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Sam Rockwell on dialects, working with Woody Allen, and stealing from the best

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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Having spent most of the ’90s fighting for guest roles on network TV shows and appearing in acclaimed indie sleepers, Sam Rockwell caught his big break around the turn of the millennium, thanks to memorable supporting performances in The Green Mile, Galaxy Quest, and Charlie’s Angels. In 2002, he scored his first major starring role, playing Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s directorial debut, Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. Since then, Rockwell has become one of the most reliably eclectic actors in Hollywood, excelling as both a leading man and a live-wire supporting player. (And doing a lot of goofy dances along the way.) His latest project is the Elmore Leonard-esque crime drama A Single Shot, in which he plays a hunter coping with a guilty conscience.


A Single Shot (2013)—“John Moon”
Sam Rockwell: John Moon’s a cousin of some characters I’ve done before. There are some similarities to a character I did in a movie called Lawn Dogs, and also to [the character in] Moon. It’s in the vein of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and [Robert] Duvall’s character in Tender Mercies, or Martin Sheen in Badlands or Apocalypse Now. It’s that kind of internal character. I’m just riffing, but also Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all contained.

I watched The Wild And Wonderful Whites Of West Virginia. It’s a documentary about West Virginia drug addicts, a family of drug addicts and drug dealers. And there’s a prequel to that, about one of the family members who was a dancer, a clogger. So you get all kinds of ideas from different things.


And to play Southern characters is really fun. The book is actually set in upstate New York; we changed it and we made it West Virginia. There’s a musical accent, a musical dialect, and it’s fun to create a soft-spoken character from that region. He’s obviously got a lot going on, and it’s a film-noir piece, but the character’s sort of an everyman. It was hard work—emotionally and physically, it was hard—but it was fun.

The A.V. Club: Did you struggle with the dialect?

SR: No, I’ve actually got a pretty good ear. But it always requires a lot of work and a lot of discipline. I had a dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, who was helping me. She helped me on a movie called Conviction, and she helped me when I did A Streetcar Named Desire. She’s pretty amazing. She did Fargo, and she’s done a lot of great movies. It’s like a side job when you do an accent. I’ve done an English accent, Boston, Baltimore. I’ve done Southern a few times. It’s like a second job.

AVC: At the beginning of A Single Shot, this terrible accident happens, and it kind of hangs over the rest of the movie. As an actor, do you keep that moment—and the guilt about it—in the back of your mind for all subsequent scenes?

SR: That’s a good question. But when you’re driving to Chicago, you can’t say the whole time, “I’m going to Chicago, I’m going to Chicago, I’m going to Chicago.” You’ve got to sort of drive and try to get your mind off of the fact that you’re going to Chicago. The character’s in denial a bit, up until the scene when his dog dies and they throw the dead body in his bedroom. Then he starts to mentally break down. But before that, he’s trying to cover up his tracks and he’s not really dealing with the issue.

Moon (2009)—“Sam Bell”
SR: That was really fun. I had a great time doing that. It was scary. We didn’t know if it was going to work. We only shot for 33 days. The preparation was the key to that: working on the script with Duncan [Jones, the director], and giving it a little more humor in the beginning, and really working out the differences between the clones ahead of time—working on that with my acting coach and my friend Yule, and reading it out loud. You pretty much rehearse it like a play, which was the only way to be prepared. I had to play both parts, obviously, so that was a lot of work.


AVC: It must be difficult playing against yourself. Did you have a stand-in?

SR: You sometimes act with a tennis ball on a stand or there’s an acting double who would switch parts. And the makeup was very important. I find makeup very, very important in these kinds of roles. Wardrobe too. We had to make one of the clones very sick, and look like he’s dying, and we had to make one of the clones very healthy and physically fit. So we did tricks with the wardrobe and all kinds of very subtle things. Something I was watching quite a bit during the filming was Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons. I watched the DVD extras, the making-of, and the commentary. That was very helpful. Then I watched different buddy movies. My acting coach suggested that I watch Midnight Cowboy for, like, the 40th time. So I watched that. And I was kind of stealing a lot of it from Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Ratso, who’s getting sicker and sicker. Inevitably I think I was stealing from Jon Voight as well. It was interesting. I mean, any kind of buddy movie was helpful for that. Midnight Run or Thelma & Louise, because they’re really buddy movies, in a sense.


What Jeremy Irons brought in Dead Ringers is different energies, contrasting energies, and I realized if I did the same, you could differentiate the clones, because they’re not that physically different. We played around with the idea of a wig and a fake beard for one of them, but I just didn’t want to do that. First of all, it’d look fake. I finally talked Duncan out of it, and we went with very simple makeup and hair and wardrobe. I asked him to really trust my acting. He was afraid the audience would be confused. So it took a while to convince him, but I think when we tried the fake wig he realized it was just going to look cheesy.

The Way Way Back (2013)—“Owen”
AVC: When talking about your work in this movie, a lot of critics have brought up Bill Murray.


SR: Obviously, the relationship with the kid and the guy is like Meatballs, and a bit like Bustin’ Loose with Richard Pryor. Or Walter Matthau in The Bad News Bears. There’s a bunch of nods to those movies from the ’80s. So Bill Murray was high on the radar there. A lot of stealing. Basically, I steal quite a bit.


Seven Psychopaths (2012)—“Billy”
SR: I watched the documentary Grizzly Man. Timothy Treadwell has a rant with the park rangers; he’s kind of ranting about how angry he is at one point in the film. Then he’ll switch. All of a sudden he’ll be very loving and timid with a fox or a bear. So there was this erratic behavior that was helpful. And then also watching great performances, like Kathy Bates in Misery was really helpful.


AVC: Billy is a fast talker. You seem to play a lot of those.

SR: Yeah, I do. It’s weird. Me and Vince Vaughn. Yeah, Vince is really good at that. I’ve stolen some stuff from Vince. Everything’s been done. Everything’s derivative. I thought the relationship between me and Colin Farrell in Seven Psychopaths was very similar to the relationship between Chazz Palminteri and Sean Penn in Hurlyburly.


AVC: Farrell is like the superego of Seven Psychopaths, and you’re the id.

SR: He’s the truth-sayer, you know? Martin [McDonagh, the director] likes to have a truth-sayer in his material. A lot of playwrights do. You could say Owen is the truth-sayer of The Way Way Back. Like Mercutio in Romeo And Juliet or something.

Iron Man 2 (2010)—“Justin Hammer”
AVC: When you’re doing a big franchise picture like Iron Man 2, how much freedom did you have to play with the character?


SR: Well, I was lucky on Iron Man 2 because I had Justin Theroux, who had written the script. And he’s a friend of mine. We had done theater in Williamstown. So he talked to Jon Favreau, and Jon and I know each other, and they kind of discussed the idea of splitting the villain into two characters. There wasn’t really a full script written when I agreed to do it, so I had to trust that Justin and Jon were going to be able to guide me through that. Because the script kept changing! I wore an earpiece at one point because we wrote a speech at lunch. So it was intense, but very dialogue-driven, very actor-friendly. For an action movie, I did a lot of acting in that. Favreau was great and Justin was fantastic, and so between the two of them, we’ve managed to figure it out. I’m really proud of that character. It’s kind of a version of Lex Luthor. And I remember watching Bill Murray in Kingpin for that. Again, stealing from Bill Murray.

AVC: There’s definitely a strong element of comedy in your character’s relationship with the other villain, Mickey Rourke.


SR: Yeah, I compare it to Young Frankenstein. I was Gene Wilder and he was Peter Boyle, the monster.

AVC: Hammer is like Tony Stark if he had no sense of moral responsibility.

SR: Yes, that’s exactly right. At one point, Jon had called me about possibility screen-testing for the part of Tony Stark in Iron Man. And whatever happened, I think I was out of the running. Robert [Downey Jr.] just killed it, you know, and I never heard anything after that. So in a way, I think Jon was basically saying, “This is your chance to be Tony Stark. This will be your version of Tony Stark.” We gave him the glasses and kind of sleazed him up a little. But that’s exactly right. It was a chance to do Tony Stark.

The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)—“Charley Ford” 
SR: I met some good friends on that movie. Paul Schneider, Jeremy Renner, Garret Dillahunt, Casey [Affleck], Brad [Pitt]. We had a great time. We all wanted Casey’s part. That’s the truth of it: Everyone auditioned for Casey’s part, and then we settled for the other parts. I turned down Charley Ford several times. There’s a story about what happened with that, but it’s a long story. You could ask Andrew Dominik or Brad Pitt about it. But there’s an audition tape for Jeremy Renner and me. Then I finally came to realize that Charley Ford was a good part. It’s like when you have a crush on a girl, Roberta. You love Roberta, and they keep saying, “Well, you know, Roberta’s not available, but this girl Sandra, she really likes you, man.” And you’re like, “I don’t like Sandra, I like Roberta.” It takes a while to readjust your brain a little bit and sort of fall in love with Sandra.


But when we finally committed to that and everybody was on board—I think I missed the horse camp because I came late—it was like the Wild West. It was just crazy, very disorganized, but somehow it came together. It became this magical movie. I really do think it’s a fabulous movie. But we had Sam Shepard with a potato sack on his head at 5 in the morning. And he finally was like, “I’ve got to go home!” It could have been anybody under that sack. It got a little haphazard, as movies do sometimes. But when we got to the acting scenes, it became really fun. Casey and I really bonded on that film; he’s, of course, fantastic in the movie. So it came together with a great cast, and Roger Deakins is probably the greatest living D.P. on the planet. Arguably. Brad is just fantastic in that movie. He didn’t get the credit he deserves for that.

AVC: It might be the best acting he’s ever done.

SR: Yeah, he’s incredible. I’m a huge Western fan. I love The Long Riders, the Walter Hill film. I don’t know if you know that movie.


AVC: I’ve never seen it.

SR: Oh, you’ve got to see that. The Long Riders is about Jesse James, and it’s all real brothers playing the brothers. It’s Dennis Quaid with his brother, Randy Quaid. James and Stacy Keach play the James brothers. Christopher Guest is in it with his brother. It’s directed by Walter Hill. He’s pre-Tarantino, you know what I mean? Slow-motion violence. You’ve got to see that movie, it’s a great Western. Just fantastic.

Celebrity (1998)—“Darrow Entourage”
AVC: What was it like working with Woody Allen?


SR: Well, he was really nice. And [Leonardo] DiCaprio was awesome. DiCaprio was just a kid. I guess I was, too. Michael Imperioli dropped out of that. He was supposed to play my part, and he dropped out to do a little TV pilot called The Sopranos. Which led nowhere, by the way. So he lost on that. And they said, “Well, you’ve got to dye your hair for this.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? This is a nothing part, I’m not going to dye my hair.” They said, “Woody wants you to dye your hair. Michael Imperioli was going to dye his hair.” I was like, “I’m not Michael!” And they finally talked me into dying my hair, and then I had a lot of fun doing it. It was fun to work with Woody Allen. We were in Manhattan, and we went up to Atlantic City at some point, and me and DiCaprio were in the back of some van sleeping, coming back from Atlantic City. It was cool. It was a cool thing to do.

There’s a guy from Entourage, Adrian what’s his name [Grenier], was in the movie. And I had some amazing wardrobe. Actually when I met Chris Walken on the play we did together, A Behanding In Spokane, he said—[Switches into a Walken impression.]—“You know, I really liked you in that movie Celebrity. I like the way you were walking.” I said, “You’re kidding me, right? I’m barely in that movie. If you blink, you’re going to miss me.” He was like, “No, I really liked it, it was very specific. I liked how you were walking. I liked your clothes.” And I was like, “There’s no way he remembers me from that movie.” But he did. He’s not kidding, he’s serious. He remembers shit like that. In fact, there was a scene that was cut on an airplane with Kenneth Branagh, who’s also very nice. We had this great scene on an airplane, on a private jet, where we’re sort of terrorizing Kenneth Branagh. It was a pretty funny scene. I wonder if that’s on the DVD extras or something.