The son of two actors, Sam Rockwell has been performing since age 10, but it took several years in the wilderness before his offbeat, colorful screen presence finally gave him a foothold in the business. Since breaking through with his scene-stealing role as a Davy Crockett-like man-child in Tom DiCillo's whimsical 1996 comedy Box Of Moon Light, Rockwell has been a familiar face in independent films, but he's also found work as a first-rate character actor in Hollywood. After playing villains to memorable effect in 1999's The Green Mile and 2000's Charlie's Angels, Rockwell caught a big break when director George Clooney chose him over several more prominent stars to portray Chuck Barris in Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. He's also made the most of plum roles in Galaxy Quest, Matchstick Men, and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Last year, the prolific actor showed his range as Robert Ford's erratic brother in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, and in a rare straight-arrow role as the earnest father of a disturbed little boy in Joshua. Later this year, he'll be prominently featured in film adaptations of Chuck Palahniuk's novel Choke and the award-winning stage play Frost/Nixon.
In the new drama Snow Angels, from George Washington and All The Real Girls director David Gordon Green, Rockwell stars as Glenn, a wavering alcoholic and Christian who tries haplessly to mend fences with his estranged wife (Kate Beckinsale) and daughter. Rockwell recently spoke to The A.V. Club about Green's eccentric style, the pleasures and perils of improvisation, and what it would take for him to agree to be in a zombie movie.
The A.V. Club: So you're working in London right now?
Sam Rockwell: I'm in jolly old London. I'm working on a science-fiction movie called Moon. And it's just me and a robot. That's it, man. You ever seen a movie called Silent Running with Bruce Dern? It's sort of like that.
AVC: Or Castaway?
SR: It's a little bit like Castaway, too, except my character is on the moon and he meets his clone. That's a little different, too.
AVC: So unless the robot is really charismatic, this is obviously a leading role. Does your mindset change when you're cast in a lead role rather than a supporting role?
SR: There's a mixed bag with it. It's more responsibility, but it's probably easier to do a lead role, because you just get into a groove, vs. a supporting role, you wait around more.
AVC: That seems to be the difference between an independent film and a studio film too, the waiting around.
SR: Yeah. In independent movies, you wait around less. In a way, it's a little more creative, I think. For an actor, anyway.
AVC: David Gordon Green's films have a very unusual, offbeat rhythm. Even Snow Angels, which is adapted from a novel and has a bit more plot than usual, still has that kind of quality. How does that factor into how he directs actors?
SR: David is amazing, I love him. I've been watching this filmmaker here in England named Shane Meadows who did a movie called This Is England, and he kind of reminds me of David a little bit. Or Ken Loach. David is really talented, and he really likes actors and to collaborate. He really likes to get in there and talk about the acting, and he thinks outside the box; he doesn't have a linear way of looking at filmmaking, which I think is what is real cool about David.
AVC: What was your collaboration like in this movie?
SR: Well, we talked about the book and went between the book and the script a lot. We talked about the ending; he wanted to change it at one point. And then I asked him if he could keep the climax the same as it is in the book, and he did it. I was really happy about that. We talked about the wardrobe, the look of the character, in a very specific way, and he was open to my suggestions about what this guy should look like, and what he should be like. We would be talking about a lot of very intricate things, things really that every director should talk about with his actor. But you don't always get that; you don't always get that kind of dialogue.
AVC: Did you have much leverage in terms of creating this character? Where did David Gordon Green's conception of this character stop and yours began?
SR: I think that David kind of let me do my thing. He let me just sort of fly. He loves improvisation, and he let me get into it. I researched the born-again Christian stuff pretty thoroughly so I could improvise and could still keep it somewhat accurate, as far as the religious authenticity and how somebody like that would talk. Although I probably said "fuck" one too many times. [Laughs.] My character is a "new" born-again, and he has a tough time with it; he breaks his sobriety and goes a little batty. But in general, I think that David really wants those happy accidents, the spontaneity. Like in one scene, I'm in the carpet store selling carpets to this lesbian couple, and he told me to take off my shoes and sort of bounce around on the carpets with my bare feet. I thought, "He's selling carpets, and he might lose his job," but David was like "Try it." And I did, and I think it worked. So stuff like that, which I think is kind of interesting—I like that about David.
AVC: How did you and David want the audience to feel about Glenn? Was that tricky to figure out?
SR: We wanted him to be sympathetic, obviously. I would say one more thing about David: I think somewhere between David Lynch and Terrence Malick lives David Gordon Green's creative soul. That's what he's all about. That's where he's aspiring to be, I think. But, yeah, we talked about a lot of the anti-heroes from the Golden Age of American Cinema in the '70s, characters like Travis Bickle [in Taxi Driver], Eric Roberts in Star 80, [Jack] Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Martin Sheen in Badlands, stuff like that. Or John Savage in The Onion Field, which really had an impact on me. We really wanted to build a character like that; to build this guy from the ground up. To make this anti-hero-slash-villain in the classic sense. We were looking for the same thing.
AVC: Do you interpret Glenn's Christianity as anything more than grasping at straws?
SR: No. To say that he is a definitive born-again would be wrong. He is grasping at straws, and he doesn't succeed in finding faith. He kids himself and rationalizes killing somebody through his so-called faith.
AVC: Do you need or desire a little wiggle-room when it comes to the dialogue, or would you be comfortable reading script pages verbatim?
SR: Well, in theatre, you know, you can't ad lib, so you want to pick really good material, like David Mamet or Shakespeare or whatever. You want to be really careful about what you do. But in the movies, you do have more wiggle-room. You do have more opportunities to improvise. It's fun to improvise, but I still think it's better to have a great script, you know, like a Charlie Kaufman script.
AVC: Do you sometimes find yourself in situations where you aren't given enough to work with? Where you're being asked to improvise too much?
SR: Absolutely. Charlie's Angels was an example of that. We were scared; we didn't know if it was going to turn out okay. I thought it did turn out okay. In fact, for the genre we were in, I thought we succeeded, but it was touch 'n' go there for while. We had 17 writers, and only one of them was a woman.
AVC: That's such a strange phenomenon in Hollywood. Why go ahead with a movie of size, with so much invested in it, and yet have problems with something so basic as a script?
SR: I think that if it wasn't for Drew Barrymore and [producer] Nancy Juvonen, that movie would not have succeeded. And I think it does succeed on a level like Grease, as a pop-culture kind of movie. I do think it succeeds on that level. That's a credit to Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen, because that thing would have fell apart otherwise. Drew kept it on track. And Bill Murray and his writing partner Mitch Glazer helped a lot with my scenes, too.
AVC: You did some research on Christianity for the role. What's the furthest you've ever had to prepare for a role? Are you inclined to research obsessively, or just use your imagination to go for it?
SR: I think I do a mixture of both. Like on Matchstick Men, I didn't prepare as much, although we did have a talk with some federal agents who told us about con men briefly. But in Snow Angels, I did a lot of research, went to a lot of services, talked to a pastor. A friend of mine is a priest, and we talked about it. I did a play at the Public about Judas, and I learned about the New Testament on that. I saw a lot of documentaries; one called Hell House and another called Soldiers In The Army Of God, which is about guys who blow up abortion clinics and kill abortion doctors and stuff. That was very helpful.
AVC: Though both those movies are about people who go further than the typical born-again Christian.
SR: Well, yeah. I met some really cool born-agains, and I met some that I didn't I saw both, you know. Some people, I thought, had genuine faith, and I saw people who I thought were sort of grasping at straws, looking for an excuse, for something to sort of grasp on and help them from their loneliness or something. And then I saw people who really believed in God, and they had genuine faith and it served them well.
AVC: Did George Ratliff's Hell House bring you to being in his movie Joshua?
SR: That was sort of a coincidence. I was watching it [Hell House] when I agreed to do Joshua. It was coincidence that helped with Snow Angels. I wish I'd seen Jesus Camp—I wish that had been around when I was working on Snow Angels. My only regret is that I didn't speak in tongues in Snow Angels. [Laughs.] But you know, sometimes you have to do accents. Like in The Green Mile, I had to do a Kentucky accent. I've done British accents; I did a Mike Leigh play and a Harold Pinter play. Or I taped Chuck Barris speaking into a tape recorder, and he did my lines. He's got a Philly accent. On The Assassination Of Jesse James, Casey [Affleck] and I wanted to sound like brothers, so I had Casey tape my lines. I actually had David Gordon Green and Paul Schneider tape my lines as well, because they have really nice Southern accents. Casey and I tried to find sort of a similar way of talking, with the similar regionalism, so we messed around with that for a while.
AVC: It's hard to find something authentic from that time period.
SR: Yeah, it is, and they were sort of from a few different places, the Ford brothers. They were from Virginia and a few other places. They kind of moved around. We tried to find the specific accent, but we didn't have a lot of time and we had to jump in, so we picked something that was kind of a general dialect. It was a little scary.
AVC: Did you like to do that beforehand, get together with other actors and iron these things out, or do you generally not have time?
SR: I like to do that. Some actors don't want to, but I prefer to. I like to collaborate. Sometimes you have to keep it to yourself, and people want to do their own thing.
AVC: Did you enjoy playing the straight man in Joshua?
SR: Oh, yeah, that was great. I did that after Snow Angels. I had already gotten all that [elements of the Glenn character] out of my system. I was chewing up the scenery in Snow Angels, so I was ready to do that part [in Joshua] very much and just sit back and let Vera Farmiga do all the histrionics and play the crazy stuff. I was very sympathetic toward her, because I knew what it was like.
AVC: Both characters are put through quite a ringer.
SR: They are. They're both put through hell, but Vera has more of a nervous breakdown.
AVC: It's so rare that a movie tackles parenthood with any kind of ambivalence, much less dread, but that movie seemed to be misinterpreted as another creepy-kid film. Do you think if it was titled Brad after your character instead of Joshua, it would have been interpreted more as a movie about parenthood instead of another Omen knock-off?
SR: Yeah, it's not really a creepy-kid film. That's not really what it is, and maybe [the studio] tried to sell it that way. It's more like that French film Caché; it's about psychological breakdown. It's not The Omen.
AVC: Are you the sort of person who lives the role during production? Do you slip out of character easily between takes?
SR: It depends on the scene. Sometimes you have to stay in it a little bit. I can't stay in it all day, it's too exhausting. I can't. Maybe other actors can do that. I don't think any actor I mean, even Daniel Day Lewis has to have a cup of tea, have a piece of toast, and turn on The Flintstones, right? [Laughs.] You can't just fucking You can't be in it all the time.
AVC: You've been acting since you were 10, and your parents were actors too. How has acting shaped or distorted your perception of the world?
SR: I tell you this: I think it actually can make you a better person sometimes. A part, like for example working on Frost/Nixon, made me more political and politically aware. I had to learn all about Watergate and the parallels between the Patriot Act and the Huston Plan. It opens your awareness a little bit into what's happening, and all the injustices in the world. You start seeing things that you weren't really paying attention to.
AVC: At this point, you seem to have a lot of opportunities coming your way in movies and theatre. What sort of balances do you have to strike?
SR: Well, you want to make a little money, and sometimes you want to play these really great parts. Sometimes they don't always coincide, or co-exist. Sometimes you've got to do good parts for no money and You know, I sometimes can't do movies just for the money. I really can't. I mean, I've tried. Believe me, I'd love to just take the money and run. That might just be part of the equation, but there has to be something there. You have to be somewhat creatively satisfied.
I'm not going to just do a dumb zombie movie, although I love zombie movies. I love 28 Days Later and stuff like that. But I'm not going to do one just for the money. I wanna do a really great zombie movie. If I'm going to do a zombie movie, I'm going to do the fuckin' A-number-one of zombie movies. I don't want to fuck around, you know what I mean? I compare stuff to the movies that I grew up watching. So somebody says "That was a great sci-fi movie!" and I go, "Oh yeah? Did you ever see Alien? Did you ever see Outland?" "Did you ever see blah-blah-blah? That was a great gangster movie!" "Oh yeah. Did you ever see GoodFellas? Did you ever see The Godfather?" People have a short memory. You really have to respect your elders. You have to respect your history. "That was a great private-eye movie!" "Oh yeah? Did you ever see Chinatown?" You know what I mean? I always look back to these films. Maltese Falcon or Treasure Of The Sierra Madre or whatever the hell it is. It's A Wonderful Life. That movie still holds up. That's how you're going to succeed. I think a movie like Wedding Crashers succeeded because it does take from Some Like It Hot. I think smart movies will do that. I guarantee you Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson were aware of the Tony Curtis/Jack Lemmon parallel there. I guarantee you they were aware of that. That's part of what's going to make you excel.
AVC: Are you still appearing often on the stage?
SR: I haven't done a play in a couple of years. I really need to do one. It really wakes you up. You tend to get lazy doing movies. You gotta keep doing theater. Phil Hoffman does that. Billy Crudup. A lot of the great [actors]. Even Judi Dench goes back and does theater. Meryl Streep.
AVC: Do you miss that continuity in your roles? That you can do the whole thing in one performance?
SR: Yeah. Obviously, it's a better gymnasium for an actor. You work harder. You work those muscles that you don't in film. Absolutely, when you do the whole arc of the character in one sitting, in two hours, three hours. In film, it's five minutes a day of acting, and 14 hours of sitting around.