No one plays imposing and unsettling quite like Michael Shannon. The looming 6’4″ actor, best known for his characters in Revolutionary Road — for which he was nominated for an Oscar — Take Shelter, and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, commands attention in every scene he’s ever done, wielding a hollowed-out stare that can even shake audiences seated in the last row of the theater. There’s always a hint of menace behind those unblinking eyes, the potential for something wild and dangerous — even when his character’s intentions are pure.
In The Iceman, which opens in theaters on May 3, Shannon plays a man whose intentions are most definitely not pure. Richard Kuklinski was an infamous mob killer who admitted to more than 100 murders after he was finally captured in 1986. At home, in a leafy New Jersey suburb, he’s the loving husband to Winona Ryder’s willfully naive wife and doting father to their two daughters. But when he goes to work, he’s the grim reaper, dispatching victims with extreme prejudice.
In a way, playing a cold-blooded murderer is just a prelude for what’s next. In Man of Steel, the ginormous Superman reboot that flies into thousands of theaters on June 14, Shannon plays General Zod, the hero’s Krypton-born arch-enemy. It’s by far the biggest movie he’s ever appeared in, and millions of boys and girls will get their first glimpse of that powerful glare, pure, delightful kryptonite to their young moviegoing hearts.
Click below for an exclusive video from The Iceman, in which sweet, soft-spoken Richie has his first date with his future wife, and then read a interview with Shannon, as he discusses playing Zod, that hilarious Funny or Die soliloquy, and why he used to be terrified of Bill Murray.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Director Ariel Vroman had you in mind for the role of Richard Kuklinski after he saw you in Revolutionary Road. What is your reaction when someone says, “I love your work. I’m working on this movie about this infamous serial killer. You’d be perfect for it.” Is it possible to feel flattered while also wondering, “Jeez, how do people see me?”
MICHAEL SHANNON: Hmmm. Yeah, well, I don’t know. I’m an actor and it’s what I do, you know. I play parts. I feel like there’s actually a lot of variety to what I do, even though it tends to be classified in one category or another by different people. I was intimidated by the prospect of playing a real person. It’s the third time I’ve done it and every time, I find it very challenging because I just want to try and get it as close to the actual person as I can but without doing just an imitation. It’s a huge challenge. I mean, I’m fairly comfortable with the whole notion of me playing this character because it’s so far removed from my own life experience. It’s not like I’m anything like this guy. It’s not like it hits too close to home. Having even played the part and done the movie, I still don’t understand how someone like that functions in the world.
Purely as a character, what did you find interesting about Kuklinski?
For me, underneath the gruff exterior and all the macho B.S. and this whole notion of him being a cold-blooded killer, I felt like there was a very sensitive, vulnerable person who had a very hard life and because of circumstances, he felt like this was the only way to be in the world. I thought that was a very tragic situation, and I just wanted to explore how someone gets to that point. It’s obviously a very extreme story, but I think there are a lot of people in the world that have a lot of conflict between what they do for a living and who they are as people, and a lot of people have to deal with doing things that they don’t like doing in order to make money. And I felt like this was kinda the most extreme version of that I could imagine.
Kuklinski died in prison in 2006, but he sat for interviews that became part of a series of HBO documentaries. Did they provide any guidance, whether it was mannerisms or something you observed about his nature?
Obviously, the interview is tremendously helpful. It was the primary resource I had in doing the part. I got an unedited version of the interview, which was really helpful because the parts they put on HBO were the most exciting parts with the grisly details. But in the unedited version, he talked a lot more about his life and who he was and how he got where he was. For some reason the general public doesn’t find all that as interesting but it certainly helped me a lot.
You can’t watch your performance and not be struck by just the tautness and hardness of Kuklinski’s face and the stillness of your performance. This might sound silly, but does that actually take a toll physically, just with the muscles that you’re using?
What, with my face? [Laughs]
Yeah, do you have to stretch it out afterwards just to get your normal smile back?
Yeah, there’s a lot of tension going on with my face, of course — not just because of the character, but because I was wearing a lot of fake facial hair. That stuff can really start to drive you nuts. You don’t want to make any sudden moves or it might start coming off, you know? So it was a process trying to figure out how to deal with that stuff. But at the end of the day, I was just tired in general. Not just my face, but pretty much all of me was pretty tired. It’s a very exhausting thing to do. One thing I realized playing the part was just how stressful this guy’s life was. Everybody thinks he’s such a badass, like nothing ruffles his feathers, but I personally don’t think that could be further from the case. I think that guy was in a constant state of anxiety.
I read that you don’t like to rehearse, which I found surprising because you have such a strong theater background.
I love rehearsing for theater. One of the things I love about doing theater is the repetition of it — the opportunity to revisit the material day after day after day. I don’t favor it as much in film because I think there’s very few people that really understand what rehearsal is or how it works or how it can be effective in a film environment. What you’re trying to capture in film is almost like an accident, you know? Kind of a spontaneous moment that no one can foresee. That’s kind of the jackpot, you know. I think it’s very easy to fall into a pattern on a film set because the days are very long and people are usually kind of tired and the focus starts to wane, so I try to avoid that. There’s one instance that I actually really did enjoy rehearsing, when I worked with the late Sidney Lumet in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but that is a director who really understands the merits of rehearsal and understands how to run a rehearsal. It’s pretty rare to find that in other situations.
In The Iceman, you pal around with Chris Evans, who is Captain America in another life. In this summer’s Man of Steel, you play General Zod, who has it in for Superman. We both grew up with Terence Stamp’s Zod and his shiny Studio 54 costume from Superman I and II. How’s your Zod going to be different?
Well, I have a very different voice than Terence Stamp. When I sat down and talked with Zack [Snyder] about how he wanted me to approach the part, he just said that what was really important to him is that Zod wasn’t just some villain who was full of an arbitrary need to destroy everything. He’s not really actually the villain at all on Krypton. He’s a general. Not general of a country. He’s general of an entire planet. Just an awesome amount of responsibility and pressure. He’s responsible for taking care of that civilization, and for a long time, he was pretty good at it. And then he hit some bumps in the road, and now he’s just desperate to try and fix things up.
You’ve been on Broadway, been nominated for an Academy Award, so I have to ask: Was last week the first time you ever said the word “c–t punch” for a role?
C–t punt. I got in trouble because I was saying c–t punch and they corrected me. Yes, it is and it was. I didn’t go to university. I didn’t have this delightful fraternity-sorority experience, so it was very exotic for me. I’ve been wanting to do something with Funny or Die for awhile. I felt really privileged because they probably could have gotten any number of people to read that letter and I was very grateful they selected me.
How many takes?
Well, we did it a few different sizes. I think I did it about seven times.
One of my favorite movies of all-time is Groundhog Day, so I remember that you had a small role, as one half of the engaged couple who love professional wrestling. Does anything stand out from that experience, which I think was one of, if not your first feature credit?
Yeah, there was the day that Harold Ramis took me to the bar set and played pool with me during lunch. That was really cool. He just wanted to talk to me, and I got to play a couple of games of pool with Harold Ramis. That was pretty badass.
Was he telling Stripes and Ghostbusters anecdotes?
I don’t remember any anecdotes. I actually wanted to talk to him because I thought I had annoyed Bill Murray about something. He basically just reassured me that I hadn’t, that Bill Murray wasn’t upset with me. Which was very sweet of him, because I was basically an extra in the movie. The fact that he was concerned enough to give me the reassurance was pretty sweet.
What had you done that might have irked Bill?
We were sitting outside the restaurant set, and Bill Murray had a little boom-box and he’d listen to music between takes. He was listening to Talking Heads, and the Talking Heads are like my favorite band of all-time. Total Talking Heads geek. And so, I was so excited that he was listening to Talking Heads, and I walked up to him — and I’d never spoken to him at all — and I walked up and said, “Oh, you like the Talking Heads, too, huh?” And he just got this look on his face, like, “Yeah, you moron, That’s why I’m standing here listening to Talking Heads. Because I like them.” I felt like I’d just said the stupidest thing in the history of the world. So I like ran away. Hence the pool date at lunch.