Thanks to unforgettable performances in “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has emerged to become one of the best character actors in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another that’s completely different, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”
Based on a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and that ends up bringing him to tears.
Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press conference, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski that we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.
“This is a very intimidating part to play,” Shannon said. “This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about ‘he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless’ and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point.”
“I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure,” Shannon said of Kuklinski. “If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie; he says ‘this would not be me. This would not be me.’ So for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.”
Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as he is a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated that he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us at the Four Seasons that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.
“This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do,” Shannon said of his role. “He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.”
Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but that’s understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.
“I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him,” Shannon said. “He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.”
In the end, “The Iceman” is not going to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying that Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that one.
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