The Iceman - Michael Shannon interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
MICHAEL Shannon talks about trying to understand the mind of a killer in The Iceman and why he believes prolific Mob hitman Richard Kuklinski did have remorse for what he did.
The actor also discusses why Man of Steel was a no-brainer for him (even though he thought they were joking when they offered him the role) as well as the way he selects roles and why he does inject some comedy into whatever he does.
Q. So, how do you begin to get inside the mind of a killer?
Michael Shannon: I started with the interviews that they showed on HBO. Ariel [Vromen], the director, got me the full unedited version of the initial interview that [Richard] Kuklinski did and I watched it and it’s very long. It’s like 20 hours long or so. I just watched it over and over and over again. I don’t really understand how people manage to kill one another. It eludes me. I can’t say even after I’ve made the movie that I understand it. But fortunately I don’t actually have to kill anybody, so… But I do feel like I sorted out a little bit, at least for myself, the kind of paradigm of his existence, which was that he had a huge amount of rage inside of him based on, I think, a very traumatic childhood.
I think both of his parents were pretty sadistic in their own way and so he had these demons and this job of being a hitman gave him an opportunity to try and do something constructive with them, or at least something for monetary gain. But I also think that he was longing for a normal life. He says something in the interview, and we also have the line in the movie, where he says: “This would not be me. This would not be me.” I thought that that line was very telling. A lot of people think that he had no remorse or regrets or never questioned his actions. I really don’t think that’s true. I think at the end of the day he knew who he was and what he had done and he could just never figure out how to stop it.
Q. Did you find anything relatable with Kuklinski from delving into the character and watching the interviews?
Michael Shannon: Yeah, I found him very relatable. If you didn’t know what he had done, I don’t think anybody would dislike the guy. I mean he’s very sharp and he’s very charming in his way. Particularly in the longer form of the interview that I got to see, you kind of enjoy listening to him talk. He doesn’t seem like an intrinsically rotten person. But he has a part of himself that’s a very distinct, separate part of his psyche that is able to do these things. And then he retreats form it and comes back to this home life, trying to feel like a normal person.
Q. As a family man yourself, did you find the dichotomy of the character disturbing? Did you take it home with you every night?
Michael Shannon: Well, when I was shooting the movie I was away from my family. We shot the movie in Shreveport, Louisiana, and my family is in New York. So, I guess that was probably for the best. I mean, I would just shoot all day and then go home and be by myself at night. But yeah, I think that I left it all in the film. It wasn’t like there was any residual… it’s not like I ever entertained the notion of getting into the business myself. It’s all in the movie.
Q. With less benefits…
Michael Shannon: It’s easy to forget when you’re watching the movie what a stressful, anxious life he must have had. And how hard it must have been to be him. People, they think that it was easy for him, or that he didn’t care or didn’t feel anything. But I never really thought that was the case. A lot of times Ariel and I would talk about how… one of the big questions is: “How did a guy that was so good at this for so long wind up getting caught?” I mean he did this for years and years and nobody came anywhere near him. One of the theories we had was that he literally wanted to get caught, that he couldn’t handle it anymore. And he started getting sloppy because he was burnt out. And somewhere in the back of his mind he felt guilty and felt like maybe he should go to prison. It’s a very elusive question. It doesn’t make any sense that he would all of a sudden… he made a lot of big mistakes in falling for that undercover agent. It just wasn’t like him. It wasn’t in his character. So, we assumed that he really wanted it to stop.
Q. As part of your research did you meet any former wise-guys or get any kind of Mafia history training?
Michael Shannon: No, I mean you get a sense, again, from watching the documentary. They have some side interviews with some of the other people that were involved, particularly the law enforcement side of it – the DA and Dominic, the one who actually wound up catching him and tracking him. And it was helpful to hear from them. But I wouldn’t be comfortable talking to Mob people or Mafia people. It’s not something I get excited about, or that I would relish. At the end of the day, they’re criminals and these movies make it seem very glamorous or fun but I don’t think any of these guys have much fun.
Q. Was it the fact that this is more a character study rather than a gangster film that does glamorise it with pop songs that formed part of the appeal? Having come off Boardwalk Empire, which is more character based…
Michael Shannon: Definitely. You really hit it on the head. I wasn’t interested in making a Mob picture. I feel like all the best Mafia movies have already been made. I don’t see how anyone is going to make a better one. But I did think that Kuklinski was an unusual person that merited consideration or contemplation. And I also look at his story as kind of a parable of sorts, just because I feel like there is this situation that exists in the world where people make money off the misfortune of other people – not the graphic, extreme sense that Kuklinski did. But there are people who go out and they knowingly collect their salary based on other people’s not doing well and then go home to their gamily and use that money to pay the bills, put food on the table and tuck their kids into bed and say goodnight just like anybody else. I thought that this story was kind of like a Grimms’ fairytale version of that in a certain sense.
Q. Your audition has made it onto YouTube. Have you seen it since?
Michael Shannon: Oh yeah that was like a test thing. Yeah I saw it pretty soon after we did it. It wasn’t just an audition for me, it was kind of like Ariel testing the script and also just having a scene in order to help raise money for the movie. I think he showed it to investors and I think he showed it to Millennium, who eventually wound up making the film. But yeah, it’s interesting to see that scene two different ways. I’ve never had that experience before.
Q. To me, your standout roles are the ones in which you play disturbed characters who have a family body surrounding them. At the end of the day, they’re decent guys who get caught up in these horrible things going on in their lives. Do you find that you naturally gravitate towards roles such as these?
Michael Shannon: Well, I just kind of do what people ask me to do. I don’t say ‘no’ to many things. I usually am pretty excited to get a job, so if someone offers me a job I’ll take it. I guess I’m a little bit more choosey, I say ‘no’ every once in a while now. But I’m not really shaping that. I don’t have a thesis or anything in what I do. It’s kind of randomly lined up that way I guess.
Q. Is there anything you wouldn’t do?
Michael Shannon: Well, yeah… I’m starting to maybe think that I should stay away from certain things. But I also don’t want to limit myself based on saying to myself: “Well, I can’t do this because then people are going to say it’s like this.” Or: “I want everything I do to be incredibly different, so if I’ve already done green and blue I’m never going to do green and blue again. I’m going to do red and purple.” That just seems small minded.
Q. Would you ever do and out and out comedy? You had a darkly comic edge in that Funny Or Die video and there’s a funny edge in The Iceman…
Michael Shannon: Yeah, I think by and large if you really look at most of what I’ve done there tends to be humour dispersed throughout… like a little oregano in the soup or something. It’s not like I’m totally joyless. I mean I’m in Bad Boys 2, which is one of the most financially successful comedies ever made. So… it’s not like I don’t do comedy. But I just don’t know what it would be. Someone would have to send it to me and I’d have to read it and that hasn’t happened yet. So, as soon as those two things happen, I’ll say ‘yes’.
Q. Was that a motivating factor to take part in Man of Steel – to try different things?
Michael Shannon: I can’t really fathom how someone would say ‘no’ to Man of Steel. I kind of thought someone was pulling my leg the whole time until I was actually there, filming, and then I realised they were serious… that they really wanted me to do this. But I didn’t have any qualms about doing Man of Steel. It’s a big one.
Q. And what was the experience of making the film like? Did you enjoy it?
Michael Shannon: Yeah I loved it. It was a blast. I mean Zack [Snyder] is one of the funnest directors you’ll ever work for. He’s got a great sense of humour and is a lot of fun to be around. It’s obviously a very big budget movie with really high expectations but I never felt that pressure on the set. I never felt like: “Oh, I’d better not blow it or I’m never going to work again!” I wouldn’t say casual is the right word but it was fun, the whole thing was fun.
Q. Looking back at some of the more explosive characters you’ve played, and then watching The Iceman, was it interesting taking that energy that I think comes maybe quite easily to you and having to redirect it and really push it down?
Michael Shannon: The scenes that were the most challenging or the most stimulating to work on were the scenes where I was with the family. The scene with the birthday party you mentioned earlier where Demeo [Ray Liotta] pulls up outside… so going from the house to the car and then back to the house was really trippy. And yeah, that moment when I’m on the stairs and Winona [Ryder]’s busting my chops and she walks away and there’s that little release where I hit the wall… moments like that were surprising. It wasn’t in the script. It just came out. But I appreciated… it was a big responsibility playing this character. So, the fact that they thought I could do it… I was pretty honoured by that even though it was dark and what no.
Q. How difficult is it to retain that level of intensity over perhaps several months of shooting?
Michael Shannon: Oh, I wish it was several months of shooting! It was five weeks of shooting. You just get into a zone, you know. It’s like a tour of duty or something. If you’re out in Afghanistan, you can’t wake up one morning and say: “Oh, this is too hard. I’m just going to go home.” You’ve just got to finish your tour. And so when you’re in the middle of the film and you wake up and look at the call sheet and you’re like, “Oh Jesus, we’re doing this today…” you can’t quit. You’re there. They’re paying you. I just try to conserve my energy. I don’t goof off a lot on-set. If I’m not in front of the camera, I just eat carrot sticks and keep quiet.
Q. Is there anything in your approach to Kuklinski that you think you’ll take with you when you build other characters and perhaps characters you’ve since played?
Michael Shannon: No. They don’t… it’s not like Lego. They don’t really interlock for me. Every one is a journey that you’ve got to start from scratch… particularly if you’re playing a real person you kind of owe it to them to not approach it as if you’re using something you did in some other part. You’ve got to figure them out.
Q. Your other film this year was Mud with Jeff Nicholls. What is it about Jeff that keeps making you want to go back and work with him?
Michael Shannon: He’s a good southern boy, you know. I like his parents. I know they want him to do well, so… Me and Jeff are like some cosmic, pre-ordained thing. It’s not like I make a habit out of people sending me scripts in the mail and saying: “Hey, I’m just out of film school, this will be my first movie, and I’m going to make it for $50 and I’m not going to pay you anything…” It’s so random that I happened to say ‘yes’ to him. But there is a reason for it. The thing I like about Jeff is that I know that every time he makes another movie he’s going to push himself even further. He literally looks for challenges. He looks for things to be hard. He doesn’t just rest on his laurels. So, that’s an exciting person to work with.
Q. You met Kuklinski’s daughter at the premiere. What did she think of your performance as her dad?
Michael Shannon: Well, you know, gee, I’m playing her dad. I think it was rough for her because like any biopic it’s not completely true all the time. I think actually her home life wasn’t probably all that ideal and certainly not as tranquil as it appears to be in the movie. But she really loved her dad a lot and she seemed very moved by my efforts… particularly the effort I made at the end of the film, which is basically a quote from the interview. She found that very emotional. It was very emotional for her to see someone put that much effort into trying to understand her father because I don’t think many people do. I think they just think he’s a cold-blooded psycho. But to her, that was her dad. So, it was a pretty intense moment for both of us.