Interview: Michael Shannon on 'The Iceman,' Boring Romances and Murder


When one thinks of actor Michael Shannon, the image that comes to mind is not necessarily puppies and fields of daisies. And he's fine with that. 

The burly actor is known for roles in "Take Shelter," HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" and other brutal characters. Shannon, who stars in this weekend's "The Iceman" as real-life serial killer Richard Kuklinski, under contract for the mob and leading a double life that not even his wife knows the depths of, takes parts the he finds challenging and interesting. Things he doesn't find interesting: Romance. "Who the hell wants to see that?!" he asked. 

We sat down with Shannon in New York ahead of the release of "The Iceman," where the actor ate continuously from a bowl of pistachios and sipped on a glass of red wine while discussing romance, his perfect murder and which of his films you should give a second chance.

Kase Wickman: I find you very intimidating.

Michael Shannon: As you should! No, I'm just kidding. I'm a goofball.

Do people recognize you on the street? Are they scared of you? What do they do?

They usually say, "Hey, I know you! You're so-and-so in such-and-such! Can I get my picture with you?" Okay! I Do the picture and say, "Have a nice day, buh-bye!" I always say, beyond the initial act of recognizing somebody, the funny thing about it is there's nothing to talk about. There's no conversation to be had, it's literally like tag. it's like ah, I got ya! I need to let you know that I see you. The only time it irritates me is when people say "I know I know who you are, but I don't know why, so will you explain to me why I know who you are because it's really bugging me."

They're like, "What were you in!" I say, "A lot of things." And they're like, "No, seriously, what've you been in?" I say, "Really, I've been doing this for over 20 years, I've worked on a lot of projects." And then if they insist, I say I was in "Bad Boys 2," because that's honestly probably the movie I'm most known for.

Do people quote lines at you ever?

"I have my rights." Some people quote that to me, but they don't do it very often.

In this movie, you play a hitman. Was there anything new for you in that?

I really just went to the source material, which is the interview that Kuklinski did for the America Undercover series they did on HBO, and I got a full unedited copy of the interview, which is like over 20 hours long and I just watched it.

Did you imitate mannerisms? How much of it's you and how much is modeled specifically on him?

A part of the film that is a direct lift from the interview, it bookends the film, starts it and ends it, that I tried to get exactly the way it was. I tried. I mean, I don't really even look, despite the makeup and everything, I don't really look like him, but I tried to get that right. But for most of the rest of the film, I used my imagination. I went off things that he said about himself, but it's tricky because I don't think anybody really knows what happened. I don't think he ever really told anybody what happened. I think he told different people different things. It's hard to know what to make of a guy who says he killed between 100 and 200 people. I mean, that's a large difference. It's like saying, you know, I bat between .300 and .400 in baseball, it's a big difference. You would know.

What do you think would be the perfect murder?

Well, Kuklinski came up with this Mr. Freezy character. They would explore ways where you could literally walk down the sidewalk past a person and kill them without touching them or them even knowing what happened. You didn't even have to stop walking. It had a lot to do with the cyanide system. Like what you see in the disco in the movie, when he dances by the guy and sprays it in his face. That's pretty good. Although that's the way you wind up getting caught, by trying to buy cyanide off an undercover cop.

I eat cyanide every day for breakfast.

"Princess Bride" style, to build up resistance?

Yeah, exactly.

How do you think you'd kill someone? 

Huh. I just can't imagine killing anybody. That seems like such a horrible thing. I mean, life is so precious, I would not want to be responsible for ending someone's life, I could never shake that off.

Somewhere down the hall, the publicists are very relieved and they don't know why.

Yeah. I mean, every once in a while I go off, I have a little temper tantrum or whatever. It's not like I'm an unemotional person, I mean if I was, I wouldn't be an actor. Most actors are prone to fits every now and then, but the idea of actually hurting anybody, I couldn't stomach it.

Your characters are often very violent. Do you have a favorite stage fighting move?

I've done a lot of stage combat over the years because I've done a lot of plays, and I've done a lot of plays that have had combat in them for whatever reason. I'm not trained in martial arts or any sort of, you know, soldier maneuvers or anything. I basically just go on my experience on stage, doing stage combat.

I like the fake punch. I like the punch, fake punch. I mean, my favorite fight I've ever done on stage was the end of "Killer Joe." When we did the play, the fight at the end is very savage. That was my favorite fight sequence ever. It ended with me, like, getting shoved into a refrigerator and all the shelves falling out and him slamming the door on me and crushing my legs and then my sister shoots a shot into the air and everybody freezes and I come out of the fridge, and I'm like, "Sister!" and then she shoots me in the head.


It's an intense play.

Sounds like a light comedy.

It's what I'm known for.

You've definitely got the bad guy thing down pat. Would you ever do something like a rom com?

With you?


Yeah! Let's do it! Who's gonna write it?

What would it be about?

It would just be about two people having the time of their lives, just enjoying each others' company, going on long walks in the park, having, you know, brunch together. Just having a nice life! That could be the name of it: "A Nice Life." But who the hell wants to see that?! That's my point. Every time someone asks me, "Why do you do this?" I'm like, there has to be something going on. There has to be an event, a conflict, a struggle...something! Catharsis, you know. Ever since the Greeks, that's what it is. Something hot has to happen. It can't just be everyone having a good time.

There can be conflict in romance too though.

Yeah, but that's all, like, ahh, I got her the wrong shoes! She wanted the blue ones, I got her the red ones. Oh well. I mean, there are artfully constructed romantic comedies, but I haven't seen any recently. The tend to be kind of antique.

What are some good romances, then? What is Michael Shannon's favorite light fare?

"Philadelphia Story" is the best romantic comedy ever made, in my opinion. Um, maybe something like, you know, "Carnal Knowledge." That's a great movie. I don't know if it's necessarily a comedy. This crap nowadays, I can't even stand. I don't even go to the movies anymore. I really don't. I don't watch TV, I don't do anything.

Do you watch your own movies?

Oh yeah, yeah, usually I go to the premiere or whatever. I mean, that's fun! I mean, you did all that frickin' work, you might as well go see the damn thing.

My favorite movie last year was "Amour." That was the best movie of last year. It's the best one. My grandma had a stroke about 10 years before she died, and I had to watch her in a similar state to the character Emmanuelle Riva plays, so for me it was a very emotional experience, very personal.

Are there any of yours that you really like?

I'll revisit some now and then, if the opportunity presents itself. I don't sit at home and obsessively watching my movies. The movie I'm most fond of is "Take Shelter," really, out of all the movies I've made. I have a lot of them though that I'm fond of. I was in Sidney Lumet's last picture, for chrissakes, that was pretty cool. The last one before he died.

What do you think is your most underrated film?

Yeah, yeah, I got two of 'em: "The Missing Person" and "Grand Theft Parsons," did you see that? I wish more people would see those two movies, because I'm actually very proud of those two movies.

Were they just under-marketed, or not received the way you would have liked?

"The Missing Person" was released by a company that, honestly, should just go out of business. Strand Releasing can just roast in hell. "Grand Theft Parsons," I don't know what happened with that. I don't know what released it. It's tough. There's so many damn movies. There's more movies out there than there's any need for. It's ridiculous. Our "Iceman" movie is coming out the same weekend as "Iron Man 3." I think we'll do alright per screen. I hope so.

That sorority girl letter video is one of my favorite things ever. Did that voice come naturally to you?

I did it seven times. Two wides, two mediums, two close and one profile. And I didn't get it until the profile, and the profile is when I nailed it. The wide, medium and tight, they're okay, but the profile is really where I understood what was going on.

So what did you understand?

I found the voice, the rhythm. It's not like a rational thing, it's more like, it's very ethereal. Acting is a very ethereal thing that's not easy to explain in words.

Was it your idea to turn this into a monologue?

I had nothing to do with it. I didn't even know about the letter. I never go on the internet. I read my emails every once in a while, that's it.

Can you tell me anything I don't already know about "Man of Steel"? 

It's about this guy named Superman, and he flies around and he, like, does stuff.

"The Iceman" arrives in theaters tomorrow. Check out our not so hot review.