Venice 2012: Winona Ryder on 'The Iceman' and the Benefits of Getting Older (Q&A)

The Iceman Premiere Cast - P 2012
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The Iceman Premiere Cast - P 2012

The 40-year-old actress returns to Venice after 19 years in a role as the innocent and naive wife of a contract killer

VENICE -- After 19 years away, Winona Ryder has returned to the Venice Film Festival. That’s nearly half a lifetime for the 40-year-old actress, who made her inaugural trip to the Lido with Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, in which she played the beautiful and naive fiancee of a powerful gentleman lawyer -- a role that earned Ryder the first of two Oscar nominations.

This time, she came to Venice with The Iceman, a bloody crime drama from indie director Ariel Vromen. Again, Ryder plays the beautiful and naive love interest, though in this case her husband, contract killer Richard Kuklinski (powerfully played by Michael Shannon), is no gentleman. The role probably is Ryder’s biggest since Autumn in New York a dozen years ago.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival Day 2: Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder Heat Up 'The Iceman'

Ryder spoke with The Hollywood Reporter soon after her arrival in Venice and before she even had a chance to see the full film for the first time. The wide-ranging conversation touched on how she prepared to play a character who knew nothing about her surroundings, a career that has spanned more than a quarter of a century and some of her favorite leading men.

The Hollywood Reporter: It seems like every time you come to Venice you play the innocent companion to a troubled man. Is that a trend?

Winona Ryder: (Laughs) Not really, though it is an interesting coincidence. The two roles are really not that alike. For me, The Iceman is unique among the roles I’ve played over the years because the preparation for it was so counterintuitive.

THR: What do you mean?

Ryder: Well, for one, I couldn’t do much preparation because all the material on the life of Deborah Kuklinski was so horrible and so graphic that I couldn’t look at it. Really. It made me physically sick. And it wouldn’t have helped me to have known those things anyway because the role was for a woman who didn’t see, or didn’t allow herself to see, what was going on around her. When I got the script, the first thing I did was to throw out the pages where I didn’t have any lines and to take a magic marker to black out all the lines from scenes I wasn’t in because I wasn’t supposed to know those things.

THR: Do you think Deborah Kuklinski really was oblivious to everything her husband did?

Ryder: It’s hard for me to believe she didn’t have some idea. Her husband told her he was a businessman, but she could never call his office or speak to his secretary. This money -- which at the end of the day was all blood money -- was rolling in, and she never asked where it came from. I think all of us see what we want to see to some great extent, but they were married for a long time. She must have suspected something.

Film Review: The Iceman

THR: What was it that caught your eye about The Iceman?

Ryder: You don’t always know; it can be hard to put your finger on a reason all the time. It seemed like a great role and an interesting project, so I said yes. I was interested in the Michael Shannon character, whose life was defined by death and destruction. I wanted to know, can a man like that love? I’m still not sure I know the answer.

THR: What was it like to work with Michael Shannon in that role? He was extraordinarily intense in the film. Is it true he doesn’t rehearse? If so, does that make it harder on you?

Ryder: I’ve worked with some great leading men over the years -- Daniel Day Lewis, Gary Oldman, Richard Gere -- and Michael is right up there with them. And it’s true that he doesn’t rehearse, which made it frightening sometimes. In the scene where we argue and he storms out of the room, the script just says, “Michael leaves the room and goes to the garage.” But when he left the room, he was furious and he knocked things over and pushed everything off the table. I was honestly scared, and afterward I even started crying. It was all unexpected, which made the reaction much more real, whether it's being frightened or anything else.

Michael is one of these actors who has a certain spark, who reminds me of why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. I think I only experienced that once before, opposite Jason Robards early in my career [the 1987 romantic drama Square Dance, when Ryder was just 15]. Nothing against any of the other wonderful actors I’ve worked with, but that is a very rare and very special thing.

THR: You’re only 40, but you’ve been in the film business for more than 25 years. You’ve done a lot and been through a lot. What is it like to be such a veteran at such a young age?

Ryder: I have been incredibly lucky and have had many, many great opportunities along the way. My parents tried to help me avoid getting caught up in the world of movies. Even after I started getting a lot of work, the family never moved to Los Angeles. When I was in school I could only act in the summers. I still did my laundry in a laundromat until I was in my late 20s, in part because I didn’t want to lose perspective on what was happening around me.

But I still got overwhelmed at a certain point, and I think I’ve emerged a wiser person. I’m one of the only people you’ll hear from Hollywood who says I actually like getting older. I do. Older people are more interesting.