Sam Rockwell: "My whole career has been an afterlife"

The consummate actor's actor talks about playing "used-car salesmen" and his gripping new thriller "A Single Shot"

Published September 20, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

Sam Rockwell      (AP/Victoria Will)
Sam Rockwell (AP/Victoria Will)

“That’s my dog,” says Sam Rockwell as I join him in a cluttered office at Tribeca Enterprises. Well, I knew it wasn’t my dog – and the somnolent German shepherd taking up most of the floor space between us barely gives me a glance before resettling himself to sleep. Rockwell has a reputation for playing eccentric characters who are often full of crap – “used-car salesmen,” as he puts it – but in person he’s entirely low-key and charming. I’m meeting him in New York to talk about “A Single Shot,” a gripping neo-noir mood piece from director David M. Rosenthal in which Rockwell plays a West Virginia deer hunter who makes a fatal mistake that alters the direction of his life.

John Moon in “A Single Shot” isn’t the first serious role on Rockwell’s résumé, but he’s definitely better known for playing unhinged comic figures, clear back to his breakthrough performance in Tom DiCillo’s “Box of Moonlight” in 1997. Roger Ebert once described Rockwell as a younger version of Christopher Walken, but when Rockwell started talking about his passion for 1970s American cinema, it occurred to me that in that era he could’ve been a major star. Nowadays you need classic good looks and a chiseled physique to be a Hollywood leading man; compare that to the days when Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson were the biggest and most honored actors in the business.

So Rockwell finds himself, at age 44, a bit of an actor’s actor, a specialty brand whose biggest roles have come in modest-audience indies, including George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (a personal fave of mine), Duncan Jones’s “Moon” and Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.” His two 2013 releases demonstrate his dramatic range, playing a backwoods man of few words in “A Single Shot” and the charming, loquacious water-park Zen master of this summer’s modest indie hit “The Way Way Back.” He’ll play another lead role, more or less, in the forthcoming “Poltergeist” remake, and as I told him, someday the world will figure out how good he is. Until then, he gets to bring his dog to interviews.

I like this movie, Sam, but arguably it’s a different kind of film than you’ve done before, and a different kind of character. Tell me how that happened.

Oh, thanks. It's not for everybody – it's a challenging film.

It feels like a director-driven film, an auteur film that sets up its own world.

Yeah, well, David [Rosenthal] showed me a compilation of some films that he felt – it was a cleverly put together trailer -- like films that were in the same vein, and there was a mixture of "There Will be Blood" and "The Deer Hunter" and a lot of Terrence Malick. So that showed me the tone and I said, "This is great. Is this what we're going for here?” At the time it was a different cinematographer, it was a guy named Terry Stacey who's actually a friend of mine, and that was the first thing that David and I talked about. You know, this movie has to look good. I think we talked about using dollies and tracks and really doing a classic kind of filmmaking. And then when we decided to shoot it on real film, that really helped. [In the end, “A Single Shot” was shot by Spanish cinematographer Eduard Grau.]

Then David and I talked about changing the location, because in the book it's upstate New York. We changed it to West Virginia because we thought it would be easier to get such a big ensemble to be on the same page with that dialect. To ask a lot of British and Australian actors -- it ended up being such a foreign cast -- and getting everybody on the same page with an upstate New York, "Brother's Keeper" dialect would be very difficult. [Important supporting roles are played by Kelly Reilly, Jason Isaacs, Joe Anderson and Ophelia Lovibond, all originally from England.]

Yes, I spend part of every year in upstate New York. That’s a very specific accent, and very hard to get right.

Very specific. We didn't have a dialect coach on set, so we kind of lucked out because the British people really did their homework, and then Bill [Macy] and Ted [Levine] are actually from that part of the country. Jeffrey [Wright] has played tons of Southern characters, so we just kind of lucked out. I think we did the right thing because it lent itself to the world. So we realized it was going to be a story told visually, it's not a dialogue-driven film. There are these scenes where there is a lot of dialogue, and Jeffrey in particular comes to mind. He's got a scene we were real nervous about 'cause there's a lot of exposition, but he really found a way to do it and emotionally drive that scene. If it wasn't for Jeffrey, I don't know if it would really work.

In this kind of movie, where it’s very directorial and the cinematography and the music are so dominant, I feel like it’s easy to fail. Your performance can end up competing with the film instead of complementing it.

That's right. The filmmaking has to meet the performance and vice versa. Thank God it looks beautiful.

Roger Ebert once described you as the new Christopher Walken, a guy who plays these offbeat, often twisted supporting characters. I was thinking that John Moon in “A Single Shot” is really different from that. One way of thinking about that is that he doesn’t talk much, and in a lot of your movies, like “The Way Way Back,” from earlier this year, you play guys who talk all the time. And what John doesn’t have at all is a line of bullshit. You’re really good at bullshit, and this guy is utterly sincere the whole way through. He makes bad decisions, but he’s not a bullshitter.

Yeah you're right about that. I have played a lot of, like, car salesman-type guys or psychopaths who talk a lot of bullshit too, who are just crazy, but this guy is a little more planted in the earth. It's funny, some people have said, "Oh I don't think he's very smart," because of some of the choices he makes in the film. I disagree. I think he's very smart. I just think he's having an emotional crisis and he's kind of in denial about what's happened and he's running away from the problem. So he's doing stupid things, but he's a smart person. He's just being sort of emotionally stupid. I find this guy actually very focused and very grounded and I enjoy the characters with this kind of temperament in film -- I think they're fun to act. It's a throwback to some of the movies that inspired me growing up; characters like "Taxi Driver" and "Tender Mercies" and "Badlands" – people of few words. It's fun to do that stuff.

I didn't think of him as being stupid. Among other things, he's done something really terrible that he did not intend to do, and he’s not dealing with it at all. It’s a cliché to say PTSD, but it might fit in this case.

That's right, absolutely. He hasn't really dealt with it and shit doesn't hit the fan until maybe the scene where the bad guys throw the body in his bed with the plastic bag and the note. Then it's just like, he completely unravels. It's quite a journey this guy goes through, so you either go with it or you don't, you know? It's Edgar Allan Poe, it's "Crime and Punishment," it's that kind of thing. I'm happy with it and I know it's not for everybody, but I really like this kind of stuff and it was really fun to do.

I especially enjoyed seeing this right after "The Way Way Back," where you play a more familiar Sam Rockwell type. Although that guy, even though he’s running a line of bullshit almost the whole time, is arguably one of the most endearing characters you've ever played. That guy doesn't have an evil or bad bone in his body, was the way I read the character. He’s totally irresponsible, but…

That's right. He is just a big kid in the body of a very world-weary man. That was a lot of fun -- very different kind of challenge. Rapid-fire dialogue and that was a lot of fun.

Was there a lot of rehearsal? Are you the kind of actor who runs lines a lot? Or is it more about showing up on the day prepared and nailing it?

I ran those lines with other people. I run lines with people and I hire somebody to run lines with. That one was a lot of dialogue, I had to go over and over and over and over, but I do that with every job so I'm used to that. You know, I've done monologues on stage and stuff, but that movie was like a standup routine. And then to do it so quickly I think is the thing -- it's the rapid-fire quality of that character. He’s like a force field of comedy.

Somehow you manage to convey that there's an understanding beneath that, that he’s actually not an idiot. Among other things your character seems to understand that the kid in the movie is going to move past you really quickly. He wants you to be a father surrogate but you know he's ultimately going to need something more real.

Yeah, that he's going to move on. I think that's true. He's world-weary and there's a wisdom to that character. That's something that Walter Matthau and Bill Murray and Richard Pryor, Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa" -- those are the misanthrope guys. This guy's so much more upbeat than some of those guys, but there's a similar thing there.

He’s the Zen master of this third-rate Cape Cod water park that's going to be torn down to build condos in two years! I totally wish I had known him when I was 15.

That's right. You kind of want to be Owen. I wish I were as cool as Owen – just laid back, man. But then he gets challenged in the movie by the love interest, Maya Rudolph.

She's so great! She had very little screen time but she nails it.

Yeah. She's awesome, and she's really the funniest person you'll ever meet, so it's funny that she's sort of the straight person and I'm doing the jokes, 'cause she's so much funnier than I am. She's hilarious.

So that was a great list of people that you were comparing yourself to, like Matthau and Murray. Are those the actors that you were watching when you were a younger guy?

Sure. I mean it was a sort of unsaid thing with Nat and Jim [Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the writer-directors of “The Way Way Back”] that we were definitely – you can't deny the relationship is very similar to "Meatballs." It's so similar, and the character is so similar. So you have to pay homage to that. It's so obvious to me that that's what it is. You just do the best version you can of that, whatever your version of that is. You know, there's definitely going to be some theft going on, but with all due respect to the man. You can't deny that. Everything's derivative.

Well, in movies as anywhere else, there's no such thing as originality.

Right. Everything's been done, so just pay respect to the best.

Were there some particular movies that you remember watching as a kid or teenager that made you feel like "Oh, this is for me, this is what I want"?

Again, like, for this film – movies like "The Deer Hunter" and "Badlands" and "Taxi Driver." I was also thinking of some other performances, like Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher." That’s one that's very internal and there's a lot going on under the surface. And "Tender Mercies" -- I sort of think of that as like the Southern "Taxi Driver." It's the perfect understated cowboy. You know there's so many of these great performances – Tommy Lee Jones in "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and "The Executioner's Song." I watched some documentaries – I watched the "Wonderful World of Whites," that was great for the dialect. David and I watched a lot of those films from the ’70s, the golden age of American cinema.

You're a ’70s kind of actor. And that’s totally meant as a compliment.

Thanks, man, I appreciate that. It was a different time, for sure. You know, we had a different kind of antihero. It seems they're looking more for classic heroic guys with muscles and stuff now, whereas back then it was more about the antihero, you know, like Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck and…

Yeah and I feel like if you and George [Clooney] had made something like "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" in the 70s, it would have been a huge deal. I love that film, and some of the other people in my profession dug it, but the public didn't know what to make of it.

Sure, absolutely. He was nodding to "Carnal Knowledge" and maybe John Frankenheimer. I was watching "Serpico" a lot during that time. But, you know, I think in retrospect those movies resurface. My whole career has been like an afterlife – so I'm never really worried if a movie bombs, you know? If it's good it'll find a way, I think.

One of the guys I think about when I think about you is Gary Oldman, who finally got an Oscar nomination after however many years in the business.

Oh, he’s so cool. He's terrific.

I hung out with him for half a day after that happened, and he was talking about the fact that he had gotten used to the idea that he would never get that kind of recognition and that he was past the point of playing a leading role. And then he gets nominated for playing a guy in a spy movie who spends most of it just sitting in chairs. So I’m going to speculate that something like that will happen to you in the future – you know, that kind of recognition will arrive for you when you're not expecting it.

Yeah that's always the way it is, I guess. Who knows? That stuff is so elusive. It's like grabbing onto air.

“A Single Shot” is now playing in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, San Diego and Seattle, with more cities to follow. It’s also available on-demand from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu and cable providers.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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