For over two decades Sam Rockwell has been blazing a trail through a huge range of films with eccentric and ever-cool style. Ian Parker talks influences and dance moves with an actor who is truly one of a kind
Christopher Walken first noticed Sam Rockwell about 15 years ago, when he watched Woody Allen’s Celebrity; Rockwell played a loose-hipped, bleach-haired member of Leo DiCaprio’s entourage. “I don’t think he had a lot to say,” Walken said, when I called him about Rockwell a few weeks ago. “But you couldn’t keep your eyes off him.” A decade or so later, after Rockwell had appeared in The Green Mile, Frost/Nixon and Moon, and after fans had begun to compile YouTube anthologies of his on-screen dances – as people had also done for Walken – the two actors met. They were working together in the Broadway run of Martin McDonagh’s A Beheading in Spokane. They talked every night, in the theatre’s basement, at a point midway through the play when Rockwell was waiting to go on stage, and Walken had just come off. And Walken found himself breaking his usual work habits. “All my life, with the theatre and movies, I tend to finish up and go home, and there’s not a lot of socialising,” he said. (Walken lives in Connecticut, does not own a mobile phone, and delivers the phrase “making an appointment to have a drink” as if describing an anthropological mystery.) “But Sam and I would go out after the show and eat something. And see people. And he and I became friends.” Walken sounded quietly amazed. “I’m so much older than he is, and I’ve never had kids, but if I had a son I wouldn’t mind him being Sam.”
Rockwell, who is now 45 – and, in his view, only “just starting to look like a grown-ass man, rather than a boy-man” – is known, like Walken, for surprising, complicated performances that, even when quite serious, seem to be built on the foundation of sure comic instincts. He shares a large loft apartment in Manhattan’s East Village, with Leslie Bibb, the actress – Will Ferrell’s wife in Talladega Nights – but their home’s embellishments seem to be largely his. On a recent freezing afternoon, he drew my attention to a signed doll of Christopher Walken, wearing a dark suit; a model of the alien from Alien; a Silver Bear, presented at the 2003 Berlin International Film Festival for his performance in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, directed by George Clooney; and a catalogue of art works by his mother that recall a period in her life when she came to believe that electrical plugs were crawling creatures with evil intent. On the wall, there were two paintings that showed Rockwell as a forlorn-looking toddler; in one he is seen with his father, and in another with his mother.
Rockwell is quite slight, with unruly hair, a narrow pointed face, and a lot of space between his nose and his mouth: directors can choose to think of him as a weasel or a charmer. His manner, in person as in his movies, is at once affable and self-contained, if not quite melancholy. We had coffee and eggs in a cafe on First Avenue, a block or two from his home. He had just returned from shooting a remake of Poltergeist, in Toronto, for which – after torturing himself over the decision – he had turned down a smaller part in a remake of Annie, starring Jamie Foxx and Cameron Diaz. That part went to Bobby Cannavale, and Rockwell had been torturing himself all over again, thinking of Cannavale in New York, awash with comforts, while he, in Canada, was “in the freezing cold, in ectoplasmic goo.”
In the cafe, he ate his eggs quickly, holding his fork very far from its prongs. “This place has good luck for me,” he said, pointing to a table near the door. That is where he had his first ever conversation with Duncan Jones, who directed Moon, the deft, low-budget 2009 film in which Rockwell played two versions of the same lunar-mining technician, a performance that caused admirers to create online Oscar-nomination petitions. This is the film that people almost always mention when they approach him in public. (“It’s funny, because people will say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad not a lot of people saw it.’ Actually, a lot of people saw it.”)
At that first meeting, Jones, the son of David Bowie, tried to interest him in playing the part of a child molester. When Rockwell declined, the conversation turned to science fiction. “We talked about the acting in movies like Alien, Outland, 2001. The acting was very realistic, almost in a John Cassavetes way. When the monster came in, you believed it. We talked about wanting to do a working-class character in space. Almost like a cowboy in space, or a plumber…” The film they eventually made, Rockwell said, involved “a little stealing from Dustin Hoffman, in Midnight Cowboy” – for Rockwell’s coughing descent into sickness – and a close study of Jeremy Irons’ work in Dead Ringers. “And we were ripping off Ridley Scott. Literally ripping him off.” This is how Rockwell likes to talk about his work: he referred to his performance in The Way Way Back, the sweet, soft-hearted independent comedy in which he starred last year, with talk of Walter Matthau and Bill Murray. “If you watch Meatballs and you watch The Way Way Back, you see a lot of theft.”
Rockwell read a text message on an old flip-out phone. “My friends might bum-rush us for a second,” he said. There had been some miscommunication about time and place. “One is a Ninja Turtle, by the way.” Leif Tilden, who played Donatello in the live-action movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1990, is a friend. Rockwell played a thug in the same film.
Rockwell was then in his early 20s and had recently moved back to the East Coast after being brought up by his father in San Francisco. Until he was five, Rockwell lived with both parents in New York, partly in Harlem. They were then actors. They separated in circumstances suggested by the note that Penny Rockwell attached to Plugs, her 2009 art exhibition. She wrote “Thirty years ago I had a psychotic break. I became convinced that any plug I inserted into an electrical outlet would burst into flames. I had to unplug all the plugs in my apartment. Then I had to cut the plug from the fixture, soak it in water, and put it in the cupboard. Then I had to nail the cupboard shut. In the middle of the night, my two-year-old son would scream and cry as I stuffed cut-up plugs into his closet and dresser drawers, and then nailed them shut. I had to nail all the windows and doors to the apartment shut because otherwise the plugs would crawl in. I saw plugs on the legs of cockroaches and water bugs. I timed how long it took me to make the apartment safe. By the end, it took me seven hours. My husband divorced me and took my son to California, where he raised him.” For a while, she was a psychiatric patient at Bellevue Hospital. “I had the plugs for ten years. I was on medication, and seeing a psychiatrist. Little by little, the plugs went away. I want my son to forgive me. So I drew this book.”
Rockwell, who has said that he does not intend to have children of his own, is on good terms with his mother. “She couldn’t handle having a kid, so we went. That stuff’s resolved, between me and her,” he said. “My mother hates acting now. She’s a painter. She was brilliant but she never liked it. She was a genius – she was like Lily Tomlin, Tracey Ullman – but she didn’t like the anxiety.” His father, after moving to San Francisco, had to abandon acting and “get a real job: so he was a postman, he was a taxi driver, he was a union organizer. He finally became a printer.” His mother stayed in New York, and he’d visit her in the summers, and sometimes perform with her on stage. “It was a kind of crazy life for a kid. You know, with crazy artists. I was doing plays with grown people, big-titted women. I smoked pot when I was too young to smoke pot.” He laughed. “I was too young! I don’t want to talk about it!”
At the end of each summer, Rockwell would fly back to San Francisco, “where I had curfews and boundaries and I had to do chores. So it fucked with me a little bit, I got a little rebellious, and I’d shoplift and get in trouble. My dad was very forgiving, but it was hard on him. It was hard on him.” Pete Rockwell, now retired, reads scripts sent to his son.
“I had to make friends, because we moved around a lot. It was just me and him for a while, and we lived in some sketchy neighbourhoods.” He went on: “Being an only child, being a latchkey kid, and you’ve got to make your own lunch, and your dad’s at work after school – when you go and see a movie like Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy, or Cuckoo’s Nest: those movies had a big effect on me. Taxi Driver I got in a very visceral way. Even though I didn’t really know what was going on, I knew what was going on. I wasn’t book-smart, but I was emotionally accessible to movies like that.” For an actor who is so good at representing sociability – listening, laughing at a joke – Rockwell has, in movies like Moon, Lawn Dogs, and A Single Shot, played a lot of isolated misfits.
Despite the petitions, Rockwell did not receive an Oscar nomination for Moon. And the film actors with whom he feels aligned, and against whom, at times, he is competing for parts – Ethan Hawke, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, “and sometimes they’ll come to me after they’ve gone to Woody Harrelson” – have better awards records. (“The Oscar shit would be cool,” Rockwell acknowledged, adding, “I presented at the Golden Globes once.”) While he has often brought nuance, and life, to imperfect films – George Clooney, in a recent e-mail, told me that Rockwell “makes everything he’s in better” – he has less often found himself in a big critical hit.
This may be unlucky, but an underdog reputation can enhance audience loyalty. Clooney, referring to Rockwell’s performance as a criminal psychopath in The Green Mile, said, “Show me any other actor who could spit on Tom Hanks and not be hated.” Rockwell has observed this allegiance, and thinks he saw something similar during the earlier career of Jeff Bridges.
“I don’t really understand why I still have some street cred, because I’ve sold out a couple of times.” He laughed and corrected himself: “I’ve made some commercial movies. It’s not like I’m loyal to the indie world, I’ve done, whatever, Charlie’s Angels.” (On that film, energised by a fear of humiliation, Rockwell helped to engineer a radical revision of his own part, and pressed for other changes – although his suggestion that Lucy Liu’s character should be a lesbian was not taken up. He sought advice on villainy from Alan Rickman, and he called Kevin Spacey to ask how he should deliver an uninspiring line, at a moment just before he fires a gun at Drew Barrymore. “He called me back. He said, ‘I’m driving in the desert, I figured it out. Put the gun to your head as you say the line, and then shoot her.’” Rockwell did exactly this.)
His suspicion is that casting directors think of him as “too weird, too quirky. They don’t know anything until you do it. Josh Brolin was having a hard time getting arrested before No Country for Old Men. I auditioned for that part. He was fantastic. And all of a sudden, he’s this leading-man tough-guy.” Directors expect actors to repeat previous performances, Rockwell said. “I’ve been boxing for 20 years, but nobody knows that.” He added: “Not to say that I’m a good boxer. When I spar it’s very light. I’m a pussy, a sissy actor. But I do know how to throw a combination.”
This skill is not quite unknown: Rockwell has had discussions about a movie based on the life of Billy Miske, the Saint Paul Thunderbolt, a Minnesota-born boxer whose career’s end, in 1923, was shaped as if for a screenplay: kidney disease, one last fight, a purse to pay for Christmas. “I’ll have to get into shape, which is going to suck, it’s going to really suck.” He added: “I’ve got to take my hat off to Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey for getting that fucking skinny” – to make Dallas Buyers Club. “I don’t know if I could do that. I don’t know if I care that much about acting.”
Rockwell called his friends – “Ok, man. Ok, buddy.” – and arranged to meet them in his apartment. They were going to see Waiting For Godot on Broadway. We walked up First Avenue. He said that he learned to dance in middle school in San Francisco. “I used to get beat up by the white kids, so I became friends with a guy named Leroy and a guy named Charles, two African-American kids. Leroy Price was an athlete. He was a tough guy. The girls liked him. We were in choir class and we used to smoke pot together, and we started hanging out. And I’d go to the dances. I started getting into the break-dancing; it was just a way to meet girls, and in particular black girls. Back then I did more strutting and popping, Michael Jackson and ‘Thriller’, Prince and ‘Purple Rain’.” Today, there’s more James Brown. “To be really honest, I’m not that good, I’m kind of faking it.”
Leslie Bibb, his girlfriend, teases him about the onscreen dancing. “She’s like, ‘Again with the fucking dancing in the movie? Are you going to take a break?’ I didn’t dance in Poltergeist. That’s probably progress for me. I’m a big ham. Me and Chris Walken, we’re big hams. We love to dance.”
At the apartment, Leif Tilden came by, and another friend with a hangover. They asked after Rockwell’s mother: “When are we going to see Penny?” Rockwell found an old box of stills from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. “There’s Julia Roberts licking my face,” he said. Tilden, deadpan, asked, “You were in Confessions?” Among the stills was the headshot of a young actress. Rockwell sighed. “I was single back then. Oh yes, she was lovely. Actually, I think I hit on her and she turned me down.” Tilden flipped the photo over, to reveal a fond message – and a whimsically composed e-mail address – that challenged Rockwell’s memory.
Before he went out to the theatre, Rockwell showed me a few family photographs. “Here’s my mom and dad,” he said. “And that’s me, and that’s me and my dog. They took my dog away from me. This is in Harlem. I look like the kid from Kramer vs. Kramer.”