With his square jaw and wild bulging blue eyes, Michael Shannon is known as the master at playing deranged and off-kilter characters. Take Shelter saw him alongside Jessica Chastain as a delusional family man believing an apocalyptic storm is nigh. In Boardwalk Empire, he's a religious fanatic and federal agent hellbent on smashing out Steve Buscemi's bootlegging Nucky. And his portrayal as Kathy Bates' troubled son in Revolutionary Road earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
I think I frightened James Franco more than anyone
Now, while the 38-year-old will surely reach an entire new audience with his villainous turn as Kryptonian General Zodin in the upcoming Man of Steel, he probably should have been nominated for an Oscar this year for his starring role as real life New Jersey serial killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. But he wasn't. The film, which is now even struggling to release here, has been termed too dark and lacking the humour of Martin Scorsese's oeuvre of New York mob movies, like Goodfellas. Interestingly, that film's smirking star, Ray Liotta, is Kuklinski's mob boss, Roy DeMeo, in The Iceman.
Interestingly, a host of stars including Captain America himself, an unrecognisable Chris Evans (as another hit man, Mr. Freezy), lined up to work with Shannon and inevitably to be killed by the man he is playing.
Between 1948 and 1986, the hulking Kuklinski (he was 194cm tall and weighed 135kg) killed somewhere between 100 and 250 people before he was imprisoned at the age of 47. He got away with it for so long because he maintained a marriage and family that he managed to keep separate from his real profession. He varied his killings so much that he was not detected and often froze his victims so that the time of death could not be determined. The authorities were onto him when he became careless and they found ice in a victim's heart.
Shannon makes no apologies for playing another super bad guy. Or for scaring his co-stars.
“I was playing a known quantity; it wasn't an imaginary person,” he says. “I think no matter what I did, if you watch the interview with the actual man he's got something that's even deeper and more threatening. It was very intimidating to try and capture what I saw in him. I didn't go to work every day thinking it was my job to scare people. I just thought I had to capture the complexities of this man to the best of my abilities and I got a lot of help in doing that from my fellow cast members, all of whom were incredible scene partners. But yeah,” he chuckles in his deep raspy voice, “Ray actually scared the shit out of me much more than I scared him, and Winona [Winona Ryder plays Kuklinski's wife, Deborah] actually frightened me a little bit when she got mad at me in the hospital. It was a very powerful scene. I think I frightened James Franco [another victim] more than anyone.”
The film's Israeli director, Ariel Vromen, was drawn to the story by Kuslinski's real-life charisma. He knew the role suited Shannon implicitly.
“You don't need to really direct Michael in a way, as he comes so prepared and knows the character and story so well,” Vromen says. “We had two years to discuss this movie since I harassed him at an Oscars party. So when we actually were on the set, it was all about capturing the moment and trying to collaborate on telling the story in the right way. There were very few moments where I didn't feel I wasn't watching Richard Kuklinski in front of me. Michael is very into his space when he works. He doesn't talk to many people.”
Liotta, on the other hand, is a force of nature, both on screen and off. “Ray is a legend to have in such a role, because it's hard to find someone in Hollywood who can be as menacing in front of Michael,” Vromen notes. “So having the two of them together was very helpful for the film.”
Ryder, who likewise impresses, often didn't know what Shannon would do next.
“There's this amazing spontaneous explosion that you're not prepared for,” she recalls, “and it grabs you by the throat and pulls you into the scene and makes it completely present. Actors get used to doing things in a certain way, so it was really quite wonderful. It made the scene all the more riveting because I didn't know it was happening. At one point, I burst into tears.”
Vromen admits he wanted to audiences to be holding their breath and for the organised crime to be less flashy and more terrifying than usual.
“A lot of gangster films try to work on the safe side of gangsters,” he says. “We told a story about outsiders so had a different point of view. We could focus more on the duality of those characters and tell a story more people can identify with. Kuklinski was actually very loyal to anything that he believed in and it's a great story about a guy who has two extremes in his personality. I didn't like him; I was intrigued by him.”
Kuklinski was probably bipolar, something which might have been controlled today through medication. The psychiatrist who interviewed him in prison said he most likely inherited antisocial personality disorder from his abusive parents. His brother Florian died from injuries sustained by his father, while his other brother Joseph was also imprisoned for raping and murdering a 12-year-old girl.
“There was so much self-loathing,” Vromen explains. “Richard often said he did the line of work he was in because he really didn't think he could do anything else. He didn't think he had any talents; he didn't think he was intelligent. The one thing he did have in excess was rage.”
Liotta knows a thing or too about playing that on screen. Ultimately, he says, “It's just our job. Sometimes if you've got to have a really edgy, mean scene at eight o'clock in the morning, the biggest thing is doing your homework. Then you use whatever you have to use, whether you go method with it, whether someone cut you off in traffic, you just hold on to it. There are so many things that can get you annoyed on a movie set, so it's easy to turn it up.”
Shannon was impressed by his co-star.
“I really felt Ray had a keen awareness. He was always looking for what was around him to inspire him or to tell the story and to locate where the story was supposed to be. I thought that was fascinating. You can't overthink these things; you just have to do something with it. That's why it's called acting; it's not called thinking.”
The Iceman screens at the 2013 Sydney Film Festival. Click here to see our full coverage.