Opening this weekend, in limited release, is director/co-writer Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman. The drama is based on the book by Anthony Bruno that chronicles the life of Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon), a professional hitman who kept his work secret from his family. The contract killer received the nickname “The Iceman” because he froze the bodies of his victims in order to disguise their time of death and throw the authorities off track. The film also stars Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, Winona Ryder, Robert Davi, and Danny Abeckaser. For more on The Iceman, watch the trailer.
At the recent Los Angeles press day, I landed an exclusive interview with Michael Shannon. We talked about the way he prepares for a role, making The Iceman, the balance between Hollywood-izing the subject matter versus also telling the real story, whether he still has to audition, and so much more. In addition, he also talked about playing General Zod in Man of Steel, Jake Paltrow’s Young Ones, other future projects, losing his anonymity, and we even talked about his early work playing a Wrestlemania fan in Groundhog Day! Hit the jump to either read or listen to what he had to say.
Click here to listen to the interview, or read the full transcript below.
Michael Shannon: Oh, Okay. Cool, yes.
How did you get into the mindset of being such a WrestleMania fan?
Shannon: [laughs] You know, it was all a big lie because I actually don’t enjoy wrestling. I’ve never enjoyed wrestling. I’ve always thought it’s fairly idiotic, and the fact that everyone knows its fake and they watch it anyway I find almost kind of disturbing. I think a lot of the excitement captured in my line reading of WrestleMania was the fact that I was standing in front of Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and I was like 18 years old. I think I could have said “eggplant” or “vehicular manslaughter” with the same passion as “WrestleMania”, the word itself was irrelevant.
I love that movie by the way, like sincerely, love.
Shannon: Me too.
It’s one of those timeless films, whenever it’s on I’m stuck watching, it pulls me in.
Shannon: Centrifugal force, yeah. The moral of the story of that movie is something that everybody knows and yet is so easy to forget and it’s good to be reminded of it.
Jumping into another subject, you’ve been working a long time, but over the last five to six years you’ve really landed a lot more high profile projects, in turn I would imagine that leads to losing a little bit of your anonymity. How is that for you? Obviously, you want to be an actor and I guess that’s sort the price you pay for being in bigger films, how has that transition been for you?
Shannon: [pauses] Well, I haven’t considered moving to Montana yet. That seems to be the move at some point, just go to Montana and get away from everybody. I don’t know, it depends on the day and the time, when it happens, who it is, and how they approach me. Most people are very polite and respectful, some people aren’t. I find it fascinating because once the initial recognition thing happens, there’s really not anything to talk about. It’s like, “Hey, I know you.” And I’m like, “Yeah, you do.” [Pauses] “Okay, bye.” I mean, what are we going to talk about, you know? Fishing? It’s a very odd sensation. So know I’ve gotten to a point where I just – I used to stop – I would stop walking and look at them, now I just keep walking. I’m like, “Yes, you know me, yes. Okay, bye bye.” Because there’s not really anything to talk about.
Shannon: Yeah, they try and establish a relationship and it’s based on nothing.
I interviewed you at TIFF a few years ago and I’ve said this repeatedly, I’m a huge fan of your work and I think you’re a really gifted actor.
Shannon: Thank you.
I’m curious about how you prepare for roles. Many actors I’ve spoken with, the second they get a script they are breaking it down and analyzing how they’re going to play it. Other actors I’ve spoken with, they break down the script but they tend to do most of their work very close to when they’re going to shoot so it’s fresh in their brain. How are you in terms of preparing for roles?
Shannon: Yeah, I’m not obsessive about it. I find a lot of inspiration on the set around me as I’m shooting the scene and I use my subconscious a lot. This whole notion that if you’re playing a character you’re supposed to know exactly what they’re doing all the time, I find erroneous. Because most of the time I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t even know what I’m trying to do, I’m just fumbling around. Most people are fumbling around, let’s face it. To me, I like to be surprised by what’s happening. I think the main skill or talent you need to have is the ability to pay attention and listen to what’s happening around you, not so much fabricate your own inner atmosphere panoply or whatever, but be present and aware of what’s going on around you. That’s usually how I do it. If I’m playing a real person, like this instance, I do put a lot into trying to honor that and capture that person, knowing that I will never be exactly like them, but I do the best I can.
With Iceman, you’re playing a real person but there’s always the balance between Hollywood-izing the subject matter versus also telling the real story. I’m curious how you guys found the right line between telling the true story and making a movie.
Shannon: This is very much we’re making a movie. The fact of the matter is the movie is 90 minutes long, or even less than, and the man lived for several decades so the math is against you. I mean, it’s not going to fit, you know? With biopics it’s not enough to just say, “I’m going to tell this person’s life story.” You have to have kind of a thesis. You have to pick an element of the person’s life and think, “This is what I want to present. This is what I want people to ponder or regard.” So we focus very much on the idea of the duality of the character, the double life. In a way it’s almost like a fable more than anything, for me anyway, because I don’t think this movie will make anybody an expert on Richard Kuklinsky if they watch it, but what it might do is make them consider the fact that there are a lot of people in the world that do things to make money that hurt other people. Then they come home and they have a family that they love, they eat dinner with their family, they tuck their kids in and say “I love you”, they say their prayers and go to sleep. And yet when they go out there in the day to do whatever it is they do to make money – it’s hard to find things to do in the world right now to make money where you’re not having some negative effect on somebody somewhere, you know what I mean? If you’re working at a hedge fund, buying up failing companies, forcing people out of work, and shutting things down – there’s a lot of people making money on the misfortune of others, so I thought this is a very exaggerated version of that. It was one of the reasons I found it interesting.
When was the last time you had to audition for a role?
Shannon: Oh, I audition. Everybody always asks me if I’m going to do a romantic comedy and I always say, “Well I auditioned for a real big one and I didn’t get it.” That was, gee, a couple years ago.
Shannon: It’s pretty cool, but there’s still like – there’s a project right now that I really, really want to do and I met with the director, I’m not going to say any names because it would be bad, but I met with the director and he’s like, “I just think you’re the bee’s knees,” and I’m like, “Oh, I think you’re swell too.” We talked for an hour or so, and then a couple weeks later they’re like, “Oh, they’re trying to get Brad Pitt or something.” No matter how much action you’ve got going on there’s still someone standing on your shoulders.
I think your position with Middle America might be different come the end of June.
Shannon: Yeah, yeah, but it’s interesting because I think the fella who’s really going to come out nice in that situation is Henry, because he’s Superman.
I got to tell you man, being completely serious, I’ve been screaming about it since I saw the full trailer, it’s my absolute most anticipated film of the summer.
Shannon: Oh, wow.
There is nothing more important than me seeing that movie.
Obviously I know you can’t talk about the story, and I don’t want to get you in trouble for anything, but now that they’ve released what you look like, what you sound like, and the fact that there is no kryptonite in the movie, and a lot more information has funneled out, I can ask you a more specific question. What was it like wearing that outfit? Because it looks badass.
Shannon: I never wore the armor.
So that’s all CG?
Shannon: That is a CG outfit, I think I can say that without getting assassinated, yes. Honestly, the armor would be very heavy – like in Iron Man, Downey Jr. doesn’t ever wear armor – Oh, but there is a guy who wears it. I know the guy, the guy who was the Iron Man double, who had to wear that freakin suit was on Man of Steel and he said it was a freakin nightmare, it’s so freakin heavy. They wanted me to have freedom of movement and if I would have actually been wearing a giant metal suit I would have been walking around like this, you know? So every time you see me in that metal suit just close your eyes and imagine me in an Arlequino outfit; green, red, blue, with the little tight around the midsection. Yeah, we all looked like bunch of dorks.
One of the things that Zack recently said that excites me and the fandom to no end is that there is no kryptonite in the movie, because I think that’s been a crutch that they’ve relied on in every fucking movie and it’s just stupid. Let’s make it so he’s dealing with real shit, like he’s afraid because he’s afraid. When you found out that there was no kryptonite was that something where you thought, “This is really cool”?
Shannon: Well, yeah, I mean I thought the whole script was just very sophisticated for the genre that it is. It was as sophisticated as scripts for other movies I’ve done that have been considered more highfalutin, or whatever. It has a lot of deep themes in it, and the way they deal with Kal-El’s journey is really fascinating.
Switching subjects completely, I really enjoyed Jake Paltrow’s The Good Night.
Shannon: Oh, I never saw it.
I really dug it a lot and I know you’re doing Young Ones, I don’t know much about the project, can you talk about what appealed to you about the project and who you play? I know its sci-fi.
Shannon: Yeah, it’s about the inevitable water shortage that will be happening, or is already starting to happen. It’s set in the future a little bit, there’s not much water left and I play a guy who’s a farmer and his land is completely obliterated by drought and he’s trying to take care of his family. It’s kind of got a Steinbeck-ian vibe to it a little bit. We shot it down in Africa. I think Jake is super smart. He’s really exciting. He reminds me of Jeff Nichols, who is my favorite dude. We got a new movie coming out, Mud.
Sir, it is on my list of things to address.
Shannon: April 27th, yeah.
What is it like for you because you have Mud, you have this, you have Man of Steel; you have a lot of stuff coming out, are you getting ready to enjoy the promotional process or are you like “Fuck”?
Shannon: I don’t mind it. You’re always concerned about being interesting in these situations. This is more talking than I ever really do on a normal day. It’s kind of like when you have those pedometers that measure your steps; this would be a high step count for me. So you just worry is anything I’m saying going to be interesting to anyone?
I got to tell you I think the answer is yes, because a lot of people dig your work. You have a number of projects coming up and I would imagine that you’re thinking about a number of projects in the future, what is 2013 looking like in terms of what you might be thinking about doing?
Shannon: That’s this year right?
It is this year, or even next year.
Shannon: I’m doing Boardwalk Empire season four right now. I think Nichols and I are heating up our fourth collaboration to happen in the winter, I believe. I think I’m going to do a film in Chicago this Fall. You know, my agent’s kind of like, “Let’s wait and see what happens after Man of Steel comes out.” I guess it’s kind of, like you said, going to be some sort of seminal experience.
Shannon: I hope so, knock on wood, Jesus. What if nobody goes? There’s no guarantees.
I’m going to tell you now, and I want this to be on record, it’s going to make a billion dollars.
Shannon: A billion?
You have no idea, dude. I’m telling you it’s the #1 thing on my website. We have at least five readers and all five of them click on that link when I put up Man of Steel. You have no idea what’s coming.