The acclaimed actor, who in recent years is perhaps best known for playing the intense puritan Nelson Van Alden on "Boardwalk Empire," masterfully captures Kuklinski's dual sides in "The Iceman." The film hits select theatres this week, and co-stars Winona Ryder as the innocent wife, Chris Evans as the icy accomplice, Ray Liotta as the intimidating mob guy and James Franco as a shady low-life.
We caught up with Shannon while he was in Toronto during the Toronto Film Festival, and heard his thoughts on everything from Frogger to typecasting to what it's like working with Franco.
On how he would unwind after a tense day of shooting... On a shoot like "Iceman," where it goes so quickly when you have so little time, and you're shooting really long days, usually by the end of the day you're just pooped. You just want to go and relax and get a bite to eat if you can. I would get my dinner and go play Frogger for like an hour and then go to sleep.
On how "The Iceman" shoot was broken up... [Director] Ariel [Vromen] wanted to break it into the work chapter and the family chapter. So when I got there, Ray [Liotta] and David [Schwimmer] were already there, and they were doing all of the mobster stuff. And then I plugged into that, and we shot all that, and then they left and Winona showed up and we did the family stuff. So it wasn't like I would do a day of family and then a day of shooting someone. It was compartmentalized, which is something that I think everybody, including me, appreciated. Particularly Winona. She didn't want to see any of the grisly stuff. She felt like it would make it harder for her to do her part, which made sense.
On why he wanted to play Kuklinski... I thought it is a very sad story. I didn't think, 'Oh cool, I get to be a hitman and I'll wear leather gloves and clothes from the '70s and I'd just be super cool.' I would watch the videos [of the real Kuklinski] and think 'Oh my God, this is one of the saddest people I've ever seen in my life.' In a less extreme way, it reminds me of people that I've known in my life that have been prisoners to themselves. They know better, but they still do things that even though they have the intellect and the wisdom to know that it's wrong, they can't help themselves. That, I think, is worth exploring dramatically. As a person, he merits some thought. How could you not be curious about that man and how his mind works?
On how he approached the role of Kuklinski... A lot of people, when they watch those interviews [with the actual Richard Kuklinkski], think they're just watching some sick, depraved lunatic who enjoys killing people, which to me is just not very accurate. I always saw a guy who is deeply wounded and really did regret the fact that he felt like he couldn't do anything else. And I guess the way he looked at it was most of the people, the large majority of the people he wiped out, weren't the greatest people themselves. It doesn't exonerate the crime by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not like he was going around knocking off priests and Red Cross workers. It was the piranha pool and he was one of the piranhas.
On working with James Franco... I shot that scene with James Franco, which is fairly powerful, but at the end of every take he hops up and he's got this little book. He was reading a book about theatre history. So they'd said, "Cut!" and he'd sit up on the couch and read his textbook. Or at one point he just stone-cold fell asleep.
On being accused of playing the same role over and over... I honestly don't know what people expect. It's gotten to the point where I find it mildly offensive. I don't understand. For me, Kuklinski is not like any other guy I've played. I don't think Kuklinski is just like the guy I played in "Pearl Harbor." I do see a correlation maybe between him and Curtis from "Take Shelter," just because they're both so devoted to their families, but they're both totally different people. But people couch the question. I've answered it an infinite variety of ways and I think I'm going to start boycotting it.
On the types of roles he'd like to tackle... There are things I would have liked to have done that I wasn't considered right for. It's not all up to me. There was a big, big romantic comedy that I got very close to being a part of. I read with the lead female actress, and the director, a very prominent director, seemed very excited about it. And then it wound up going to someone who you would much more expect it to go to than me. And it's not like I went home and cried myself to sleep or anything, but it was like, I kept thinking when I was in the audition with the leading lady, I just wish all the journalists were in here with me to see me doing the scene so I could say see, I was here! I just didn't get the part.