Michael Shannon on Playing the Notorious Richard Kuklinski in ‘The Iceman’

Michael Shannon in The Iceman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2013.

Thanks to his unforgettable performances in “Bug,” “Revolutionary Road,” “The Runaways” and “Take Shelter,” Michael Shannon has long since become one of the best character actors working in movies today. It’s fascinating to watch him go from playing one kind of role to another which is completely different from the last, and his range as an actor has kept him from getting easily typecast in ways most actors cannot help but fall victim to. Now he takes on perhaps his most challenging role yet as the cold-blooded killer Richard Kuklinski in Ariel Vromen’s “The Iceman.”

Based on, yes, a true story, Kuklinski was convicted in 1986 of murdering 100 men for different crime organizations in the New York area. At the same time, the movie shows him to be a loving husband to his wife Deborah Pellicotti (Winona Ryder) and their children. We would later learn of his crimes in more detail in Anthony Bruno’s book “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” as well as in James Thebaut’s documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer.” The documentary is especially interesting to talk about as Kuklinski described his various crimes without a hint of remorse. His only true regret was the irreparable damage he did to his own family, and it is this confession which ends up bringing him to tears.

Shannon was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California for “The Iceman” press day, and he took the time to talk with me and several others about his experience making this particular film. He described the role as being very frightening, came to make some discoveries about the character which he didn’t see coming, and he admitted a truth about Kuklinski we are understandably hesitant to say out loud.

Michael Shannon: This is a very intimidating part to play. This character is so far removed from my own personal experience, and to try to play the part with any authenticity was a very daunting challenge. Sometimes I think I’m alone in this regard, but then sometimes I think maybe other people feel the same way and they’re just afraid to say it, but I actually kind of like the guy when I was watching the interviews. I think people are very adamant about, he’s a psycho, he’s a cold-blooded killer, he’s remorseless and so on. The fact of the matter is when you’re watching him in those interviews, he’s been arrested, he’s been caught, he’s not going to kill anybody else, his entire life has been ruined and he’s going to rot in jail until he dies. What good is it going to do him to cry on camera? It’s really none of our business, and in a way we’re all being peeping toms on this guy’s pretty cruddy life at this point. I looked at him as a pretty empathetic figure. If you look at his childhood at least as it’s described in the books that I read, it was absolute torture. He was tortured and it was very sad. So, these poor unfortunate parents created this monster, and he didn’t know how to… He wanted to be something other than he was. He even says it in the interview, he says it in the movie. He says, “This would not be me. This would not be me.” So, for all the people who say that he’s cold-blooded, why would he be saying that then? I found him a very sad, lonely person, and I felt like he deserved some sort of exploration into why he wound up the way he wound up.

Indeed, it’s hard to completely hate Kuklinski as he is presented in “The Iceman” as a devoted family man, and life had dealt him a bad hand which left him little in the way of skills to make a normal career out of. He did have a set of rules he set down for himself which dictated he did not kill women or children, and most of the people he killed were criminals and degenerates who weren’t doing society any favors. At the same time, it was not lost on Shannon or any of us that Kuklinski needed to be arrested and brought to justice for the murders he committed, but to dismiss him as some one-dimensional bad guy is to miss the bigger picture.

MS: This enterprise of making movies about people seems to be in service of trying to understand them, and that’s what I tried to do. He dropped out of school and he had a very low opinion of himself. I don’t think he thought he was a great person, and I think he was fighting lot of demons.

Shannon said he never talked to Kuklinski’s wife or any of the family members in preparation to play him, but this is understandable considering the subject matter. To ask them to participate in the production of “The Iceman” would be like asking them to relive a nightmare they may still be trying to wake up from. In terms of research, Shannon ended up relying on other resources.

MS: I did talk briefly to (Anthony) Bruno, the author who interviewed him. He talked with me for ten minutes and he told me the story of the first time he went to interview him and how just horrifying it was to be in the same room with him. He made the interviewer sit with his back to the door and Kuklinski would sit and look through the window, so Kuklinski knew when there was somebody out there like a guard or whatever and the interviewer didn’t. There was nobody that knew him that wanted to be involved with this I don’t think.

In the end, “The Iceman” is not out to change anyone’s mind about Kuklinski as a person. People have long since made up their minds about this man who murdered so many, but there is no denying Michael Shannon is a fantastic actor who continues to give one great performance after another. As Kuklinski, he allows us to peek inside this man’s twisted psyche to see the human being underneath all the notoriety, and it makes for a truly compelling portrait of a man whose name will forever live in infamy. Up next for Shannon is “Man of Steel” in which he will play Superman’s nemesis, General Zod. Like all of you, I can’t wait to see him in that superhero flick.

 

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‘Black Swan’ is a Tour de Force for Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman

Black Swan movie poster

JESUS CHRIST!!! This was my immediate reaction after witnessing Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan.” A combination of “The Wrestler” and “Requiem for A Dream” with a dose of “Rosemary’s Baby” thrown in for good measure, it is a brilliantly over the top psychosexual thriller which continually ratchets up suspense and tension all the way to its horrifying climax. And unlike Mia Farrow’s character in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Natalie Portman has a really nice haircut.

Just as it was with “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” serves as an expose sorts on the athletic arena it focuses on. The backstage world of ballet dancing is highly competitive, and the career of a dancer can easily be short-lived if an unexpected injury, either a big or small one, occurs. Many view ballet as being very boring and would rather tune into Monday Night Football. Try dragging kids to a production of “The Nutcracker” and watch how they run for the hills. This is the reaction I get from most people I know, although I’m sure there are exceptions.

But don’t let any preconceptions about ballet turn you off from seeing this film. It is anything but boring, and both Aronofsky and Portman brilliantly capture the physically and psychologically draining aspects of ballet to where you feel as wiped out and crazed as they do throughout. Like any other art form, ballet demands years of training in order to reach a level of perfection few can achieve. It is also shown to be an isolating career because, with so many people going after the same lead role, making friends is a struggle as you wonder what they are saying behind your back. With the bitterness level sky high, ballet threatens to be more damaging psychologically than physically.

Portman plays Nina Sayers, a member of a prominent New York City ballet company. After years of hard work, Nina gets her lucky break when she snags the lead role in “Swan Lake,” a show is as overdone as many of Neil Simon’s plays. This show has one of the most coveted roles in any show as it is incredibly challenging. Nina has to play the White Swan who is a creature of innocence, and also the Black Swan who is one of a sensual and dark nature. Basically, it is the dancer’s “Hamlet.” While her director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) thinks she is perfect as the White Swan, he has doubts about her ability to play the Black Swan as she is so technically precise in her movements, and the latter role requires her to lose herself in the passionately dark nature of the character.

Once we see Nina walk down the streets of New York past a woman who looks exactly like her, we are caught up in her downward spiral which she is helpless to stop. We watch as she encounters people and situations which feel real, but later turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations. There are times where she even looks like she is turning into a swan. While this may sound ridiculous on paper, it is brilliantly conceived visually from the rash on Nina’s back to those blood red eyes she develops. There are even points where she is dancing in front of a mirror, and her reflection turns around to glare at her malevolently.

The line between what is real and what is not becomes completely blurred, and neither the audience or Nina are able to tell the difference between the two. Many may be maddened at not being able to understand all of what is happening, but that’s precisely the point. Aronofsky puts you directly into Nina’s mindset, which has already proven to be an emotionally fragile place, and we are instantly caught up in her psychological disintegration. This makes “Black Swan” all the more visceral to experience. We are not just watching Nina go mad, we feel like we are going mad with her.

Portman does truly give the performance of her career here. She trained in ballet for a year or so, and her preparation really paid off. Throughout, she captures the sweet nature of Nina as well as the paranoia and resentment which overwhelms her the closer she gets to the opening performance. Watching Portman practice her dancing to no end is emotionally exhausting as it is for her physically, and she makes us feel like we are right on the edge of disaster with her. Portman has always been an amazing actress, but her work in “Black Swan” represents the culmination of a great career which is more than ready to head into adulthood.

Mila Kunis, looking even sexier here than she did in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” co-stars as another dancer, Lily. Unlike Nina, she is free with her body and mind, and what she lacks in precision she makes up for in unbridled passion. She’s at times friendly, wanting to break the ice between her and Nina, and her power of seduction is one Nina desperately wants to capture for herself. Kunis has become an increasingly fascinating actress, and seeing her go from sweet to a cold back stabber of a human being is made very believable by her work.

Oh yeah, there is a sex scene between Portman and Kunis which will have people checking out “Black Swan” for all the wrong reasons. Then again, any reason to get people to see this film might not be so bad. Furthermore, to dismiss this as a simple lesbian sex scene will only show how short sighted you are.

Aronofsky again employs his frequent collaborators to excellent effect. His director of photography, Matthew Libatique, almost makes this film look like a remake of “Suspiria” as the colors become overpowering once they become blacker and infinitely vicious. “Black Swan” is as much a sensory experience as it is a psychological one, just like “Requiem for A Dream” was. Libatique makes the special effects appear seamless in scenes where CGI is clearly utilized. As the background dancers pass by her, Nina sees her face in all of them. It’s such an eerie moment to where it doesn’t even feel like a special effect.

Then there is the fantastic Clint Mansell whose work on Aronofsky’s movies has become a main character in each of them. Mansell takes Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” and breathes fresh life into it which is exhilarating to take in. His score becomes as intense as the images we see on screen, and I loved how visceral and thrillingly alive it all feels.

The movie also offers great performances from actresses we don’t see as much of on the silver screen: Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey. Ryder clearly understands the frustration her character of veteran dancer Beth MacIntyre is going through, and she captures this deeply hurt and excessively bitter character perfectly. At once an empathetic and at other times a pathetic person, we see just how much Beth has lived for ballet, and now that it has been cruelly taken away from her, she has little else to devote her life to. To be placed on a pedestal so high only to be yanked from it leaves her with nothing but desperation and deep self-loathing which is hard to dig oneself out of.

As for Hershey, she remains a phenomenal actress as she has been for many years. In movies like “A World Apart” and “Portrait of a Lady,” she has created indelible female characters who are never easily forgotten. Her role in “Black Swan” is no exception as she takes the clichéd role of a stage mother and makes her a loving person as well as an overbearing one. When we come to see how her character failed at a dancing career, it becomes frighteningly clear how much of her happiness is based on how successful her daughter is at hers.

“Black Swan” once again shows how brilliant a director Aronofsky is as he mixes up different genres to create one hell of a movie going experience. Portman’s magnificent performance really is one for the ages, and few other characters have been as physically demanding for an actor as Nina is. Even as things get more and more horrifying, Aronofsky keeps your eyes focused on the screen to where looking away from it would feel like a crime. Is it more intense than “Requiem for a Dream?” No, but it sure does come close!

One thing’s for sure, this will not be a good recruiting film for dancers. They’ll want to go into accounting or dentistry after watching this one!

* * * * out of * * * *

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek 2009 movie poster

I have been into “Star Trek” since I started watching the original series when I was five years old. I reveled in Kirk, Spock and the rest of the Enterprise crew hurtling through space and exploring new worlds. I still remember watching the episode “The Return of the Archons” where the Enterprise crew was being held prisoner, and there was this overwhelmingly loud noise which rendered them unconscious. As they fell to the floor, I mimicked what I saw on that ancient Zenith television my parents bought, pretending I was part of this great crew. Back then, I envisioned myself as a character on that show and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as its adventures made up for the dullness of reality.

As “Star Trek” expanded from its original incarnation later became a never ending movie franchise, I stayed with it as much as I could. My dad had to carry me out of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” after I burst into tears at the end. The fact that I kept saying he would come back to life was truly an utter coincidence when “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” came out, and I was in tears after that one as well. I later became determined to be the first person in Thousand Oaks, California to own a copy of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” on VHS. When my family moved from Thousand Oaks to the Bay Area, I found myself wanting those transporters to be real so that I could beam down south to hang out with the friends I was forced to leave behind.

But somewhere along the line, I found myself losing interest in all things Trek as I started to miss out on the last couple of seasons of “Star Trek: TNG.” Then there were other spinoffs like “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager” among others, and I became increasingly less excited about the franchise as it came to resemble “Law & Order” and its various other incarnations. You knew what you were going to get, so the level of excitement I had for the franchise kept fading away year after year. Still, I believed that the franchise could be resurrected because, as Spock would say, there are always possibilities.

That resurrection has now arrived, seven years after “Star Trek: Nemesis,” thanks to J.J. Abrams. His “Star Trek” movie is the most exciting film this series has seen since “First Contact,” and I fucking loved it! This origin story of the Starship Enterprise and its cast gives the franchise a much needed kick in the ass. By taking the series in new directions, Abrams has succeeded in opening up the world of Trek to an audience that never fully embraced it before.

We get to see a young James Tiberius Kirk driving a hot rod while blasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” on the car’s stereo, and this is the first sign that this “Star Trek” is not going to be the same old shit. We see a young Spock getting taunted by his classmates which makes him use methods other than that famous Vulcan nerve pinch to subdue his enemies. Seeing Spock beat the crap out of others might have been hilarious in any other movie, but Abrams takes the character in fresh new directions we have not seen him go to before. This plays much more intensely on the fact that Spock has always been half-human and half-Vulcan.

The plot of “Star Trek” revolves around the device of time travel which has played a part in the most entertaining and successful films in the series (“The Voyage Home” and “First Contact”). It involves a large mining ship of Romulans commanded by Nero (Eric Bana) who is as thirsty for revenge as Khan was in “Star Trek II.” It doesn’t matter how much you know about Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi universe because anything and everything you remembered about it previously will seem very different, and that makes this movie all the more entertaining and unpredictable.

One of the key successes Abrams has with “Star Trek” is the actors he has chosen as none of them try to do imitate what the actors who originated these roles did before them. Among the most impressive is Chris Pine who plays Kirk as a hotshot who gets himself in trouble constantly and lacks a father figure in his life. Pine really succeeds in capturing the same cockiness and over confidence that William Shatner brought to the role before him.

But even better is Zachary Quinto who plays Spock at his most emotionally unhinged. Of all the actors here, he has the biggest obstacle to overcome since the original Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is in this film as well. I admired how Quinto strongly displayed Spock’s inner turmoil and of the fact that he is a child of two worlds. One of his best moments comes when he essentially flips off the Vulcan High Command after he is accepted into their prestigious science academy. By describing Spock as having done well despite the “disadvantage” of having a human mother (played by Winona Ryder of all people), we get a huge thrill out Quinto making “live long and prosper” sound like he’s saying fuck you to the.

Another inspired casting choice in “Star Trek” is Simon Pegg as Engineer Montgomery Scott. As the movie heads to its exciting climax, it is frightening to see just how much Pegg resembles Scotty from the original series, and that’s even more so when we hear him say, “I’m giving her all she’s got Captain!” Pegg gives us a Scotty that is a perfect comic foil, and it will be great fun to see where he will take Scotty in future installments.

As Nero, Eric Bana gives us the strongest and most lethal villain this series has had since Khan. Whereas the previous antagonists seemed more refined in how they acted among their prey, Nero’s fury is so personal and uncontainable, and the fact that he is named after the Roman Emperor whose rule was marked by tyranny, and that he ordered the execution of his mother and adopted brother, should give you an idea of how screwed up he is.

The rest of the cast includes Bruce Greenwood who is perfectly cast as Christopher Pike, and it reminded me a lot of his underrated portrayal of John F. Kennedy in “Thirteen Days.” John Cho of “Harold & Kumar” fame plays Sulu, and he has a great moment where he gets to put his fencing skills to the test. Zoe Saldana plays Uhura with a calm sexiness and an intelligence that is foolishly underestimated by others until she makes you see the big picture. Karl Urban gives us a pitch perfect Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy and captures the character’s infinite crankiness we all know him to have. Anton Yelchin plays Pavel Chekov, and while the character feels underused here, he is still well cast and has a flawless Russian accent. And of course, we have Winona Ryder playing Spock’s mother, and her performance is all the more impressive when you take into account that she is only two years older than Quinto.

What impressed me even more about this particular “Star Trek” is that it was given a budget of over $100 million. There is no doubt that the money is there on the screen, and the effects are remarkable. This is an especially good point to make as special effects have never really been the strong point of the “Star Trek” series, but here they are the best they have ever been. The Enterprise bridge looks so much different than it ever before, and it has a sleek style to it that makes being there all the more inviting.

I’ll be very interested to hear what die hard Trekkers think of this latest adventure of the Enterprise crew. This one does not dwell on big ideas the way “Star Trek” has done for the most part throughout its various incarnations. The main power of Roddenberry’s series was how it dealt with social issues of the day in the realm of science fiction. This one is meant to be more like “Star Wars,” and it allows Abrams to give this aging franchise an invigorated feeling that it desperately needed. While it may not be a “Trek” rooted in philosophy, I think this one leaves the door open for writers to explore present day themes in a future installment.

But I cannot go on without mentioning the welcome return of Leonard Nimoy as Spock (. This could have been a gimmicky cameo that lasted just a few seconds, but Nimoy’s Spock does play a very pivotal role in this movie. Furthermore, he also helps give it a sense of legitimacy that it would not have had without his appearance. Keep in mind, his character was the only one who survived the rejected first pilot of the original series.

Seeing this “Star Trek” brought a lot of happiness to me. My mood seems to get inadvertently sidetracked depending on the health of the franchise. I can honestly say that I am not all surprised at its longevity or constant rebirth. Roddenberry’s message of hope always finds a way to win out, and it is fitting that the movie is getting released around the beginning of the President Barrack Obama’s first term. Granted, this is really a coincidence since the movie was being developed before he made his decision to run for President, but it’s a wonderful coincidence all the same.

All those kids who gave me crap about liking this great series can suck it now, because “Star Trek” is here to stay. Even those who picked on me for being a Trekker, and ironically did much better in science classes than me, won’t be able to pass this one up. “Star Trek” can be seen as the first truly great odd-numbered movie in the long running series, and it is proof that this series will never die.

Live long and prosper? OH HELL YES!!!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2009.