Interview: Michael Shannon on battling Superman

Michael Shannon as contract killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. Picture: Comp
Michael Shannon as contract killer Richard Kuklinski in The Iceman. Picture: Comp
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Michael Shannon is staring at his hands. He examines them closely, palms up, fingers splayed. “I got obsessed with the size of my hands for a day,” he says with a frown.

“I get a little OCD about things like that, about trying to look like a person. And the thing about Richard Kuklinski is that he was always changing the way he looked, which makes sense considering what he did for a living...”

Richard Kuklinski was a notorious and prolific contract killer – active in New Jersey in the 1970s – whose life as a devoted family man contrasted sharply with his secret career. He was a big man; tall with large hands. Charged with playing him in dark biopic The Iceman – Kuklinski’s nickname in the media after he claimed to have frozen his victims’ bodies to outfox forensic experts – it was this last detail that Shannon struggled with, though it’s hard to see why.

At nearly 6ft 4in he’s got a similarly imposing build to Kuklinski’s; broad shoulders, slightly gangly limbs, and yes, large hands. “There’s this scene that always bugged me in the movie,” he says slowly, “this scene where this guy says I have big hands. I kept looking at my hands and thinking they weren’t big enough. But then I just had to let it go. I just had to have confidence that people will accept me as a version of this person.”

Shannon’s cold, steady performance has already received critical acclaim. He manages to embody a man so removed from human compassion that when one of his victims prays to God to spare him, he gives the desperate man half an hour to see if his Maker will change his fate before assassinating him.

It helps, perhaps, that 38-year-old Shannon makes for such a believable psychopath on screen, and that he’s played his fair share of them. His face is slightly asymmetrical; his eyes pop a little, his mouth is a hard, fixed line. It’s the jolie-laide-tinged face of a character actor and he is one of the best around.

The son of a lawyer and accounting professor, he was born in Kentucky and raised first there, then in Chicago. His parents split soon after he was born and each has been married five times. He described acting in the early days as a release, a way to make all the noise he wanted to make in real life. In Chicago he joined the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and his work since has encompassed successful roles in theatre, television and film.

His voice is deep, his accent thick and Southern, as rich and sticky as bourbon. He speaks slowly, carefully and with little emotion. He is polite and engaging but rarely makes eye contact, preferring instead to watch the rain through the window of his London hotel room as he speaks.

It’s a slightly intimidating combination; intense, serious, but it’s a demeanor that lends itself well to the sorts of roles he’s so often cast in. They’re roles for which people know his distinctive face, but not his name. Increasingly, however, that’s changing.

There was his supporting turn in 2008’s Revolutionary Road, playing a troubled neighbour opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, a part which earned him an Oscar nomination. Then there’s his recurring role in the hugely-popular TV series Boardwalk Empire, in which he plays the fervently religious and occasionally murderous prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden.

Next up, he’s in full-blown baddie mode playing General Zod in the new Superman film, Man of Steel, released later this month. The psychopath of the moment, however, is a gun-toting hitman with cold eyes and a face that betrays mere flashes of emotion at irregular intervals.

The real-life Kuklinski gave extensive, televised interviews from prison which were an obvious starting point for Shannon. He claimed to have committed his first murder in his early teens and, before he was convicted of a number of contract killings for the Mob in 1988, he is said to have killed between 100 and 250 people.

“The tapes were tremendously helpful,” he says. “I watched the raw footage, hours and hours of sometimes very mundane conversation. And a lot of evasion, a lot of him saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I don’t remember’. He talks about how he just feels hate all day long. If he sees anybody else, he hates them. If he’s all alone, he’s full of hate for himself. I think this is a man who really, profoundly loathed himself.”

The interviews, broadcast in the US on HBO, found a cult following. “As frightening as it is to admit it, he’s a very charismatic guy,” says Shannon. “When you watch these interviews it’s hard to take your eyes off him. Everybody wants to know what he’s thinking, but he only reveals so much and contradicts himself all the time. Sometimes he’ll say that he liked killing people, sometimes he’d say that he didn’t like it. So for me I just had to try and figure out when he was telling the truth or if he was telling the truth at all.”

Kuklinski died in prison in 2006. What would Shannon have asked him were he given the chance? “I don’t think he would have talked to me. I don’t think he would have liked this at all.” He gestures around the room at the promo posters for the film. “He probably would have taken one look at me and said ‘who the f*** do you think you are? I talked to an author who went to interview him. And its one thing to sit and watch him on your TV but when you’re in the same room with him, he’s incredibly intimidating. This author told me that Kuklinski made him sit with his back to the door so he didn’t know if there was a guard back there.”

Kuklinski isn’t the first real person Shannon has played. In 2010 he portrayed record producer Kim Fowley in The Runaways opposite Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett. “I met Kim Fowley at a Denny’s in The Valley and he literally showed up with a scrapbook of his entire life and told me his life story in two hours. And then he said ‘please don’t screw it up; this is probably how people will remember me when I’m dead. It had the desired effect...”

In the case of The Iceman, his subject is dead and, as we’ve already established, were he alive he wouldn’t be telling Shannon his life story over a milkshake and fries. Kuklinski’s family had no involvement in the film so his source material was limited. He was keen, however, to ensure that his performance was not a mere impersonation of the man, even if he wished his hands had measured up: “The real work isn’t in making sure that you talk the same or look the same or do the same things. The real work is trying to comprehend their behaviour.”

At the beginning of his career, Kuklinski preyed on homeless men, killing them at random in order to hone his techniques. Though he was at times evasive when it came to the details of his crimes, he once confessed that he wanted to use a crossbow in a killing but decided to test it out first. While driving a car he stopped a man and asked him for directions before shooting him in the head with the crossbow.

His crimes were abhorrent, but Shannon insists that it’s not his job to judge the man, but rather to try to get inside his head: “I can never condone what he did but it’s my job to try and understand why he did it. I thought a lot about his childhood, about how much he had suffered [his parents were both abusive and violent] and it just made a lot of sense to me that he would have a very bleak outlook, but still have room in his heart for this attachment to his family. That’s the most genuine aspect of his character, the one thing I never really doubted or got confused about. It just made sense.”

Kuklinski seemed to have a fairly low opinion of himself, of his intellectual abilities. He once said that one of the reasons that he did what he did was that he couldn’t really do anything else very well but that he wanted to make a nice life for his family. He was a sad, angry man whose difficult childhood scarred him immeasurably. That chink of humanity was enough for Shannon to focus on.

Indeed if Shannon spent too much time judging his characters, he’d probably have a hard time playing them. His role as the disturbed Nelson Van Alden in Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire is the one for which he has been best known until now. When he met screenwriter Terence Winter to discuss the character, he had initially thought he might find himself playing against type:

“I said ‘so who do you want me to be? You want me to be a Mob guy, a tough guy, you want me to go around shooting people?’ He’s like ‘no, no I want you to be the agent. You’re very religious, very righteous, on the right side of the law.’ I thought ‘oh how interesting, that sounds great’. And then three episodes later I’m sticking my hand inside somebody’s guts, pulling out their intestines. So, you know...”

Today Shannon lives in Brooklyn with his partner, actress Kate Arrington and their young daughter Sylvia. He is settled, but describes himself as “kind of a restless person”. He’s always rented properties and says he’ll never buy one. He’s never bought a car and tries not to accumulate stuff: “it winds up being such a burden. I always look around the house and think ‘would it be easy to move out of here if I needed to?’”

“Actually, it’s all Edinburgh’s fault,” he adds with a rare smile. “At the start I lived in Chicago and I was very happy. I wasn’t going anywhere. But I did a play in Chicago that went to the Edinburgh Festival then to London and then I wound up doing it in New York. So that was when all the moving around started.”

Moving around is par for the course, but recognition is not. At the moment, he’s got one of those faces you know immediately, but by the time you’ve figured out where from, he’s long gone. This month, that’s set to change with the release first of The Iceman, then of Man of Steel, one of the biggest films of the year. Is he ready for that level of exposure?

“People have warned me about it. But my approach is always that if I just keep acting like a regular guy then hopefully people will just keep treating me that way. I’m not going to drive around in a town car with tinted windows. I’m not going to hide. I can’t live that way. The interesting thing about it is that that moment of recognition can be very exciting for people but there’s really nothing to say after that. It’s like ‘oh I saw you in this. The end.’ It’s not like ‘so what books are you reading’ or ‘do you like spaghetti?’ There’s nothing to say. It’s kind of like a firework.” He snaps his fingers. “It goes off. Life goes on.” Life, yes, but as of this month perhaps, not quite as he knows it.

The Iceman (15) is released on Friday; Man of Steel (PG-13) is released on Friday 14 June.