Michael Shannon was shy and soft-spoken during a recent interview at the Four Seasons hotel, keeping his intense blue eyes studiously focused on the floor. It was hard to juxtapose this retiring fellow with the disturbed souls and tough guys he has played on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and in films like “Take Shelter” and 2008’s “Revolutionary Road,” for which he earned an Oscar nomination.
Shannon will portray Superman’s nemesis, the villainous General Zod, in Zack Snyder’s highly-anticipated “The Man of Steel,” opening June 14. And in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman,” opening May 3, he’s the stone-cold mob hitman Richard Kuklinski – based on the real-life notorious contract killer who had a soft spot for his family. (Kuklinski's preferred murder technique: pretending to cough or sneeze on victims while actually spraying them with cyanide.)
Vromen, who grew up in Tel Aviv and did his IDF service in a dangerous rescue unit of the air force, said Shannon oozes menace on-camera. “Michael portrays the dark side of human nature so convincingly,” the filmmaker said in a separate interview at the Four Seasons. “He’s perfection in the dark and he’s also very funny. But I had never seen him actually portray warmth, so I just kept reminding him of his daughter, and he went into that space very easily.
Here’s what Shannon had to say about Vromen and “The Iceman:”
Q: When Ariel first approached you about the film several years ago, you said, “Good luck making the movie with me in the lead.” At the time, you thought you weren’t a big enough name to play the main character.
A: It’s very tricky to get even the smallest amount of money for films nowadays, so I didn’t know if he’d be able to secure the funds he needed to make the picture with me in the lead. I suggested maybe I could play a supporting role.
Q: What drew you to the project?
A: I think that Ariel and I had a very similar attachment to the material, which was the double life that Kuklinski led; the contrast of the rage he expressed by what he did for a living but also this tenderness that he managed to have that inspired him to have a wife and a family and a home. I think we were both fascinated by how that contradiction could exist in a person.
Q: Do you think your character is evil?
A: I think he did horrid things, but I see my job as being to try to understand what would lead someone to do the things that he did, so that’s what I attempted to do. I think his abusive childhood played a huge part in it, and I think he had a very low opinion of himself, ultimately. In interviews, he would say of his murders, “I didn’t know how to do anything else. I wasn’t good at school, I didn’t have a lot of prospects. Basically the one thing that I had was this rage, and I found a way to turn it into a job.”
Q: One scene that stands out is the one where James Franco plays a victim who is praying to God to save his life, while Kuklinski taunts him that God apparently isn’t listening.
A: That scene was very significant for me because I think it was a very significant event in Kuklinski’s life. It’s a story he tells in an interview he did for HBO, where the interviewer asked him if he regretted any of his killings. He described the time that he told this guy to pray to God, and he afterwards always felt that that was not cool, that he actually doubted himself in retrospect for killing the guy. Which was rare for him; he didn’t do that very often. So I knew it was a very important scene in that regard.
Q: In the scene, Kuklinski seems very sure of himself.
A: I think for people like Kuklinski, a lot of the conflict is very internal; it’s inside of them, and not for public consumption.
Q: How would you describe working with Ariel Vromen?
A: Ariel is very tenacious; he doesn’t give up, and he’s a great leader. This was a very difficult shoot; we didn’t have a lot of time or money, but he never buckled. He’s able to make great decisions on his feet and to inspire the crew and keep things moving. The fact that he was able to make the movie in the amount of time we had and with such limited resources is really a testament to how strong his will was to complete the film.
Q: What would you like audiences to come away with?
A: I think the film is valuable, if not necessarily a primer on Kuklinskis’ life, at least as a parable about the notion of having a double life – and how that ultimately isn’t a very good idea.