In 1992, HBO aired the disturbing documentary, The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman, which consisted of a series of one-on-one interviews with Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer for the mob. In the new movie The Iceman Oscar nominee Michael Shannon portrays Kuklinski and Winona Ryder plays his wife, Deborah, who along with their daughters, was totally unaware of her husband’s profession.
I spoke with Michael and Winona recently about this unique true story.
Did you watch the HBO interviews with Richard Kuklinski? Because he’s not well known to the public, was it important to capture him physically or just the essence of him?
Michael: I did rely on the interviews. I actually got the unedited interview, which is over 20 hours long. I watched it a lot.
On the one hand, with the script there’s no way it’s going to encapsulate his entire life in 90 minutes, but you want to approach what is there with as much authenticity as possible.
What intrigued you about this project?
Winona: It goes right into the very core of questions about right and wrong and humanity. Can someone that’s capable of so much death and destruction and brutality also be capable of the tremendous love for his family?
That alone is a very intense question. For Kuklinski, it was just business. For us, it is monstrous.
Michael has played unhinged characters before, but this is a very interesting portrait painted across his face. It’s unique and very complicated and there is heart in there and also terror.
It seems amazing that his wife didn’t know.
Winona: Oh, she did. She had to. There’s no way to be in a relationship for that long [and not know].
This is the ’70s, the era of offices and secretaries, and he doesn’t have either. She’s doing his laundry and he’s shooting people in the face, so there is clearly going to be some blood she’s going to ask about.
How did you walk the fine line of a man with a family who professionally is so violent?
Michael: A lot of that starts with the script. Ariel (Vromen, the movie’s writer/director) was very adamant from the get-go that he wanted Kuklinski to be an empathetic character, not menacing all the time.
Kuklinski had a certain charisma that they wanted to capture, and I couldn’t say I disagreed with him when I watched the interviews. He was very engaging.
If you didn’t know what he did for a living, you could probably talk with him for quite a long time and have an interesting conversation.
In terms of capturing that human element, I found it very easy when they put me in a room with Winona and the girls playing the daughters; it’s just a natural, human instinct.
It’s nice to have people that you care about, that care about you. It’s something to fight for. It’s what makes the story interesting.
Did you see Deborah as a victim?
Winona: I didn’t see her as a victim. I really saw her as someone who was flourishing from this blood money and chose not to look at it.
I just think the level of denial was so deep that for her to even get to a place to acknowledge it would have meant that she would have had to take some responsibility.
There’s a James Baldwin quote, ‘We pay for our sins by the lives we lead,’ and I thought of that when making this, because [Richard] Kuklinski is paying – he’s miserable.
I don’t think he’s sleeping peacefully at all. And, in a way, it’s sick that she may be sleeping well. That may be even scarier.
What do you hope people take away from this movie?
Michael: The film makes a pretty good case against living a double life. You should try not keep big secrets, because they can eat you alive.
I think Kuklinski’s ultimate downfall is that he actually wanted to get caught, because he couldn’t take all the secrets anymore, they were driving him crazy.
Michael was asked about his upcoming role as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Click here to listen to his answer.
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