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Michael Shannon

The actor behind The Iceman on the difficulties of portraying a real-life 100+ murderer

It’s hard to forget Michael Shannon. With his thousand-mile stare and ageless appearance, he’s no stranger to playing the man tortured by grief, guilt, or caught in the throes of psychosis. From a truth-wielding outpatient in Revolutionary Road, to a fallen lawman in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Shannon admits an attraction to the dark and deep, while professing a deeper allegiance to the absurd. Moving from stage to screen, both film and TV, 39-year-old Shannon has a reputation for supporting emerging storytellers whose tales strive for beauty – or the ugly truth. In his latest film, The Ice Man, Shannon plays Richard Kuklinski, a real-life mafia hit man who lived a seemingly normal suburban existence while earning his moniker for his detached style of killing. Dazed spoke to Shannon about playing a killer with over 100 victims, his enduring love of the theatre, and his willingness to have a go at rom-com. 

Dazed & Confused: Were you familiar with Richard Kuklinski before you took on the role?
Michael Shannon: He has a cult following but I’d never heard of him - I don’t really follow the organised crime scene with that much avid interest. But once I started watching the interviews with him in prison that aired on HBO, it was hard not to get sucked in. What makes him so captivating is his really unusual sense of humour. At times he seems like a guy you’d want to have a beer with and shoot the shit, then you remind yourself of what he’s done. It’s a push-pull kind of force.

D&C: Were you confident about trying to portray him?
MS: The first time I saw him I thought, I’m nothing like this guy. I’m not cold, I’m not violent, I’m not from New Jersey. So it was a pretty big bridge to cross. Also, he’s an absolutely enormous person; his hands are nearly twice as large as mine, with really long fingers. But somebody had to do it, and I couldn’t think of anyone who would be more like him than I am. I spent a lot of time by myself studying the unedited interviews – which are about 20 hours long.

D&C: It must have been unsettling to spend that much time alone studying him.
MS: It was kind of creepy sometimes. I talked to one of the fellas who interviewed him for a book and he told me about visiting Kuklinski in prison; just how hard it was to be in the same room with him and stay comfortable. You have to tread delicately around this guy.

D&C: Do you see him as a contradictory character? A family man with a secret life as a mafia hit man… 
MS: I think he knew what he was doing was wrong. And he had rules for himself. As he says in the film, he didn’t kill women and children. He talks about being filled with hate, not just for other people but also for himself. He says he wasn’t really good at anything else, he didn’t consider himself to be intelligent, and being a hit man allowed him to turn the malignancy inside into something, if not constructive, than at least the means to support his family. If mob boss Roy DeMeo, (Ray Liotta), hadn’t found him and given him a job, he probably would have wound up in jail a lot sooner. But I don’t think that means all serial killers would make good hit men, because he had to be professional about what he did. Also, I think he looked at a lot of the guys that he iced as shitheads, and his point was that if he didn’t do it, someone else would.

D&C: Do you feel like you understand him more now?
MS: He’s still a mystery to me. Very rarely in the interviews do you know when he’s telling the truth, or not. You can listen to everything that comes out of his mouth and still not have the slightest idea what’s going on in his head. He contradicts himself all the time, sometimes he says he likes what he did, sometimes he says he doesn’t like what he did, sometimes he doesn’t care one way or the other, it just depends on his mood.

D&C: Many of the characters you portray are liminal figures – in Take Shelter, Bug, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, now Ice Man, to name a few. They’re striving for love, or normalcy, while also suffering some kind of anguish. Is this something you look for in a character?
MS: I don’t… Those are interesting examples because externally, they do have some similarities in the sense that they all feel unsafe. And I don’t feel very safe in the world. I don’t think that means I’m nuts, and, obviously, these characters are more extreme examples than what would be considered normal. But there’s certainly evidence to support the idea that the world is not a very safe place.

The stories to those films are very different to me, though I’m willing to accept that maybe on a subconscious level I’m attracted to that sort of anxiety and conflict in a character. Having said that, I honestly just don’t get asked to do other things that much. It’s not like I’m swatting away scripts.

D&C: What other type of character would you like to do?
MS: Well, I like telling this story… though I don’t like to mention any names. There’s a very renowned director of romantic comedy who, after seeing me in Revolutionary Road, decided he wanted me to audition for his new rom-com. I went in and read all these scenes with his leading lady, and we seemed to have a wonderful time, everybody was smiling, and then they called me a week later and said, actually, we’re casting the guy who does all the other romantic comedies. Because that’s the way it works. I tried. I put my hand on the table and somebody had a better hand than me.

D&C: Are there more roles across the board for you in theatre?
MS: With theatre I do things that are literally my idea. I spent seven months doing theatre last year including my Broadway debut, Grace, with Paul Rudd, Ed Asner, and my better half Kate Harrington. Honestly my favourite material to work on as an actor is the theatre of the absurd. Ionesco specifically.

D&C: What do you like about Ionesco?
MS: It’s a perspective on the world that makes sense to me. It’s funny, it makes me laugh, and it releases the tension of trying to be normal or make sense. I feel like his writing really cuts to the absurdity of existence, but in a gentler way than Beckett. It’s much more compassionate. Ionesco likes to throw ridiculous challenges at people. The stage directions in most of his plays are impossible, but you still try to do them anyway. Beckett’s very stern, while Ionesco is very playful and childlike, but with the same gravitas.  

D&C: Was the theatre your first love?
MS: I was very much into the theatre when I first started acting - I didn’t see it as a steppingstone to film. I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, but my dad lived in Chicago so I would visit him when I was a kid, and eventually I moved up there. I wasn’t ever planning on leaving Chicago, it just kind of happened. I was doing this play and we took it on the road and next thing I knew I was in New York. As much as I enjoy my life now, part of me thinks I would have enjoyed staying in Chicago, but that might just be naïve.

D&C: You still help run A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago though right?
MS: Yes, it’s our 20th anniversary. The theatre was started by a friend of mine, Guy, who is a fire fighter and he’d written a play. He figured if he had his own theatre people would have to work around his unusual schedule. I first worked at the box office and sold programmes - but that was 20 years ago. I’m going there this summer to act in Sympatico, my first Shepard play. A Red Orchid is very important to me, and it’s hard, trying to keep a little theatre like that alive for so long.

D&C: Have you ever written a script?
MS: I can’t write scripts. I can write songs – which I do for my band, Corporal. I have the utmost respect for playwrights and screenwriters. I don’t know how they do it. I could probably make some weird abstract film that didn’t make any sense, I don’t know if I could make a film like The Ice Man.

D&C: What’s happening with Corporal?
MS: We haven’t played since September but I think I might try to squeeze in a couple of sets in April. I’d like to record more but we’re all so busy. Sometimes I think in a parallel universe it would have been fun to just have a band, but if you look at all the rock ‘n’ rollers that want to be actors, it’s probably just the grass being greener on the other side.

D&C: How about TV? Do you enjoy that?
MS: I like doing Boardwalk Empire but if they blow my head off or something I’m not going to go looking for another TV show. I think it’s a one-and-done type thing for me, unless I’m desperate and nobody will hire me.

D&C: Or unless the right character comes along…
MS: Right. Someone anxious, conflicted…

Photography by Leigh Johnson