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Michael Shannon stars in the upcoming gangster saga "The Iceman," which opens this weekend. The film recounts the rise and swift fall of Richard Kuklinski, a Mob enforcer who by some counts murdered more than 100 people. As the body count rises, Kuklinski manages to buy himself a piece of the American dream: a nice house in the suburbs, daughters in private school, and a collection of snazzy suits.
Anyone familiar with his work in "Take Shelter" or, more recently, "Premium Rush" knows that Shannon is intense. On the screen, there seems to be a deep, untapped reservoir of rage beneath his seemingly calm exterior. Every eye twitch and grimace hints at possible eruption. And when that fury does bubble to the screen, like during the climax of "Take Shelter," it is positively electric.
For "The Iceman," Shannon plays opposite Ray Liotta, who can just about match him in the homicidal-death-stare category, and Winona Ryder as his wife. While his character is all repressed brutality, Ryder's radiates a fragile warmth. It was a smart casting movie on the part of the filmmakers.
[Full Coverage: Yahoo! Movies at the Toronto International Film Festival]
I talked with Shannon during last year's Toronto International Film Festival. Instead of a seething badass, I met a gracious, soft-spoken guy in a green shirt who was fighting off a cold. We talked about getting into the head of a gangster, the Oscar race, and General Zod's facial hair.
Jonathan Crow: What drew you to this role?
Michael Shannon: Well, it all started with just watching the interview that Kuklinski did for HBO. I didn't know who he was. I had never heard of him. [Director Ariel Vromen] approached me and he gave me the interview and told me to watch it, and I did. Kuklinski's a very captivating person. A lot of people, when they see the interview the first time, they see a very frightening individual. But I was immediately drawn to this sense of melancholy that I felt about him. I felt like he's a very tragic figure. I felt like he was aware of the mistakes he'd made and how much suffering he had caused. He was trying to process it sitting in prison by himself. There's something very sad about it, not that I condone or approve of what he did, but I felt like he deserved some consideration for what he went through.
JC: You say that he recognizes the pain he's covering. Yeah, he's a hugely prolific serial killer. How do you jibe those two?
MS: Well, it's not my job to make excuses for his life for what he did, because I can't and I wouldn't. I mean, the way he looks at it is it's his job. He had a very low opinion of himself. He didn't think he was very smart or he didn't think he was particularly good at anything like you see in the movie before he gets that job with DeMeo. He's dubbing porno films in the basement. He's not on an upwardly mobile career trajectory as a person.
There are a lot of jobs in this world that require people to do things that can be damaging to other people in order to make a living and take care of your family. There are people that go out, say, in the financial sector and screw hundreds and thousands of people out of money and their houses so that they can go home and make sure that their family, their children go to nice schools and they have a nice dinner at night. This is a very blunt example, but there are a lot of people that cause suffering in order to collect the paycheck, particularly nowadays.
JC: Sure. I think one thing that's common with all American gangster movies like "Godfather" and "Goodfellas" is that they'reall kind of about the American dream.
MS: Yeah. It was a theme that I was glad to have in the movie. If it was just a movie about some guy killing a bunch of people, I wouldn't have done it. Somebody was asking me, "Which killing was your favorite to shoot?" I was like, "I actually didn't enjoy shooting any of them. I don't enjoy killing, period." It's only valuable to the extent that it's telling the story, but it's not like I read the script and thought, "Oh cool! I'm going to go kill a bunch of people. That's going to be a lot of fun," because it's not fun.
JC: What was it like working with Winona Ryder?
MS: Well, she's so wonderfully vulnerable. I was so happy that it was her playing the part because I think the stereotypical route would be a real brassy, New Jersey housewife to match up with the roughness of Richard's character. But she's so fragile and yet she does have a strength about her, but it's unique. It's not obvious. It's not over-the-top.
I felt like all my scenes with her, I could just sit and talk and listen. There wasn't a huge effort to try and make something happen. Chemistry is weird. You don't know where it comes from or why it happens, but you just have it with some people and I felt that with her.
JC: How about Ray Liotta? What is he like?
MS: He's very spontaneous. He's good at keeping you on your toes. He's always kind of throwing a little curve ball at you, something unexpected. Maybe he'll make up a line.
He's been doing this a long time and he understands that the best thing to capture on film is something that's spontaneous, not something that you've gone over a hundred times in your mind and rehearsed and got it just the way you want it. Nine times out of 10, that's not very interesting. What's interesting is something unexpected happening.
JC: I feel like last year you were robbed of an Oscar nomination for "Take Shelter." I absolutely love that film.
MS: Oh, thank you!
JC: This year, do you think you have a shot? You're terrifying in this film.
MS: I don't know. Do they hand out Oscars for being terrifying?
JC: Ask Anthony Hopkins.
MS: Yeah, well, good point. It seems like a real strong season so far. I look at the program here at the festival and there's going to be a lot of great performances this fall. Just in "The Master" alone, you've got -- I'm sure Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix will snag two of the spots, so that only leaves three. But I certainly wouldn't turn down an invitation.
JC: Is there anything you can tell me about Zod?
MS: He's a general. On a planet called Krypton. I don't know what to say about Zod. It's shrouded in secrecy. [Long pause.] He's a badass mofo.
JC: A badass mofo in a jumpsuit like in "Superman 2"?
MS: I will look slightly different than Terence Stamp because otherwise, what's the point? It will all be slightly different. I think it's pretty cool. I'm going to be doing so many interviews for the "Man of Steel." I'll save it for then.
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See the trailer for 'The Iceman':