Only a few short years ago I could easily say Michael Shannon was one of the most underrated working actors in Hollywood, but thankfully this modern-day wonder is now getting the attention he deserves, as we all wait impatiently to see Shannon portray General Zod in Zack Snyder’s upcoming Superman film Man of Steel.
But if you need your Michael Shannon fix and can’t wait until June 14th for his first comic book role, look no further than Ariel Vromen’s docu-drama about contract killer Richard Kuklinski titled The Iceman, in which Shannon plays one of the most famous mob hitmen of all time. Trust me, Shannon delivers a performance I’d consider Oscar-worthy by getting inside the mind of this cold-blooded killer, showcasing his dramatically proficient emotional control to elevate the film to heights far past anything we could have imagined. Check my review for more of what I thought about the movie.
Recently, Michael was in New York City to promote The Iceman, and I had a hell of a Saturday morning when I was invited to sit with him and a few other journalists for a roundtable interview, checking another actor off my “dream interviewee” list. Read on to hear Michael talk about how he controls his emotions so well, what video game movie he’d love to appear in, and his brilliant analysis of the new Superman film!
Since Michael plays Richard Kuklinski in the film, we started by asking Michael how he got involved in the project, and if he had any knowledge about “The Iceman” before coming into the film:
Michael Shannon: No, I didn’t know who Kuklinski was, I had never heard of him. Ariel [Vromen] was an acquaintance of mine, he gave me the script, and once I read it and said I was curious about the project, he recommended I watch some of the interviews you can find on YouTube. When I saw him being interviewed I thought he was a very fascinating person, and I thought it’d be a great challenge to try and play the part.
We then asked Michael if he was one of those people who dreaded the words “based on a true story,” or if he didn’t mind the format:
Michael Shannon: I think it raises the level of difficulty a little bit. I mean if it’s just left to your imagination, it feels harder to fail, because how can you judge my imagination? It’s my imagination – but this is something that actually happened.
What’s even doubly more difficult about it is that it’s based on a true story, but nobody really knows what the true story is. The true story has never really been told, even by the person who it happened to. That’s what makes it even more fascinating – it’s a combination between docu-drama and complete imagination. It’s like a detective story.
Because of the grittiness of the part, we asked Michael if it bothered him to play this role:
Michael Shannon: I had a great thing at the house I was staying in. They have these things nowadays, they’re like the old fashioned video games from the 80s, but it’ll be one machine that has every game from the 80s on it. It’s got Pac-Man, Galaga, Burger Time, Missile Command – it’s got like 40 different games. So, I would shoot this movie all day, and then go home and play different video games – Arachnoid, Space Invaders – until I was falling asleep.
Of course someone had to ask if he’d ever do a movie based on a video game after that statement:
Michael Shannon: I’d definitely do a Space Invaders movie. I like to move right to left like that, just all day long, that’s your job, stand there with a gun. “I’m gettin’ them!” Yeah, it’s like, that’s all you’ve got to do.
Getting a little more serious again, we asked Michael how he created the wonderful on-screen chemistry with Winona Ryder:
Michael Shannon: It’s always such a mysterious question. It was the same thing with Jessica [Chastain] when I did Take Shelter. You show up, you’re complete and total strangers, and the next day you’re married. I think you just go on instinct, you really don’t have anything else to go on. You have to make each other feel comfortable and say “Look, whatever you want to do is fine by me.” I think that’s the biggest thing with any individuals acting together, you’re worried the other person is going to judge you or not like what you’re doing, maybe even think you’re letting them down.
But I was nervous to act with Winona, I mean she’s Winona Ryder, she’s one of the biggest movie starts in the last 20 years, I’ve seen her in countless films. It honestly blew my mind she was playing the part. What’s so amazing is that when she shows up, she’s so little and fragile, and you just immediately want to protect her and take care of her. It’s not that she can’t take care of herself, she’s a very strong person, but it was just my initial instinct – I’ve got to make sure she’s OK.
Also, she began shooting halfway through the movie. We shot all the crime stuff first. We started with Ray and David and John, all the DeMeo stuff, and then we did the Mister Softee stuff. So then she came, she was kind of new, everyone else already knew each other, so that also made me very protective of her. It can be kind of awkward when you show up and everybody already has a relationship.
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Earlier Winona shared that she crossed everything on her script out except what she had to read so she could stay as oblivious as possible, and we asked Michael if he could feel that while filming:
Michael Shannon: I think she struggled with it. I think the way that Winona played it, and even to a certain degree how it’s written, it’s that Deborah knows there’s something going on. She knows it, but she just doesn’t know exactly what it is. She doesn’t know it involves murdering people.
I think if Kuklinski would have never found her or gotten married, he would have been in jail a lot sooner. She gave him something to live for. The first time you see him kill somebody in the movie is not even a hit, it’s just some dude that pisses him off over Deborah, so you can see she is everything to him.
He says this in the interviews. People always try to say “Didn’t you ever have any flings or affairs? You must have gotten a lot of interest.” [Kuklinski] was like “No, I didn’t care for any other woman. She was the only woman I felt that way about.” As creepy as this whole friggin’ thing is, it’s kind of romantic.
Getting my two cents in, I asked Michael the following “What you do really well with a character is go from 0-60 with your emotions, which you do with Kuklinski, and you also do really well with that Sorority letter reading, which was absolutely hilarious and I could talk about it for hours so I won’t even touch on that, but where do you have to go mentally to get that intensity and bring such performance to the screen?”
Michael Shannon: Ultimately you have to be very thoughtless about it. A lot of times what will hang you up when you try to act is when your brain gets involved and you start thinking “Oh this isn’t right, I shouldn’t say it like this, I shouldn’t move my hand that way, it’s going to look stupid.” That’s all your brain. You do this long enough and you realize your brain is your worst enemy when you’re trying to act. You just have to not think about it. Before they say action you don’t sit there and think “I’ve got to go 0-60 in three seconds.” I try to literally just be as empty in my head as possible except for paying attention to what’s going on around me.
Pretty much anything you need is coming form outside of you. People think “I’ve got to write my character’s diary and know what he had for lunch when he was three years old,” but that’s all just intellectual hoo-ha. For me what inspires the performance is what’s surrounding you and what other people are doing, and if you’re really paying attention to that you’ll just react to it, and that’s where it comes from.
Director Ariel Vromen perviously described Michael as an “actor’s magnet” in the sense that other actors flocked to the film when Michael signed on, so we asked him his thoughts on the comment and if there were any actors which would immediately draw him to a project:
Michael Shannon: Well, it’s better than being a refrigerator magnet.
It’s always a surprise to me when I hear that though. I honestly can’t even fathom that all these people even know who I am. One day Winona and I were talking and she said “Yeah, I told Daniel I was coming to do this and he was so excited for me because he’s such a big fan of yours.” I’m like “Daniel Day-Lewis?” She’s like, “Yeah.” I’m like, “Daniel Day-Lewis knows who I am? Hmm…that’s interesting. Yeah, I’d like to work with him one day.” She just goes “Oh I’m sure you will,” and they say it so casually like it’s a sure thing or something, but he’s certainly on that list. Gary Oldman, all the typical ones. I mean I’ve gotten to work with Christopher Walken, so I crossed that one off the list, but I wouldn’t mind getting another shot at that with some more serious material than Kangaroo Jack.
Finally, we couldn’t let Michael get away without dishing some information on his upcoming role in Man of Steel, and this is what he told us we can expect:
Michael Shannon: Well, Superman is about a man that can fly, and is very strong, and he can shoot laser beams out of his eyes, and that’s about all I can say on it.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Michael Shannon for sparing his time for this interview, and be sure to catch his dynamite performance in The Iceman when it opens May 3rd!Previous