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On the surface, Richard Kuklinski appeared to be your average family man. But when he left home he became a ruthless murderer who’s believed to have slaughtered roughly 200 people. His career as a mafia hitman didn’t last forever, but his terrifying legacy remains. Years after his death, filmmaker Ariel Vromen struggled to bring Kuklinski’s story to theaters, and he did with The Iceman. Actor Michael Shannon tackles the title role and spoke with ScreenCrave about getting into the mind of a killer.

Did you know this story and did you look at all the interviews? 

Michael Shannon: Well I have never heard of him, that’s for sure, but I did rely on the interviews. I actually got the unedited interview, which is very long, like over 20 hours long and I watched it a lot. I mean it’s an interesting contrast because on one hand is the script, the material, there’s no way that it’s going to encapsulate his entire life in 90 minutes. That would be a ridiculous task, but you want to approach what is there with as much authenticity as possible. I was trying to be like him. There’s just certain things… I’m not a giant Polish man, I’m a rather large Irish man so that’s a different thing. So I tried to get larger and more Polish.

We’re looking at the human side of Kuklinski, as opposed to the criminal side. How did you tap into that?

Michael Shannon: A lot of that starts with the script and it starts with Ariel [Vromen] and starts with Ariel letting me know the kind of film he wants me to make. He was very adamant from the get-go that he wanted Kuklinski to be an empathetic character, or not to be entirely menacing all the time. Ariel found that Kuklinski had a certain charisma that he wanted to capture and I couldn’t say I disagreed with him. When I watched the interviews he was very engaging and if you didn’t know what he did for a living, you could probably talk to him for quite a long time and have an interesting conversation. But in terms of capturing that human element, I don’t know. I find it very easy when you put me in a room with Winona [Ryder] and the girls playing the daughters. It’s just an instinct. It’s not anything I write notes about in my script, it’s just a natural human instinct to want to. I have a family and I love having a family and who doesn’t love having a family? It’s nice to have a family. It’s nice to have people that you care about who care about you, something to fight for. If anything, it’s what makes this story interesting. If he was just a loner, I don’t know what story there would really be to tell.

Could you talk about acting opposite Ray Liotta?

Michael Shannon: Yeah Ray was awesome. Ray really kept me on my toes. Ray was really the first one I worked with. Ray, David [Schwimmer] and John [Ventimiglia], the whole story line with the Demeo’s story line is how we started shooting. I just never knew what to expect from Ray from take to take. He always throws something different in there. You could never quite tell when he was maybe pulling your leg a little bit. He’s got a really nice sense of mischief. I think more than anything he’s trying to entertain himself a little bit, keep himself interested. I’m very grateful that he agreed to sign onto the project… the fact that my name is the first one in that list of names is pretty bizarre.

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You were genuinely excited to work with this cast, did you use that in your performance?

Michael Shannon: Fortunately, the adrenaline you get from working with people you admire usually is beneficial to the scene because usually there’s meant to be some adrenaline in the scene. I do honestly think that Kuklisnki–one of the few people that made Kuklinski nervous was Demeo. Another one that made him nervous was Mr. Freezy. These are two men that he actually managed to have some modicum of respect for so it’s actually kind of cool if I’m like that’s Ray Liotta, he’s a badass. That kind of makes sense you know?

What about Chris Evans? Did he surprise you?

Michael Shannon: He was totally ready. He wanted to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mud. He was ready for a little break from Captain America. He’s been so squeaky clean for such a long time and he was very excited about becoming a scum bag. He makes Kuklinski look warm and fuzzy. With Kuklinski it was an outcome of great rage and this vitriol that he had inside of him. With Mr. Freezy, he was actually trying to find out ways how to kill people that were not messy, not loud and happened just kind of instantaneously where there even wasn’t any sort of emotional satisfaction. The ideal to him was that you walk down the street and you sneeze and the guy you walk past dies, and nobody knows how it happens. There is no celebrating, there is no release or catharsis of any kind. It’s just like swatting a fly or something. It’s very weird.

At the press conference for Premium Rush, reporters were excited about you playing the bad guy. What’s the satisfaction in staying off the straight and narrow?

Michael Shannon: It’s always different. Premium Rush I wanted to do because I thought it was funny. I thought David Koepp’s a good writer. I met him, he’s a good Midwestern boy from Wisconsin. He’s polite, he made me laugh, it was a fun job. I got to do a little improv, that’s always fun, but my reasons for doing Premium Rush are totally different than my reasons for doing The Iceman and are totally different than my reasons for doing Boardwalk Empire. I did Boardwalk Empire because it shoots a few blocks from where I live. It’s a good steady job, my mom would be proud. When I signed on for Boardwalk Empire, Terry Winters said “I want to meet him!” Terry and Martin [Scorsese] were sitting there and I was very impressed. My heart was beating two hundred times a minute but I still said, “Oh, you want me to play the thug?” No, you’re going to be the good guy. You’re the man with the heart of gold. You’re very religious and you really want to enforce prohibition and stop people from drinking. I was like that sounds great. That sounds like such a departure, and I won’t have to answer that question anymore over how come I always play the same character over and over again. Terry’s like “Are we in?” “We’re in” and I shake his hand. Three episodes later I’m sticking my fucking hand in somebody’s gut. What can you f–king do? You can’t win. You just can’t win.

Are you going to do some more stage acting?

Michael Shannon: I’m going to do a play called Simpatico by Sam Shepard in Chicago. My theater, A Red Orchid Theater, it’s our 20th anniversary and this is our big show. It’s all the ensemble members getting together to put on a play.

At the end of the day after a film like The Iceman, what do you take away from it?

Michael Shannon: You know it’s interesting, this is a question that … I remember the first time a person asked me a question like this. It was the Toronto Film Festival, what did you learn from doing the film? I was shocked. I don’t know what to say. I mean you would think you would learn something from doing this. Like, “Oh yeah, I’ve learned a valuable lesson, but I can’t… the only thing I say is that I think the film makes a pretty good case against living a double life. Double lives are a bad idea. You should try to live a single life and not keep big secrets because they can eat you alive. I think that was ultimately Kuklinski’s downfall is that he actually wanted to get caught because he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t take all the secrets. They were driving him crazy.

The Iceman is out in limited theaters May 3.