Producer/actor Danny Abeckaser plays Dino Lapron, the best friend of real-life mob hitman Richard Kuklinski, in The Iceman, Israeli director Ariel Vromen’s fascinating portrait of the notorious contract killer of the 70’s and 80’s. Abeckaser, who grew up in Brooklyn, got the acting bug at an early age, went on to become a New York nightclub promoter in the mid-90’s before returning to his first love playing small roles in friends’ movies, and then making his mark in Holy Rollers which he produced and acted in.
At the recent press day for The Iceman which opens this Friday, Abeckaser talked to us about the challenges of getting the film made, how he prepared for his role, why he liked how his character brought out the human side of Kuklinski, what it was like working with Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder, why he thinks audiences are attracted to mob movies, what he looks for in a role, and his experience rubbing elbows with a real mobster. He also discussed his role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, his plans to shoot his own movie, The Life, directed by Fabrizio Conti, and how he’s hoping for a new Snickers commercial with Joe Pesci.
Question: Everybody had to stick so hard to their guns on this. What triggered the drive to get this movie made?
Danny Abeckaser: I got cast as an actor, but I know the director and the producers so well. I saw what they went through. I know that Ariel (Vromen), the director, wanted Michael Shannon so bad. Michael is a big theater guy, and I remember he was doing a play, so it was not going to work on this date. And then, he was doing another play, and it was not going to work on that date. And then, I remember James Franco was supposed to play the Mr. Freezy character, and he had to drop out for some personal reason, and they got Chris Evans to come in. During that whole process, you never knew if you were making the movie. I was attached for a year and a half, and every other day I’m like, “We’re making the movie? We’re not making the movie? I mean, what’s going on? Are we making it?” Being close to Ariel and being a friend, I realized what he went through.
Did you know the story of Kuklinski?
Abeckaser: Yeah, I loved the HBO documentary. I couldn’t stop watching this guy. I was so fascinated by him. And yes, I knew the story.
When you prepared for the role, did you do any additional research beyond the documentary?
Abeckaser: I watched a lot of the HBO stuff. I read a lot about it, but Ariel, who’s such a great director, gave me one note. He said, “Look. Dino’s relationship with Ritchie after the first scene where you literally go 10 years is kind of like your relationship with this friend that I know you have where you’re friends, and you love each other but he’s in a higher position. He makes a lot of money and he’s very successful, so he’s got a lot of respect. You’re still friends, but you look at him a little differently.” So I felt that I didn’t want to meet the person. The role I’m playing is actually a real person. I felt like if I just do that and compare their relationship, I would be able to bring out that side of Ritchie. I feel like Dino is the only person besides his family that brings out that human side of him. He laughs, he talks to him, he has a relationship with him, and he trusts him. That’s what I really liked about my character. Everyone else is fighting, but I’m like, “Hey! What’s up? Happy Birthday!” I thought that was cool.
There’s just a moment though where you think, “Oh no. Is he going to get killed?”
Abeckaser: I feel like he loved Dino. You know the scene in the hospital where Ritchie asks Dino, “Did the police come see you?” and I say, “Yeah, but I don’t know anything.” And then, he walks over to me and he puts his hands on me and he’s 6’10” and I’m like, “Let’s go see the girls.”
He seems so mammoth.
Abeckaser: He’s literally 6’5” and I’m 5’7” on a great day.
It was funny seeing you give him that big bear hug at the restaurant.
Abeckaser: That was my little take. It wasn’t written, but I was like, “I’ve got to hug this guy.”
This film is very intense, what was it like in between the scenes with Michael? Does he go in and out of character?
Abeckaser: He doesn’t break character until we cut for the day. Me? I just try to remember my lines, so once they cut, I remember my next scene. I can understand being in that frame of mind. I really don’t want to take a phone call and be like, “Mom, don’t worry. I’m coming on Friday. I’ll see you.” You don’t want to do that because then it’s like Dino is not me and Dino needs to be Dino. It’s why I gained weight for the movie and I wanted to have that big moustache. I wanted to be so different.
What was it like working opposite the rest of the cast, like Winona Ryder and the others?
Abeckaser: I’m a big fan of Winona Ryder’s. I grew up watching her. I was excited. I couldn’t believe it. She’s so great and so good in the movie and so giving. She kept giving me something to work with in every scene and you want that as an actor. I feel like actors don’t have confidence and they need to hear that they’re doing a good job. After you do a take, everyone looks at the director. You’re dying for the director to go, “That was great.” She was always like, “Oh that was great, Danny.” And I’m like, “Thank you. You, too!” So we were giving each other [encouragement] because you need that. You don’t know how much you need it. In your mind, you think you’re doing it, but you don’t know if anyone else likes it. So you need that validation of hearing it and she was great. That’s because she’s so experienced, and she wanted me to feel comfortable knowing that it’s one of my biggest roles and that I’m still fairly new to it.
Abeckaser: I thought that was what made it interesting. In every story, even in the movies that I’m developing and trying to do, I pay attention to the character and to developing and introducing the character. I want people to sympathize with the character. I want people to care about the character. All those things become very important. Obviously, it’s very hard to make a killer likeable. I felt that Ariel made the right decision by concentrating on him and his family, but not focusing on the cop that’s trying to take him down. At the end, even though you know he’s a killer, you feel bad because of the kids and the fact that he’s actually a good dad. That’s what I think makes the movie a great movie. If not, then everybody kills each other. You’ve got to get into the character. Being from that world, I do like the whole [human element]. Goodfellas is one of my favorite movies. I like the humor in Goodfellas. Even though they’re killing people, in between them killing people, Joe Pesci is so funny and it makes you go, “I could hang out with a guy like that.” And then, you realize what kind of people they are.
Why do you think we as an audience never seem to get enough of these mob movies? Why do we love them so much?
Abeckaser: Because it’s something that you’re not. You’re not part of that world. Everyone wishes they had that badass in them, but most people don’t. It’s interesting to see someone in that character. Just the whole Brooklyn personality thing is either funny or interesting. You grew up and you watched shows about the Mafia and you read about the Mafia, but you never really get to know what they’re like. And then, in a movie, you get to see these guys, and then you see their personal life and what they’re like, and you see that they’re actually funny and have their own humor. I think people are intrigued by something they’re not. Those are my favorite movies: A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas, Godfather, Donny Brasco. How great is Donny Brasco? I love Al Pacino.
Even though the place of organized crime has changed in the world, what do you think makes these stories still so relevant today?
Abeckaser: Like I said, I just think these gangsters are bigger than life. With this particular story, The Iceman, the fact is that the HBO documentary still runs every once and a while, and with YouTube, people can always look it up. The book did really well. A lot of people loved the book. It’s still relevant, and people love that genre. I feel like because it was a true story and people knew about it, it would make the movie more successful. People are like, “Oh I watched that!” You can create that world, but I feel the most interesting ones are the ones that you create based on true-life stuff. Those characters are intriguing. People love that stuff.
At this stage of your career, what is it that you gravitate towards? When a script comes to you, are you looking for a director, a specific character type, or potential co-stars by the time they get down to casting?
Abeckaser: I’m not in that position yet. I hope after this movie I might get those. But I did realize something. I told my agent, “Stop sending me things that I’m not right for. It doesn’t make good sense.” I can’t play Bruce Lee. It’s just not me. That’s one thing that I was like, if I’m going to go read for something, I want it to be something that I really feel I can do. I feel like I’m a little bit of a different character than your average actor or leading man. I’m more like a character. I can play certain things. I’m really funny, too. I can do comedy, but I like drama.
I see you as this generation’s Joe Pesci.
Abeckaser: What are you talking about? Are you talking to me? Really? Thank God. Actually I’ve heard that before. That would be the greatest compliment in the world if that can happen.
I think they need to do a new Snickers commercial with you and Joe Pesci.
Abeckaser: (mimicking Joe Pesci) “What? Is she a model?” I love that. I wish that would be true. Actually someone said that. I hope. My whole thing is that I’m from New York. I grew up in Brooklyn, so I still have that Brooklyn accent. But because I want to take acting seriously, I’ve been studying and working on my speech and my accent so that I’ll be able to do different things. You want to be versatile so you can do everything. But if you put me in a gangster movie, I can kick your ass. Definitely I can look like a badass.
Have you ever met someone who you thought might be in the crime family?
Abeckaser: Yes. One hundred percent. I’ll tell you a story. I used to work in nightlife. I owned a couple of nightclubs in New York. Very early on, I was standing outside this club, actually my club, talking to the doorman, and this guy walks up, I mean literally from Goodfellas. He’s got the pinky ring. “Hey, howya doing?” He says to me, “Hey you, how ya doing? C’mere.” I go, “Are you talking to me?” “Yeah. C’mere. Let me talk to you for a sec. Let me get in here, me and my girl.” “I’m not the doorman.” “Don’t you fuckin’ lie to me. I know this is your club.” I said, “Listen. It’s not my club. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Talk to the doorman standing right here.” “You know what? I’ll be right back.” He got in his car and drove. He wanted to run me over. With his car, he hit one of those poles that you put the quarters in. What is that called? A parking meter. V’room! Crash! Smoke came out. He got arrested. He goes, “Oh fuck you!” I was like, “What the hell?! What are you talking about? Are you crazy?” So he was kind of a badass.
That must have been scary?
Abeckaser: Don’t worry, I would’ve kicked his ass. But that happened. He was a badass. I don’t think he was really in the mob, but he acted like he was in the mob.
Through the process of making this film, what did you learn about yourself or take away from the experience?
Abeckaser: I learned that if I put my mind to something, I can actually do it. I was so nervous working with Michael Shannon. I’m not saying this lightly because I’m a big movie fan, but he might be one of the best actors in the world. He is so good that everyone made sure they told me before I went to shoot, “You know Michael’s one of the best actors in the world. You know what you’re getting yourself into? Right?” I was like, “Alright! Stop! Stop!” That put so much pressure on me. People were driving me crazy. Michael is so intense, but I learned that if I put my mind to something and I really study the lines and work on the character and am really prepared and don’t take it really, really seriously, I can do anything. And, I feel anyone could. I proved that to myself. Going in, I was nervous. I was like, “This is what you wanted. This is what your career is going to be. You’ve just got to go in there and give it your all.” I found out that if you do that, you can do anything. That’s a pat on my back because that was the hardest thing. I learned that about myself, that if I prepare, I can do anything.
What do you have coming up next?
Abeckaser: I’m in a movie called The Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese. It’s a small, small role. Don’t get excited. I was hanging out with Marty. He’s my idol. It was the greatest experience of my life. I did three days. I have a small, small role. I play a stockbroker. I have a few scenes. So that comes out. And, I start shooting my movie, The Life, that I’m producing and starring in July with a director called Fabrizio Conti. I play the second lead. I could have given myself the lead if I wanted to. It’s my movie. But I felt like the lead should be a little younger. So I’m doing that.
What’s the plot? Are you writing it?
Abeckaser: I co-wrote it. It’s loosely based on my experiences in being in the nightlife.
Who is your co-star?
Abeckaser: I haven’t cast it yet. I can give you some ideas about who I want.
Is Hollywood an even crazier world than the New York nightlife world?
Abeckaser: Crazy? I don’t know about crazy. It’s definitely different. It’s funny because being from New York, I thought coming to L.A. and taking meetings with all these people at the studios, I’d put on a suit. I’d shave. I realized. Listen, it’s a business. It’s just a little different because you get to be on camera. But at the end of the day, it’s just a business. You go and do your work. You have to work really hard, and I feel in anything you have to work hard.