Interview: Michael Shannon on Finding Empathy for an Enigmatic Killer

By  · Published on May 3rd, 2013

Michael Shannon has explored a great deal of history in the past few years: he got rowdy as Kim Fowley in The Runaways; stern as hell for Boardwalk Empire; and, who could forgot, supplied comic relief for Michael Bay in Pearl Harbor. He once again plays period in The Iceman, based on family man contract killer Richard Kuklinski, a.k.a. “The Iceman.” Shannon can be seen donning old man sweaters, thick mustaches, and, best of all, dancing to a Blondie song.

If there were any reason for a period piece to exist, it’s for Michael Shannon to groove to “Heart of Glass.”

Besides showing off some moves on the dance floor, Shannon infuses a surprising amount of empathy into a man who takes lives for a living. The movie and performance never approve or sensationalize his actions, but, for a guy who killed over 100 people, Shannon’s portrayal paints a portrait of a guy who isn’t pure evil at his core. He’s human, and a genuinely good family man.

That dichotomy is the heart of The Iceman, and according to Shannon, that’s what convinced him to sign on. Here’s what else Shannon had to say about the film’s focused narrative, invoking period, and why us talking in our underwear wouldn’t make for a different conversation:

I spoke to Jeff Nichols last week, and he mentioned how you wished you had more days to film on Mud because you came up with a bunch of ideas about that character after shooting. Since he said I should ask you, what were those ideas?

[Laughs] In Shotgun Stories there’s the character that keeps coming to tell us bad news. He’s like a punk rocker dude with long stringy hair and glasses on. He’s played by a man named Alan Disaster, who is a legend of the little punk rock scene that Jeff is from. I just understood after I finished shooting that this guy was really supposed to be more of a…I felt like maybe I should have been more of a punk rocker a little bit. I wish I could have shaved my head and had a bunch of tattoos and stuff. But I couldn’t do it because I was just about to start shooting Man of Steel at the same time.

Was that the main idea?

Yeah. I mean I wouldn’t have deviated from the script. Jeff’s scripts are written on tablets. When Jeff writes a screenplay and he finally deems it ready to show people, he’s pretty much done with it.

For The Iceman, did you have a similar experience?

I felt like we were pretty thorough with The Iceman in terms of what we shot. Look. You’re talking about a guy’s entire lifetime being crammed into 90 minutes of film, which, in and of itself, is a completely ludicrous situation. You can’t tell somebody’s life story in 106 minutes. It’s not going to happen. But I was happy with the structure of what we managed to tell in our brief time as a movie.

Right. It doesn’t feel like one of those greatest hits structure.

It’s focused. I think it has a thesis. I think that’s the difference between a good biopic and a bad biopic. A good biopic has a thesis. It takes a particular point of view and says, “Not only do I wish to illuminate this person’s life, but I also wish to show this particular thesis.” And the thesis that [director] Ariel Vromen hung onto was the double life scenario of bouncing back and forth between trying to be a wholesome family man and also being a killer and how that double life is ultimately destined to fail.

Was that thesis what drew you in?

More than anything I was just drawn to what I feel like is his innate charisma as a human being. If you watch the interviews, they’re hard to turn off. You don’t want to stop listening to this guy. He’s a fascinating person. He was as fascinating to me as he is to anybody else. Having done the film and spent all this time studying him, I still can’t say that I’m an expert on him. Because, at the end of the day, I think that’s so fascinating about him is the fact that you never really find out who he is. No matter how much you listen to him talk or answer questions, he’s still an enigma.

Was there anything small about Richard you noticed in those interviews that maybe aren’t a big deal but informed your performance in some way?

I noticed when he would get tickled about something. Like, when he would smile…To me, basically, he was a person that was pretty much constantly suffering. His life was filled with anxiety and self-loathing and hatred. So, any time that I would see a break from that where he actually seemed to get some enjoyment out of something, it’s like I was rooting for that happen. Which I know sounds weird, because I know he’s done a lot of terrible things, and I don’t endorse his behavior at all. I couldn’t be farther away from him. I’m not a violent person in way, shape, or form. But I still couldn’t help feeling some sort of empathy for him, because I think he really suffered a great deal when he was a child.

I think he’s a really great example why people should not be unkind to children, because it doesn’t happen every time, but it can happen that you create a person that is very detrimental to society.

For biographical performances, there’s always that line between embodiment and impersonation. What’s the difference as a performer?

Well, I had a great luxury in that the only time I was able to actually see Richard Kuklinski was in his advanced years. So his youth is still a mystery not only to me, but to everybody. I saw photographs of him as a younger man, but I never saw any film of him as a younger man. So it was very much to my imagination what he might have been like as a younger person.

I think that’s another good reason to do the film, because in the interviews you are only seeing him at the point where he’s been incarcerated and he’s basically lost his entire existence. And he knows he’s just going to die in jail and that’s going to be the end of it, and his family won’t even talk to him anymore. So I think a good reason to do the film is to illuminate, even if it’s hypothetical, what his prior decades might have been like.

Since Kuklinski, like Kim Fowley, aren’t that well-known, you must feel some leeway bringing them to life, in terms of how accurate you do or don’t need to be.

Well, I’m not going to be exactly like them. It doesn’t mean I don’t pursue it with vigor. I mean I do. With both Kim Fowley and Richard Kuklinski I spent a great amount of time studying them. But I can’t. Richard Kuklinski is a giant polish man. I’m a fairly tall Irish man. So it’s not going to be an exact match. But, believe me, it doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying. I did the best I could.

For The Runaways was it beneficial Kim is still around?

Yeah. The first day of shooting that I was involved with, Kristen Stewart said, “If you want to sit down with Kim Fowley then I can arrange it.” I said, “That would be great.” So Kristen and Joan Jett and myself and Kim Fowley met at a Denny’s in The Valley. We had dinner together. And Kim brought his albums…not his vinyl albums, but his photo albums and his newspaper clippings and all this stuff and he told, basically, his life story to me from the time he was a child to where he was at sitting across from me at that table. Yeah, it was incredible. It’s kind of a blur. I can’t say I remember a lot about it. He was talking very fast. I know he was sick as a child. But his parents were all right.

But anyway, I had that experience. And I didn’t have that with Richard. But I think it would have been a very different experience. I don’t imagine Klukinsky being very happy to see an actor trying to portray him. I can’t imagine. He would probably take one look at me and think I was a total sissy.

[Laughs] Is it a very different feeling when you are portraying period versus a more modern day piece like Mud?

Yeah, although you always depend on the design elements to inspire you or get you to the right place in your mind. But yeah, I mean I don’t know. Every job is different. I haven’t found any uniformity, really. I mean there’s similarities but there’s not uniformity. Even period pieces, like doing the ’70s in The Iceman was very different from doing the ’70s in The Runaways. It wasn’t like just because they were both in the ’70s they were similar, because the environments were so different and the characters were so different. But doing period work definitely offers you a greater opportunity to escape yourself.

Which is what you look for, I imagine.

Well, yeah. The game is always to disappear as much as possible.

How about for Man of Steel? Does it help with those costumes and sets or were there days where it can feel ridiculous?

It took a little getting used to. I didn’t really think about it, though. Like, right now, you and me are the same person, whether we’re wearing a suit and tie or sitting here in our tighty whities. We’re the same frickin person, right? Who you are as a person doesn’t really change, so what frickin difference does it make what you’re wearing?

The Iceman opens May 3rd.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.