on HBO really tried to highlight what a monster he was because I guess that is what is exciting to watch. But when you watch the full unedited interview, you really get a sense that he was kind of a charming person and someone that you wouldn’t mind having a beer with if you didn’t know what he did for a living. Once you know what he actually does for a living, he becomes a little terrifying. But if that was a secret and you didn’t know any better, you would just think that he was a good companion for an afternoon watching the game or something. And he was a lot more intelligent that he gave himself credit for. He always talked about how stupid he was and that he was a killer because he didn’t know how to do anything else. But I guess you would refer to him as a sociopath and most sociopaths tend to be intelligent, charming people. It is the same thing with that “American Psycho” book.
Q: You seem to have perfected the icy scowl and the explosive burst of anger over the course of your career thus far – both of which came incredibly handy here. Which expression of rage – silent or loud – is more difficult?
A: They are both very challenging. There was never an easy day on the set. Pretty much every day I went to work I was just quietly to myself – terrified because the character is so far away from who I actually am as a person myself. I am not violent. It’s not that I don’t have a temper. Like most people, I do have a temper, but I would never in a million years do most of the things that he did. So it was all quite difficult to be honest and I’m not quite sure how I did it but hopefully people will enjoy watching it for an hour and a half or however long it is.
Q: So then did you find it at all difficult to shed that skin, so to speak, at the end of each day of shooting?
A: Oh, no. The first thing that I would ask every day when we were done shooting is, “Where are we going to eat?” We shot this movie Shreveport, Louisiana and all of the restaurants close ridiculously early there. So we basically had to rip off our costumes and get in the car before the restaurants close. I was usually starving because I don’t eat much when I’m at work. I find it hard to eat and act with food my belly. So by the end of the day I just wanted a steak and a glass of wine and then go to bed.
Q: Finally, what did the opportunity to walk in Richard Kuklinski’s shoes for this project teach you about yourself?
A: I feel like what happened to him in his life in general was very tragic. I don’t think he came up with many answers himself. I guess it’s a pretty good example of why it’s best to try and be who you are all of the time – in every situation – and not like live a double life. Try and find a version of yourself that fits whether you are with your family, at work or whatever environment you are in and whoever you’re with. Be consistent. That’s something that I strive for.