Winona Ryder has been acting since she was 12 years old, so finding a role in a movie unlike any she’s done before is quite a challenge. But starring in the gritty, New Jersey-set character study “The Iceman” more than fit the bill.
“To me, this movie (offered) a totally different kind of role, and a totally different kind of genre,” she says. “It (felt) new and exciting.”
Inspired by actual events, “The Iceman” follows contract killer Richard Kuklinski (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Michael Shannon) from his early days in the mob until his arrest for murder in 1986.
Even though he reportedly killed more than 100 men, Kuklinski lived a quiet existence in Bergen County, N.J. When he was finally arrested, his wife Deborah (Ryder) and daughters claimed total ignorance of his profession.
The movie, which co-stars Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, Stephen Dorff and James Franco, was inspired by Anthony Bruno’s “The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer” and the 1992 HBO documentary “The Iceman: Confessions of a Mafia Hitman” In the doc, Kuklinski discusses how he committed many of his murders, showing only remorse when he talks about how his actions affected his wife and daughters.
After catching the documentary, writer/director Ariel Vromen believed Kuklinski’s unusual story would lend itself to a fictionalized film that probed how the assassin did what he did and got away with it for so long. (Kuklinski died in prison in 2006)
When Ryder first received the script, she had an unusual reaction to the intense material.
“I wasn’t so much, I have to say, fascinated with Kuklinski,” says Ryder. “Those interviews repelled (me). I’m not drawn to that kind of extreme violence. What I did find really interesting was (Kuklinski’s wife), a woman who stayed in this relationship for so long.
“It was so strange to me and interesting and ambiguous. I kept asking, ‘What did she know? What didn’t she know? What did she choose not to think about?’ There was a lot going on there for me … I felt there was a lot to explore and interpret … I know this is ‘The Iceman’ and not ‘The Icewoman’ and this is Michael’s film, but I was really fascinated by her and that relationship.”
Back in 1990, Ryder was Francis Ford Coppola’s first choice to play the mafia princess in “The Godfather: Part III.” When she dropped out, citing exhaustion, the director tapped his daughter Sofia Coppola instead. In the intervening years, Ryder has remained fascinated with crime films that ask tough questions. “The Iceman” definitely falls into that category.
“It goes right into the very core of questions about right and wrong and humanity,” says Ryder of the film. “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.”
While Shannon had hours of documentary footage to base his characterization on, Ryder had few clues to Deborah, who has since changed her name and disappeared from public view.
Shannon, for one, believes that Ryder pulled off the challenging role with remarkable ease.
“Winona was fantastic,” he says. “It’s a very difficult role she was playing. It’s hard for people to believe that Richard could have kept his violent job a secret from his family. That was something that Winona had to wrestle with, but she’s got a really big heart and throws herself into what she does. You just feel for her every time she is on screen; you feel what she is going through.”
Before production began, Ryder made up her mind that Deborah had an inkling of what her husband did for a living but denied the truth as long as she could. All the time Richard was picking off rival thugs, he told Deborah he was working on Wall Street.
“I do think that she knew a lot more than she let on, and I think (it came down to) greed,” says Ryder. “For her to have acknowledged what was happening would have meant that she would have had to take some responsibility … and that would have been hard for her because she liked her life and her nice things.
“It would have been hard for her to acknowledge (her husband’s true identity) and leave him, but that would have been the right thing to do.”
In attempt to remain as blind to Kuklinski’s crimes as Deborah was, Ryder took a Sharpie and blacked out the parts of the script that involved incidents Deborah wouldn’t have known about.
“I sort of had to unlearn anything that I knew about (Kuklinski),” says Ryder, 41. “I had to do the opposite of what I usually do, which is research. In a way, it was almost a good thing because I think Deborah was doing that — she was unlearning, she wasn’t asking any questions, she was pretending like she didn’t know things to a certain extent. So there’s a parallel there in the way I approached it and the way she was living her life.”
As far as Ryder is concerned, the most exciting aspect of “The Iceman” was getting the opportunity to work alongside Shannon.
“I’d been a fan of his since ‘Bug’ and ‘Jesus’ Son,’” says the actress. “Within the acting community, we’ve all been sort of rooting for him so it’s nice to see him getting well-deserved attention. Working with him was really interesting and great and different because he doesn’t really rehearse or block so there’s this element where you really, truly don’t know what’s going to happen.
“In the beginning, that freaked me out just because I hadn’t worked that way in a while but it really pulls you into the moment.”
During an argument sequence, for instance, Shannon responded in a way that wasn’t scripted or rehearsed.
“In the scene, I confront him and he’s supposed to walk out,” recalls Ryder. “But instead he went into the kitchen and started breaking things. That was not scripted. I was literally just reacting to him. All of (what is in the final film) is just me reacting. I saw blood, because he cut himself, and I started crying but I knew that that wouldn’t happen to me. I felt very safe but also on my toes. It was thrilling.”
Nearly as key to Ryder’s performance was the presence of teen actors Megan Sherrill and McKaley Miller who played her daughters. Ryder began acting when she was 12 with a performance in 1988’s “Lucas.” In her 25-year career, she’s been nominated for Oscars twice, for her work in “Little Women” and “The Age of Innocence.” She’s also scored hits recently with “Black Swan” and J.J. Abrams’ reboot of “Star Trek.”
“I have to say that McKaley and Megan were tremendously helpful to me,” says Ryder. “They were exactly the same age that I was when I started acting so I felt a weird, instinctual protectiveness that was almost primal because this was not kid-friendly material and Michael had to be very focused and there wasn’t a lot of money or time.
“It’s a very sensitive age so they helped me a lot by bringing that out in me and hopefully I helped them out, too.”
“The Iceman” is far from a message movie, but Ryder hopes audiences take away from the mob thriller an unvarnished look at the mafia lifestyle.
“This is (set in) America in the ’70s and there’s a lot of greed and ugliness and, for me, it was important not to romanticize that even though have this really twisted romance going on.
“I hope people will take away (an appreciation) of the performances. Michael’s performance is great and Chris Evans is amazing ... But I think (at its heart), the movie is a look at duality and denial.”