Michael Shannon’s just so good at being bad.
At 6’3” tall and possessed of a gaze that can flicker between impenetrably icy to boiling, barely contained rage, the actor – Oscar-nominated for his role in 2008’ “Revolutionary Road” and a regular on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” – has specialized in playing characters teetering on the abyss, from full-blown sociopaths or well-intentioned men struggling with their own inner demons.
This year Shannon’s taking on two very different kinds of villains: first up is the notoriously imposing real-life mob contract killer Richard Kuklinsky, who reportedly kept his life as a hitman a secret from his family in director Ariel Vromen’s dark indie drama “The Iceman,” followed by a highly anticipated turn as the Kryptonian military mastermind General Zod in the Superman reboot “Man of Steel.” He reveals what it’s like to get into the heads of some of the scariest characters of the big screen.
The real Richard Kuklinski’s story's intriguing on the face of it, but as you really got to look at him and figure out how you wanted to interpret him, what really fascinated you?
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The thing I find very – dare I say – moving about Kuklinski is that despite all the rage and psychosis and venom inside of him, there was a little tiny piece of his heart that was still beating and desiring love and warmth and affection and wanting to have a family and a home and take care of people. I just found that tremendously moving. If Kuklinski lived alone in some studio apartment somewhere and went out and shot people all day, I would not have been as drawn to the part, I think. It's something that I find very compelling, and is one of the same themes in “Take Shelter”: a man trying to take care of a family at any cost, against all odds, despite whatever difficulties they may have as an individual. And I think it's obviously related to the fact that I have a family now, and I have anxieties about my ability to be a good father or good partner, all that good stuff.
What did it mean for Ariel to pursue so sincerely for “The Iceman,” even tailoring the screenplay specifically for you?
I didn't really know Ariel very well. We had met at parties, functions and whatnot. And he would always say, “Yeah, I really want to work with you. I've got this project...” But it was irregular. It would be like once every six months or something. I guess it was hard to get the thing together initially, to come up with the money and stuff. It's not a crowd pleaser, I guess, but once he finally got someone behind it. I guess it is. It's an intimidating part. You don't wake up every morning and say, “Oh boy, I can't wait to get to work and act like I'm killing somebody.” You kind of get on set, and you're like, “Oh my God. All right. You've got to do this scene today. Okay.” And you take a deep breath, and you get through it.
Was General Zod in “Man of Steel” a more fun kind of bad guy to play?
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That was fun. [Director] Zack Snyder is an amazing person, a really beautiful man and a lot of fun to work with. You would think it would be a very high-pressure environment with all the money flying around, but Zack keeps it very down to Earth. With Zack it's a very physical approach. He wants everybody to be in on the physical side of things. That’s how you start it. You work with a trainer, you do the workouts, you do the stunt training…You do that for a few months and it was an interesting — I’ve never had a job like that before that was way into it, and I enjoyed it. I actually liked it a lot more than I thought I would, which is weird because I spent months where I was working on practicing karate chops and stuff and suddenly one day I had to say a line of dialogue. I was like, “Oh, right! That’s what I do. Right – I thought I was a bodybuilder.”
Does every actor in Hollywood have to be prepared to be superherothese days? Is it that's where the work is?
Well, it's just a matter of what you want. If you want to have a shiny red Lamborghini and live in a big mansion, you should probably do as many superhero movies as possible. If you don't really give a rat's ass, then you can do whatever you want. What's really surprising these days is that it can be incredibly difficult to get money to make even a very small film. It's gotten to the point where even just getting a million dollars together to make a film can be a nightmare even if you have names in your cast. It's just getting really hard to find the money. So I'm hoping that after ‘Man of Steel’ comes out, I become less of a liability in the financing game, but who knows?