With Michael Shannon
southern gentleman, Michael Shannon brings to the big and small
screens the intensity and skilled acting that grew out of his years as
a stage-trained actor, where he first performed at the Illinois Theatre
Center. Subsequent to that, he has worked with such famous companies
as Steppenwolf, The Next Lab, A Red Orchid Theatre
as well as London's West End where he appeared in "Woyzeck,"
"Killer Joe," and "Bug." Nominated for
an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance
in "Revolutionary Road," Shannon has had roles
in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," "Machine
Gun Preacher," "Vanilla Sky," "Jonah
Hex," "13," "Bad Boys II,"
and "Mud," and has had a recurring role on the multiple
awarding-winning television series "Boardwalk Empire."
Michael Shannon. Courtesy
Shannon is currently starring in Ariel
Vromen's film "The Iceman" in which he plays contract
hit man Richard Kuklinski. Among the film's co-stars are Ray
Liotta, Winona Ryder, David Schwimmer, Chris Evans,
Robert Davi, and a James Franco cameo.
Shannon recently sat down with a select group
of journalists and the following is edited for content and continuity.
Michael Shannon plays notorious contract killer
Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen's "The Iceman." Photo
Courtesy Millennium Films
You play Richard Kuklinski, a notorious contract
killer. What kind of research did you do for the role?
Shannon: I watched an interview he did from prison.
They showed it on HBO, but I saw the full 20-hour unedited
interview. I watched it ten times. That's how I got to know him.
What did you discover?
Shannon: I discovered a lot of things. He's a very complicated
person. One of the main things I discovered is that it's very hard to
get to know the guy because you're never quite sure when he's telling
the truth. He contradicts himself all the time. But the one thing that
seemed very apparent to me is that he's a very sad, lonely person who
had been in a lot of pain pretty much his whole life and that the one
thing in the world that meant anything to him had been taken away from
him forever. This is really a hard question to answer in a concise manner.
Let's go to the next question.
Is this the first time you've played a sociopath
and what is the particular challenge in creating such a character?
Shannon: Mmm. Sociopath. Well, I can't honestly say
if I know that I've played more than one sociopath or not. I'm not well
studied in the mental health sciences. I'm assuming you mean someone
who has no morality?
No moral compass.
Shannon: I'm not sure he was without a moral compass
at all. I mean he does have certain rules about what he does. He doesn't
hurt women or children or he doesn't kill them anyway. The way he looked
at it was if he didn't kill most of the guys he killed, somebody else
would which is honestly the truth. For me, I don't think the world needs
to know more about sociopaths. I'm not on a crusade to enlighten anyone
about sociopaths. The only thing that makes Kuklinski interesting
to me is actually the tenderness I believe he had in his heart. Under
all the layers of rage and fury there was this little fragment of tenderness
that he wouldn't let go of and that he did everything in his power to
protect his family from himself. That's what I found interesting about
L-R: Michael Shannon as Richard Kuklinski with Ray
Liotta who plays mob boss, Roy Demeo. Photo Courtesy
What was the first day of shooting like?
Shannon: It's very cool how we shot the movie. I started
with the Demeo (Roy Demeo character played by Ray Liotta)
stuff with Ray and David Schwimmer and John Ventimiglia.
The first scene I shot was the scene where Ray fires me because I didn't
kill the hooker telling me I can't leave witnesses. But I say she was
a kid and he says he doesn't give a rat's ass and that I'm done. That
was the first time I had ever met Ray Liotta so a lot of the
day I was thinking that's Ray Liotta, he was in "Good
Fellas." (laughter) He was in "Something Wild."
He's really good. Oh yeah, he's really freaking me out. I don't know
what he's going to do next. The big issue when we were shooting that
scene was this whole thing about me not eating vegetables. I was picking
mushrooms out of an omelet and wondering if mushrooms counted as a vegetable.
That was a big question that day.
Winona said that violent scene in the kitchen
was unrehearsed and she was really surprised. What made you go in that
direction and how badly did you actually hurt yourself?
Shannon: I tripped over a table and it was not very
bad at all. It was just a scratch. I'll show you. Oh, it's not there
any more. (laughter) Unfortunately, it happened on the first
take. We had a very slippery coffee table that I kick over so I was
walking to the kitchen and stepped on the coffee table and I was like
Kathy Fleming skating across the floor. It is Kathy, right?
Can anyone back me up on this?
Shannon: (continuing his thought) Oh yes, Peggy.
So I fell and was trying to keep it hidden from Winona. You know
Winona is a very delicate individual and I knew it would freak her out.
So I was crossing my legs and between takes I would go stand in the
dark in the back yard. But it was not major. I'm still here. I'm still
alive. Everything is fine.
Winona Ryder plays Michael Shannon's Richard Kuklinski's
Photo Courtesy Millennium Films
She said breaking all the stuff in the kitchen
Shannon: No. That was kind of what I was supposed to
do. The fact of the matter is that odds are their domestic life, in
reality, was much more physical than that. That's a very light-weight
version of things that probably happened, but I think it was important
to at least have some illusion to the fact that he probably broke a
couple of dishes in his day, an aspect of his personality which I think
is important to the story.
Richard Kuklinski is about to kill James Franco's
character of Marty but offers him a chance to pray to God to save him.
Photo Courtesy Millennium Films
Was the scene with James Franco where you give
him an opportunity to pray for his life in the script?
Shannon: Oh yes. It was on the page. That's actually
a story that Kuklinski himself tells quite a lot. In the interview,
the interviewer asks him if he has any regrets and he says that he has
one and that was the time he made a guy pray to God. He said
that wasn't right and he shouldn't have done that. So, that's why it's
in there. But, we had a hell of time getting James Franco to
pray. (laughter) He didn't want to pray. I don't know if he's
anti-religious or something but he just wouldn't pray. I'm saying you
gotta' pray, you gotta' pray to God, that's the whole point of
the scene. But he just didn't want to do it. He's great in the scene
and actually didn't know any prayers which when I started to say "Our
In the film you have two daughters, but in real
life, you actually have a daughter. Did that inform your character in
Shannon: She's four and a lot younger than the girls
in the movie. My daughter is like my favorite person in the world. The
father/daughter thing is very powerful and yes, having my own daughter
definitely informed the character. It's also very different as well.
I'm a very different father than Richard Kuklinski. (laughter)
Kuklinski actually had a son who is not depicted
in the film. Do you know the reason why?
Shannon: You'd have to ask Ariel (the director).
I can hypothesize. It's a tricky thing with kids in a movie. I actually
think maybe his son didn't want to be depicted in this movie. Don't
put me in this movie. That might be it. I know this sounds wretched,
but it might have been a budget thing. Like do they really need three
kids? I honestly don't know. This film was made on a very tight budget
in a very short period of time.
Michael Shannon on Richard Kuklinski: .... "One
thing that seemed very apparent to me is that hes a very sad,
lonely person who had been in a lot of pain pretty much his whole life..."
Photo Courtesy Millennium Films
Despite the intensity of the material was it relaxed
on the set?
Shannon: No. It wasn't relaxed at all. It was hard.
Like I said, we didn't have much money. We didn't have much time. We
were barely making our days. It was a nail-biting experience, but we
Given that this is not really a message film,
is there one message an audience could take away with them?
Shannon: I think it's a really good example of how living
a double life is a bad idea. Like you should try to find someone that
your comfortable being with in all situations so that there's continuity
and you don't have to keep big secrets and drive yourself crazy because
I think a lot of what he was suffering from got progressively worse
and worse the longer he tried to keep all these secrets. Secrets are
Was there one pivotal moment in your life when
you decided to become an actor?
Shannon: I felt that way when I got to Chicago and started
doing plays in little tiny theatres. I didn't get paid anything. There
was one theatre I loved. It was in the basement of a restaurant. It
was a little concrete room with folding chairs. We'd do plays down there.
I can't think of one at the moment. It was kind of like Chinese
water torture just bearing into your skull and eventually you can't
How did theatre training impact on your acting
Shannon: I don't know. They're so different. They're
such different experiences. I mean the thing is I think because a lot
of the theatres that I working at in Chicago were very small,
I was never far away from the audience, so the context of performing
isn't that different. The audience is still very close. The rhythm of
it is totally different. When you do a play, you tell the whole story
and you're done and go home. When you do a movie, you're breaking it
up into all these little fragments so they don't really feed one another.
I don't feel like one of them makes me better at the other one. They
seem like two separate things to me.
You live in New York?
Shannon: I live in Brooklyn.
What part? Park Slope?
Shannon: Red Hook. That's where "On the
Waterfront" was set.
That use to be a really bad neighborhood. Is it
completely gentrified now?
Shannon: Yes and no. I mean it's not dangerous. There's
still a giant housing project and bunches of poor people but there's
just not any violence. It'll never be Park Slope. It's too out
of the way. And, there's still lots of industrial space there and weird
warehouses with funny smells like something bad might be happening
Are you getting a lot of attention now that you're
a rising celebrity and how do you handle it when you're out in public?
Shannon: I don't know. I've been getting a lot of that
with "Boardwalk." When you're on TV you really
become a part of people's rituals. You're in their house and they expect
you once a week and they feel like they are getting to know you. I don't
mind it. I guess I've been thinking about getting a hat and some glasses
or something. (laughter) I mean I can't drive around in town
cars because that would drive me insane. I like to walk and go out,
take the subway. I'll just have to deal with it.
But aren't people more invisible in New York?
Shannon: Yes and no. I mean I get plenty of well-wishers.
It's not really a negative thing as long as they don't expect to become
my best friend or something.
How do you handle it when someone comes up to
you for an autograph?
Shannon: Let's do it. (Hands over a piece of paper)
You're the person.
Assuming a childish voice: Can I have your autograph?
Shannon: Yeah, sure. You got a pen? (laughter) (He
feigns signing the paper) Thank you. Thanks a lot. Take care. Have
a nice day. Bye, Bye. (laughter).