The film offers Ryder one of her first lead roles in a few years, playing opposite Michael Shannon's Richard "The Iceman" Kuklinski, the real-life hitman who killed more than 100 people and had a particular talent for disguising the time and cause of death of his victims by skillfully using freezers. Ryder plays his devoted and seemingly oblivious wife Deborah, who takes care of their daughters under the assumption her husband is heading to the office each morning.
It's not a role we're used to Ryder playing, particularly since she's seemed to actively avoid taking roles in violent films.
"A lot of my other roles were characters that were searching for the truth - the truth of who they are, or their lives -- they’re just searching," she said. "This woman was the opposite. She was avoiding it. That was appealing. But I was definitely reluctant because of the violence. I’m very sensitive to that. I purposely stay away from it. I mean, if it’s done really well, like 'The Godfather' or 'Goodfellas,' I've watched. But being a part of it made me a little scared of it being romanticized or exploited. These are real people."
Another major appeal was working with Shannon, who Ryder called "one of those guys who comes along only every once in a while."
"I thought I might not get another chance in the future, so I jumped at that," she said. "And he was great. He demands that you are present in the moment, which is what acting is. We can tend to get a little lazy about it; you learn your lines, and it becomes a job sometimes, when you’ve been doing it for a long time. It was a great wake up call, because you don’t know what he’s going to do. So your reaction is completely real and in the moment. It’s like someone is grabbing you and yanking you into this moment that is reality, but not -- it’s hard to explain, but it was very exciting."
Ryder prepared for her role by behaving very much like her character and avoiding the truth of her onscreen husband. She blacked out all the parts of the script she wasn't a part of and didn't read any history of Kuklinski's crimes.
"She was in such a deep state of denial," Ryder said of her character. "The footage available would not have helped me because it was all about the other side of him, that other life he had. I wouldn’t have played it the same. In a sense, I mirrored the character... Yet, I knew, on a subconscious level. And I think she knew too but she chose not to, because that would make her have to assume some responsibility, her role as a mother. I know this is Michael’s movie, and people are fascinated with Richard Kuklinski. But I actually found her a little bit more fascinating. Who are the wives of these people? Who are the people who choose to be with them? I found that to be very interesting."
At a press conference for the film just prior to her interview with Indiewire, Ryder was asked if her new work has made her "feel welcomed back to Hollywood."
"I've been asked that question a bit lately and I don't know if maybe I'm developing a bit of a complex," she said candidly. "Because I don't know if you're saying 'We missed you' or 'What are you doing here you're not really relevant.'"
Given how many beloved performances Ryder has offered over the years, it's hard to imagine too many people suggesting the latter. And while she plans on being very selective about her roles as she eases into the second half of her career, the actress offered her fans a lovely suggestion of what's to come.
"You have to make a life for yourself so that it’s not all about this," she said. "Life’s short, so if you’re going to spend months doing something, it’s gotta be pretty special... But I’m very happy to enter my Baby Jane years, and hopefully segue into the Ruth Gordon years."
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during last year's Toronto International Film Festival. "The Iceman" opens this Friday.]