Sam Rockwell
'My Whole Career Has Been Afterlife'

He's one of the most underrated actors of our generation. Up there with Willem Dafoe or Michael Shannon. Sam Rockwell has had a lengthy career filling in the shoes of colourful oddballs, intelligent delinquents or loveable outcasts.

He’s had a lucky career playing some of the most interesting roles of the last few decades, from the one-man sci-fi show of Moon to his paranoid overture in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Rockwell edges closer to the spotlight with his forthcoming film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri garnering him praise from all corners of Hollywood. In this role, he occupies familiar territory but with an added gut punch. Rockwell plays a less than bright cop in small-town America who is tormented by the loss of his officer Woody Harrelson. It’s his sincerity and humour that leaves you breathless, unusual at a time of big budget spin-offs and artificial storylines. Rockwell is the guy you want to appear on screen, his unpredictability and ability to wipe other actors off the screen puts him in a class of his own. As we sit down to talk, there is a realisation that Rockwell is merely an incredibly down to earth guy who loves his profession. This could well be the role that gets him the nomination he deserves. And it’s about time.

Preparing for this interview I noticed how gracious you are. One of the things you say a lot is “thanks so much.”

Well, I worked in restaurants, so maybe it comes from that. Or maybe I was just brought up nice, I don’t know. It’s good to be nice to people, you know?

Do you think that you might have become numb to praise? 

I guess I don’t know how to answer that question. I’m very lucky and I’ve had a beautiful career so far. My whole career has been ‘afterlife’ – a lot of movies that didn’t make it at the box office or even critically, like [The Assassination of] Jesse James. Aside from Charlie’s Angels and Iron Man 2, which were hit movies, I think I’ve been in a lot of movies that nobody saw or if they did see it then that means they’re a film nerd, which is cool. Movies like Moon or Confessions of a Dangerous Mind have afterlife. A lot of my career has been like that, so it’s very nice when someone actually knows your name and a specific performance.

"In preparation for a part there is a lot of terror and anxiety that goes into it."

I saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and loved it. You come across as being very genuine on screen. There aren’t many actors people can relate to these days. 

That’s a really beautiful sentiment. I really like that because in preparation for a part there is a lot of terror and anxiety that goes into it, and I think a lot of actors have that. If they say they don’t then they are probably full of shit. I think that comes from being a theatre actor; when you are a theatre actor you’re jumping out of the airplane, it’s pretty intense.

It’s funny, when I think about that if I’m having a hard time before a job, when you’re scared it’s usually a good sign. I think Gary Oldman has this phrase that you really should be most confused before the veil of inspiration lifts. Your most miserable and terrified moment is probably also your most creative moment. So then you have an actor who does a performance like Gary Oldman in State of Grace or Sid and Nancy and it’s a similar thing because I know that there was probably a tonne of anxiety that went into that beforehand, you know what I’m saying?

Yes it makes sense, but we don’t see that terror when you perform. You’re almost like a Harlem Globetrotter; you just slide in and do your thing.

I like that. But I bet you the Harlem Globetrotters get jittery too. I think practice and ritual really helps. I once saw Steve Nash, the basketball player, doing the same shot over and over again at the gym.

One of the things that really had an impact on me was watching this documentary called When We Were Kings about Muhammad Ali. That movie kind of changed my life. I saw Goodfellas and When We Were Kings in the same week.

Rockwell in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, 2002. Photograph: Allstar/Miramax

Wow.

Yeah, intense combination right? If you re-watch the fight in the documentary, what I didn’t realise was that Foreman made him wait for around 15 minutes before he came out. So you’re watching Muhammad Ali warming up, and you can see that he is nervous, and he starts talking up the crowd, shadow boxing and dancing around the ring. He talks himself into being brave. I find that kind of thing inspirational because Muhammad Ali wasn’t really supposed to win that fight; Foreman was the Tyson of that time. So when you say that about my work, it makes me happy.

There is this brilliant scene in Three Billboards where you have the headphones on, listening to this weird Eurotrash music. It’s very representative of your skill as an actor because you just go for it. My bet is that you are going to get your first Academy career nomination for this role. 

Well, I think it’s really thrilling to hear any kind of what they call ‘buzz’ because the movie in general, not just me and Fran [McDormand] and Woody [Harrelson], is getting this kind of attention. Sometimes you deliver and nobody sees the movie, but hopefully I think this is a movie that people are going to check out. It’s just thrilling to get asses in seats, you know? If that’s what it takes to get people there then that’s what it takes.

This is a very timely movie. It feels very political, would you agree?

I don’t think Martin [McDonagh] would agree, but I think it’s kind of political/anti-political, social and emotional. It is timely because of the racism and misogyny, but ultimately I think it’s more about love, forgiveness and redemption, even though there is a lot of violence in it.

I feel like it is about that stereotypical mid-Western attitude of small-mindedness, with Woody Harrelson’s character writing you this letter to say basically love and you will grow.

Totally. I love Woody – he’s a great guy.

 Rockwell in Moon, 2009. Photograph: Uk/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

 

Was he stoned throughout most of the filming?

No, no, no. He doesn’t smoke on set, that’s a weekend kind of deal.
But there are some great breweries where we shot in Ashville; it’s like a beer mecca.

You’re a big fan of beer, right?

Yes I’m a beer nerd. I like double IPAs. Is it BrewDog you have in London? It’s starting to get some good stuff over there.

"It’s an embarrassing time to be a white male right now."

On the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal

If you find the time check out a beer called Shogun IPA from a small island called Gotland, Sweden, it’s great. One of the labels that is put on you a lot is a ‘journeyman’, I guess due to the long and varied career that you have had. Is that a title that you are comfortable with?

Yeah I don’t mind that. In England there is more of an apprenticeship for actors, there’s less of that here but I guess it’s changing. I’m proud of the fact that I trained for 2 years – I went to school and I have an acting coach – but a lot of people don’t like to talk about that stuff. I feel like you need to carry the sword and the spear a little bit before you play Hamlet. You learn from older actors, like I’ve learned from Chris Walker and Gene Hackman, and I think that’s cool. Being labelled as a journeyman is a cool thing to me.

 Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, 2017

 

Has there been a role that you turned down at some point in your career but you wish you didn’t?

No, I read for some parts in movies like Unforgiven and Dead Poets Society, TV shows like Twin Peaks. I turned down some TV shows that have become big hits, but I don’t want to say what they are. I don’t regret it. I regret more life experiences, like I could have done American Buffalo at The Gate Theatre in Dublin. Stuff like that bugs me.

I actually wish I had done that cartoon The Incredibles – I turned it down. Usually I don’t regret my decisions though. It’s not like I was offered Titanic or anything like that.

"I actually wish I had done that cartoon The Incredibles – I turned it down."

I’d love to know where you pick up your humour skills because you are hilarious but it seems natural.

Well, my mother was an improv, a very funny lady. She was in the style of Tracy Ullman and Lily Tomlin, a mercurial Peter Sellers quality. Both she and my dad were actors, they quit and now my mom is a painter. She taught me about improv and I did a play with her when I was young, so I learned a lot about comedy through my mom.

Then watching comedies, I still learn from the greats like Richard Pryor, Bill Murray and Gene Wilder. Some of his performances that come to mind, like in Young Frankenstein, just blow me away comedically.

I think Wedding Crashers is an amazing film. I think it’s a reinvention of Some Like It Hot, and maybe that’s not a popular point of view but I stand by it. I think Vince is incredible in it; he’s like Dean Martin. So I continue to learn and hopefully steal.

I think what you do that is very special is that you are very intelligent with your humour; you don’t switch on the ignition all the time, you use it sparingly. So there’s a quirk in it.

Thanks, you learn from the best.

I can’t imagine you are the type of person to jump into the whole Hollywood scene but do you ever go out for a drink and socialise with your peers like Woody Harrelson or whoever?

I do like actors, so most of my friends are actors but some are famous while others aren’t. Some are still bartending but then I have friends like Woody and Vince, Yul Vazquez who is a great actor, Chris Messina. Actors are fun to be around and they make me laugh. Matt Ross who is the bad guy on Big Love and Silicon Valley, and directed Captain Fantastic, he’s an old friend of mine.

My girlfriend and I like to go out and get a nice meal, some wine, walk the dog or go to the movies if we ever get time to watch a fucking movie.

"I continue to learn and to steal."

Are you political at all?

No I’m not very political. I give a shit about stuff and I don’t like bad things happening, but the only time I’ve ever gotten political was for something like Frost/Nixon or now I’m playing George W. Bush so I have to get a bit political. Politics is depressing.

I’m sure you’ve been hearing about it all over but are people asking you about the whole Harvey Weinstein situation?

Actually I was just in London and there seemed to be this point of view that it was the downfall of Hollywood, which I thought was interesting because it’s really just one man, but I think it’s also because these are horrible and disgusting allegations. It’s an embarrassing time to be a white male right now in general. There’s a lot going on like Charlottesville that makes you want to apologise on behalf of all white males.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be released on 10 November in the US and 12 January 2018 in the UK