His career is on the rise. Hers is on the rebound. Now Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder are co-starring in the true story, The Iceman, which opened in select cities yesterday. He plays Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer for the mob, who offed between 100 and 250 people over 30 years; she plays his wife, who swears she never knew his real occupation. It's a meditation on how well humans can compartmentalize, yet how surprising it is when we do. Talking to each actor separately last September, when their film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, provided a good opportunity to ponder the strange trajectories of the acting life.
Shannon, 38, who hails from Lexington, Ky., is a big fellow, and speaks in a halting, slightly strangled voice. He has perfected the thousand-yard stare, though he delivers many of his answers with his head hanging down and his arms crossed, while pinching the skin of his forearms. (To keep himself awake? To assuage mild anxiety? I couldn't be sure.) Because of his mien and his deadpan delivery, it's easy to miss how funny he is; a lot of his zingers registered as such only well after he dropped them.
Ryder, 41, was born in Minnesota and raised in northern California (her godfather is Timothy Leary). She's tiny and delicate, with a reedy voice that still has a girlish crackle, and enormous eyes that regard you steadily but with wonder, like a princess who's just awakened from a hundred-year nap. Her sentences drop from her like petals from a cherry tree and float about hither and yon. Before I moderated the TIFF press conference for The Iceman, several of her co-stars warned me that she tends to digress. But she's sweet and self-deprecating and can also be surprisingly funny.
Shannon's the kind of actor people keep thinking they're discovering, though he's been hard at it since 1993, when he had a bit part in Groundhog Day. Slowly, the blocks of his career slid into place – small roles in films and TV, big ones onstage. Yet when he got an Oscar nod for 2008's Revolutionary Road, it seemed to come out of nowhere. After that, in one summer, he made five films back-to-back, including Take Shelter and Premium Rush, then returned to his day job playing a G-man on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
This summer will seal Shannon's fame. His manic reading of a sorority girl's expletive-filled letter, on the website Funny or Die, went superviral. (If you haven't seen it, you should.) This weekend also brings the new film Mud, where he plays a wild uncle to a restless boy (and gets a fabulous entrance, wearing a half-peeled-off wetsuit, trying to talk an irate girlfriend back into bed). And he's about to storm his way through his first blockbuster, the Superman origin story Man of Steel. When we chatted, he still had glue in his hair from the prosthetic he wore in the play Grace, his Broadway debut. In short, he's arrived.
Ryder, on the other hand, grew up onscreen, appearing in her first film when she was 15, and pretty much defined being young in the nineties, from Heathers and Edward Scissorhands to The Age of Innocence. The first screening after-party of my own career was for Ryder's second film, 1987's Square Dance, in which she starred opposite Jane Alexander and Jason Robards. At the party, Alexander pulled Ryder over, and said to me, "You're going to be seeing this girl for the rest of your life." She was right.
"It's so funny that you mentioned that film," Ryder says, exhaling shakily, "because no one ever has, but that was the film where I had the moment of, 'This is what I want.' I feel in a weird way that Jane and Jason are responsible for me continuing to act, because they taught me so much, but especially this: When we're young – and when we're older, I think – we want to be like other people. And our own individual thing can get lost. They really instilled in me, 'You're unique, hold on to that, don't try to morph into anything else.'
"The next thing I did was Beetlejuice, which gave me a career, let's be honest," she continues, without pause. "Because what would Hollywood have done with me? I was in puberty, I was kind of weird-looking. But because of that, I got better roles. I also learned that actors don't have to be tortured, though I thought they did. I remember having a fight with a boyfriend" – perhaps her ex, Johnny Depp? – "and grabbing an Evian bottle, and going [she mimes smashing it on the table]. And it bounced. It bounced! I was like, okay, I can't be the tortured hotel trasher."
She went on, but I'll stop there. See what I mean about charming digressions?
But here's the thing: Both Ryder and Shannon, despite their very different, yes, journeys, are experiencing the same phenomenon: Whatever they do, someone tells them they should be doing something more. It's as if, when a star reaches the level of being public property, everyone feels entitled to suggest renovations.
Says Shannon, shaking his shaggy head, "People are always haranguing me about my choices – 'Why do you do the same thing over and over?' For me, none of the characters I've played is like any other. I honestly don't know what people expect of me. Maybe it's because I've never felt the need to manufacture any sort of different personality. But one of the reasons I started acting to begin with, it felt like a good way to consider life – to consider all different walks of life, facets of life, and to learn about the world."
For Ryder, "Everyone keeps asking me, 'Where have you been?' I'm developing a complex – did you miss me, or did you want me to stay away? But if you think about it, who can maintain the same level of achievement for over 20 years? I consciously pulled back, because I had to have a life, I didn't want to turn into Norma Desmond, with my monkey and my director who's my butler." She widens her eyes, looking spookily Desmond-esque, then goes on. "I have a rich private life in San Francisco, with family and friends and interests I pursue. So a movie has to be special, like Black Swan or The Iceman, to pull me from it. And I know there's a lot of pressure to stay young-looking. But I was totally psyched to turn 40. Now I'm happy to do the Baby Jane years, because I can come home to something stable and nice."
Shannon tries to sum up his reaction to the pressure: "There was a big, big romantic comedy that I got close to being a part of. I read with the famous lead actress. It wound up going to somebody you'd much more expect, and I didn't go home and cry myself to sleep or anything. But when I was in the audition with the leading lady, I did think, 'I just wish all the journalists were here to see me do this scene.'
He pauses while I laugh, then goes on. "Just so I could say, 'See? I was here. I just didn't get the part.'"
That's the moral for all stars, I guess, no matter where they are in the firmament: Play the parts you get, and keep streaking across the sky.