No-one has the market in complex characters and anti-heroes cornered more than Michael Shannon – from the morally corrupted law enforcer in Boardwalk Empire to the mentally disturbed construction worker in Take Shelter and his humanist take on General Zod in Man of Steel.

It’s no surprise that director Ariel Vromen hand-picked him to play contract killer and devoted family-man Richard Kuklinksi in his biopic The Iceman – and then stuck by his choice through several years of development hell rather than trade the role to a bigger ‘star’.

Vromen’s models for his film were nothing less than Scarface, Raging Bull and There Will Be Blood: “Those are movies that have a monster in the centre of them, and you need to find a reason to connect to them,” the director explains, “– not necessarily agree with them, not necessarily love them, but definitely invest in their story.”

It helps that Shannon empathised with Kuklinski (more than Vromen, in fact). The actor first encountered the notorious mob hitman on HBO, when the channel aired tapes of his confessional interviews.

“A lot of people when they watch the interviews think of him as a cold-hearted, ruthless person – but I didn’t really get that vibe when I saw it,” says Shannon. “I thought he was very sad, and really regretted, more than anything, losing his family – but also doing what he did. I don’t think he was just a cut and dried psycho or sociopath.”

For both the director and the actor, the challenge was building enough of a sense of the character’s psychology that an audience could empathise with him, in a limited time-span. “I took a decision not to invest in his childhood,” says Vromen. “In the original screenplay, there was like twenty pages of him growing up… But I feel like there was a limitation [in this time frame] to how much you could really study his character.”

Shannon had to carry this character history in his head, and somehow put in on screen. “Every time I looked at him [in interviews], I saw a little boy who was born with a big heart, and just got the crap beat out of him,” he says. “But he never lost this love that he had in his heart – because [otherwise] why have a family, why get married, why have children? It would have been a lot easier for him to just go around killing people. But he wanted that part of life. And he tried so hard, and in the end it got taken away from him. So to me, it’s kind of an operatic, sad story.”

One of the most remarkable things about Kuklinski’s story – and the central dramatic tension in Vromen’s film – is the fact that his wife (played by Winona Ryder) and daughters never knew he was a contract killer. At home he was a loving husband and devoted father.

For Shannon, the two things are not mutually exclusive: “I think there are a lot of people in the world that in order to make money to support their family, do something that is somehow detrimental to other people. I think it’s a fact of life. And so this, to me, is almost like a fable version of that – an extreme version of someone who goes out and is in the finance world, and somehow as the result of the work they do that day, someone loses their house or is broke or lose their insurance. … That’s such a fascinating aspect of humanity to me – that dichotomy.”


The Iceman is showing at Sydney Film Festival 2013 as part of the Features program.

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