"We could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture?" asks Michael Shannon, whose film repertoire has tended toward much grittier fare. For years, he was hidden away as one of Hollywood’s best kept secrets, a frightening force of an actor waiting in the wings for his turn in the spotlight. But since starring in William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Bug—a role he originated on the stage in London a decade earlier—Shannon has been seeping more and more into the mainstream, infiltrating our television and cinema screens and giving us a taste of the darker corners of the pysche with performances that continue to haunt long after the credits roll.
Shannon cut his teeth in theater as a young actor in Chicago, the immediacy of the stage giving him a keen understanding of the visceral power of a potent performance. Since then, with such films as Bug, Revolutionary Road, and Take Shelter, he’s established himself as an expert at portraying the villainous and psychologically unstable, yet can slip into your everyman with ease. His intensity is tempered by sensitivity, and he’s always willing to expose his rawest emotions—skills that that lends themselves to the severe roles he embodies.
But it’s his stint on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that has perhaps brought him the most attention, paving the way for roles in such Hollywood blockbusters as Jonah Hex and the upcoming Man of Steel. And whether he’s shuttling between studio lots in Los Angeles or hanging out on set in the backwoods of Arkansas with director Jeff Nichols, Shannon embarks on every role with the intelligence of a person not only looking to entertain, but to discover something new within himself.
With his latest drama, Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman, Shannon disappears into the role of notorious contract killer Richard Kuklinski. Arrested in 1986 for the heinous crimes he committed throughout the decade–at least 100 murders by his own count–Kuklinski kept his profession a secret from his wife and daughters, leading a double life with the cold stoicism of a seriously disturbed man. Vromen’s film takes us back to when Kuklinski and his wife Deborah (played wonderfully by Winona Ryder) first met, chronicling their lives as we seem them grow together and break apart as Kuklinski becomes more entwined with his murderous career and more removed from those he loves. In his role, Shannon is frightening, embodying the dichotomy of cold-blooded killer and family man with both physicality and emotion, delivering a visceral performance that’s filled with as much delicacy as bone-chilling cruelty.
Last Saturday, I sat down with Shannon at the Waldorf Astoria to chat about becoming the Iceman, the need for less escapism, and working with directors who rattle your cage.
How did you get involved with The Iceman? Were you familiar with the story?
No, it was a total surprise to me. I have never heard of Kuklinski. Basically, I just ran into Ariel at some events, he was an acquaintance of mine, and he said he wanted to work with me. He gave me the script and I read it and said, is this a real guy? And he said, yeah it’s based on a real guy, if you go on YouTube you can see interviews with him. I checked the interviews out and I thought he was an interesting fellow.
Did you and Ariel work closely to develop Kuklinski as a full person, because he was much different than when you see him in interviews now?
The main advantage of our film, as opposed to the interviews, is when you watch the interviews, you’re seeing a man who’s at the end of the road—he’s been captured, taken into captivity, lost everything, and he’s in his final movement, as it were. Our film gives you the opportunity, even though it’s hypothetical, to see him throughout his life and his younger years. I mean, I’m not going to be able to be more of Kuklinski than Kuklinski was in those interviews, but what I may be able to do is give you some inkling of what he was like 30, 40 years before those interviews took place.
Did that help you to empathize with him or understand that he did this to provide for his family? In preparing for the role, did you connect with him in any way?
It’s hard to empathize with killing. I’m not a violent person, I’ve never killed anybody. I don’t really even get into fights with anybody. But the one thing I was able to connect with, and I know this sounds absurd, was his vulnerability. I actually think one of the reasons he was such a violent person was because he was so vulnerable and so sensitive. I think he was deeply traumatized in his childhood and he developed this persona out of a survival instinct. It was the only way he could cope with the pain that he had endured as a child.
How was working with Winona, she seems like someone that would be great to have as a partner.
Well yeah, the legend of Winona is a huge thing. When you meet her for the first time, it’s kind of like a kick in the gut. She’s as much a star to me as she is to anybody. I’ve watched her films and she’s a real deal movie star, no doubt. So I was anxious the first time I was going to meet her. And she just walks into the trailer with an old rock ‘n’ roll t-shirt on and some jeans and tennis shoes and you realize, oh she’s just a regular person. And she really likes rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s cool. So that breaks the ice and you get into the work. She brings a tremendous vulnerability to everything she does; she’s very delicate and very sensitive, her nerves are close to the skin, and that was essential to this part.
You take on a lot of these dark, disturbed roles. Are you drawn to this particular breed of character, or is it more of a fun exercise as an actor?
It’s not fun. Doing this part wasn’t fun, it was hard. Is it essential that people see this? I don’t know. Some people say, why do you put this violent story in the world, isn’t there enough violence already? I say, this is a person who really existed and really did these things and if we’re going to understand violence in our world and our society, then we need to examine it. We could ignore it, we could just make movies about butterflies and cupcakes, but what does that have to do with our actual experience in our culture? These are brutal times we’re living in right now. Ideally, you can make films that are both entertaining and also thought-provoking and maybe even a little painful at times, because I think that’s what we’re dealing with in the world.
It’s important for art to be reflective of the world and not bypass it for entertainments sake.
Yeah, I’m not a fan of escapism. I don’t understand it. People need to be escaping a lot less basically nowadays. People have too many ways to not pay attention to what’s going on around them, and that’s disconcerting to me.
You did an interview for BlackBook a few years ago and I remember something you said about film being a directors’ medium, whereas theater is where actors can test themselves. Is it a totally different experience for you, working in the two mediums, or does one really get at what you enjoy most about being an actor?
Theater for me is a real meditation. You latch onto a piece of writing and you spend a lot of time with it. There’s a lot of repetition, it’s almost like a massage to me, massaging your psyche, massaging the writing itself and trying to extract the deepest potential of the story. Camera work, on the other hand, is ideally very accidental. Things happen out of the blue and you can’t really prepare for it, it’s more spontaneous. I worked with Terrence Malick on To the Wonder—I got cut out—but it was still a fascinating experience. I spent a day down there walking around with Ben Affleck and doing these completely random scenes where the camera was just going all over the place, and you never knew where it was going to be, and during the scene people would be tapping you and telling you to go over here or go over there, say this or do that. And I’ve heard Malick say, "I’m just trying to find the spontaneous, I just want something truly spontaneous to happen." That’s his approach and there’s only one director on film that I’ve worked with where the whole rehearsal process has really felt beneficial, and that’s Sidney Lumet. But he was a master of that and that’s probably because he turned plays into films and he usually worked with scripts that were very theatrical.
Speaking of another director you’ve worked with a lot, I interviewed Jeff Nichols the other day—
What a moron. [Laughs.]
He was great. I saw Mud and really loved it. But that was a very different role for you, especially compared to Take Shelter. How was working on that?
It was fun, I wish I had more time with Jeff on that one. It was so fast, it happened just before I started doing Man of Steel and I really only had a couple days to go down there. I was jealous, I wanted to be more involved. I love working with Jeff, I think he’s one of our brightest hopes right now in cinema. Hopefully we’ll be cooking something up in the wintertime—our fourth collaboration. We just have to get the dollars in the bank and then we’ll be good to go.
Do you enjoy the collaborative process between actors and directors? When you’re reading a script, it is the writing that really draws you in, or is it the person who is putting their vision on it?
The writing’s got to be there; the writing is the genesis of anything. But I don’t like being on a set where the director doesn’t have anything to say. I find that very frustrating. You work with a lot of directors who really just don’t have all that much to say. I’m not going to go into specifics, but even people who you probably think are like top notch legendary director type people, they just don’t have that much to say about the performance side of it. In theater, they have a ton to say about it, that’s all they talk about for four or five weeks, you talk about the performance. So when I get a director in film who can inspire you or give you a legitimate question that rattles your cage a little bit, I always appreciate it. The problem with film is that there’s so many elements, and as a director of film or television there’s so much you’ve got to keep track of, and sometimes, honestly, acting isn’t at the top of the list.
With theater, the acting’s the essence of everything. I was watching Bug again the other day and that’s something you did onstage and on film. Is that the ideal, to be able to perform both?
Bug was a fascinating journey for me, all the way from its inception in London all those years ago with the original production. And then I didn’t do it for a very long time after that and then I was doing it in Chicago when 9/11 happened—Bug was a very bizarre play to be doing when that happened—and then a few years after that in New York and then the movie. So Bug was a huge part of my life.