One and a half continents, an ocean, a delay on the phone line, and an overzealous timekeeper conspire to make a conversation with Sam Rockwell less the loose, easygoing exchange you imagine it would be if you were speaking with him in person. It’s a testament to Rockwell that his charm survives intact, just as it usually does whether he’s playing psychos, racists, a Nazi or, a Ku Klux Klansman—the latest additions to his repertoire—or the man who was, until recently, widely reviled as the worst president America’s had in the last 50 years. History teaches us there’s always something worse around the corner, and George W. Bush now looks positively prelapsarian. That’s equally a lie, of course, but Rockwell’s portrayal of him in Adam McKay’s Vice instinctively isolates the man’s charm—which so infuriated his enemies—while perfectly conjuring his incompetence. Was Bush really Dick Cheney’s patsy, as he appears in the film? “I saw him as someone who was just in over his head.” That’s Rockwell’s read.
“It’s daunting playing someone that famous,” he continues, “because everyone has an opinion on how he talks. And he’s still alive, and it’s scary to do that because so many other people have done it so well already. But Bush has an Elvis Presley thing with his lips, and that was the key for me. And not getting his voice too much in the throat, trying to get it more in the diaphragm, and keep the impression loose so it’s free and not just an imitation.” It’s what actors do, living and breathing their subjects in the name of research, so I don’t know why I should be surprised to hear Rockwell defining the technical process that shapes his character. I guess it’s because his performances always translate as so winningly effortless. Not so easygoing then? “No, I wish I was,” he says. “But a good actor is usually pretty neurotic.” So that’s acting with a capital A for you.
And then there’s the Dubya-as-Elvis thing, the insight that instantly illuminates Rockwell’s portrayal. How many people who hated Bush’s charm were also unhinged by the fact that he could also come across as…gasp!…sexy? “Well, he was very fit,” Rockwell muses. “He could run an eight-point mile a minute or whatever that is at a pretty good clip. He was in shape. But me, I was very taken by his charm, especially after he was president. That’s really all I could tell you about that.”
That seems to be Rockwell’s usual way into the roles he chooses, which must be useful given his claim that he is drawn to anti-heroes. “Taxi Driver, Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Badlands, Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home, Mean Streets, Silkwood…these are the characters I grew up on, American cinema in the ’70s. They’re all conflicted anti-heroes.” That’s practically his stock role: a man who is morally compromised but lovable just the same.
Rockwell didn’t consider Bush an anti-hero. “No, that’s Frances McDormand’s character in Three Billboards, or Dixon…” Jason Dixon is the character he portrayed in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that won him an Oscar and a shelf-load of other gongs. It’s quintessential Sam: the guy you love to hate turning into the guy you hate to love turning into the guy you love and want all good things in life for. “Which is a tribute to Martin McDonagh, one of the greatest writers and directors we have right now. Dixon had to be goofy and to also be quite formidable and dangerous at the same time. It was a bit of a magic trick.”
There’s method in the madness. “You have to like the character you’re playing in some shape or form,” says Rockwell. His award-garlanded skill is making an audience like them too. I think the word is “redemption,” the light at the end of the darkest tunnel. “Yeah, I’ve been told that,” he says. “It’s fun for an actor to explore redemption, because it’s dramatic and cathartic.”
Two upcoming roles will surely test that notion to the max. In The Best of Enemies, Rockwell plays C. P. Ellis, exalted cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, who confronted the civil rights activist Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson) over school integration in Durham, North Carolina, in 1971. The Black Lives Matter movement was intensifying right before filming started. “It was an important story to tell for that reason,” says Rockwell. “It’s a tough story, but a beautiful relationship blooms between these two people.” And he admits yes, there’s catharsis.
Ellis is the latest in his long line of “racist rednecks.” Rockwell once joked to the New York Times, “I’ve really got to play some lawyers, or a British aristocrat, or they’ll put a label on me.” In Jojo Rabbit, his other upcoming movie, he does, in fact, defy the label—by playing a Nazi! “But Captain Klenzendorf is not just a straight-down-the-line Nazi,” Rockwell adds quickly. Anything straight-down-the-line is unlikely when the Maori director Taika Waititi is involved—Waititi wrote and directed Jojo Rabbit, and previously spun superhero comedy gold out of Thor: Ragnarok (and is playing Hitler in Jojo Rabbit!). “It’s an amazing script, it’s way out there,” Rockwell adds, “and it’ll be interesting to see how people relate to it.”
A decade ago, critic Roger Ebert wrote of Rockwell, “He’s your go-to guy for weirdness.” Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum went further, remarking that he was “destined by a kind of excessive interestingness to forever be a colorful sidekick.” We should all be blessed with such a destiny. Fact is, the kind of tricky, conflicted men that Rockwell specializes in are often the characters who stay with you. I’m sure every Rockwell fan has a favorite. I’ll go back to Galaxy Quest, Matchstick Men, and The Way, Way Back on a regular basis. Makes me wonder if any of those guys have stayed particularly close to Rockwell’s own heart.
“The Way, Way Back is basically me if I was cooler, and had a Hawaiian shirt and a tan,” he says. “Dixon is dear to my heart. The guy in Snow Angels. Often when you do this type of character, you just want to bury them. But a lot of characters I’ve done onstage, I’d like to do a version on film. I played Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar, I’d like to do that on film, not literally that character but a version. Or Fool for Love, the rodeo cowboy. I did that on Broadway.” Has he ever fancied going back and finding out what happened to any of the men he sealed on celluloid? “The guy in The Way, Way Back? That would be cool. The character in Box of Moonlight? I’d love to see what happened to that guy after 20 years. There’s a movie called Safe Men which I think could have a great sequel.” Rockwell played a lounge singer mistaken for a safecracker in Safe Men. I know I’d like to find out what happened next.
The afterlife of Rockwell’s movies is thesis-worthy. “It’s a good thing for an actor,” he acknowledges. Like an album that doesn’t go Top Ten at the time of its release but steadily sells platinum over time, Galaxy Quest, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have acquired substantial followings. Keep on following that route and you enter this shadowland between character actor and star. Rockwell just turned 50. His latest anti-hero is dance legend Bob Fosse. It’s a star role. He and Michele Williams are playing four decades in the lives of Fosse and his muse/wife Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon, a miniseries for FX. “It’s very challenging, there is a lot of hair and makeup…and a little dancing.” Rockwell’s quite the mover. You can see the proof on YouTube, in a video titled “Sam Rockwell: Dancing Machine.” But Fosse is something else. “I’ve learned that I’m not as good as I thought I was. I’m not a trained dancer, it’s a whole thing. I’ve got some of the vocabulary for Fosse. I can see the roots of Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, Usher and Justin Timberlake. They’re big Fosse fans. He himself wanted to be the next Fred Astaire.”
Roy Scheider played a version of Fosse in All That Jazz, which casts the character as someone primed for the Rockwell playbook: intensity edging towards unlikability shading into cut-him-some-slack. “You watch Fosse in interviews, he had an easygoing veneer,” says Rockwell. “He’s charming.” That’s starting to sound like his own safe word, especially because his own charm is so indisputable. But Fosse burned himself up with his own volatility, and there’s often a similar sense of simmering unpredictability in Rockwell’s work. Do we need to worry about him? “What qualifies as unpredictable?” he counters. “I’m probably a little eccentric in that I grew up not unlike Chris Walken and Bob Fosse in the entertainment business a little bit. I grew up around theater and showbiz people, and when you’re brought up in a circus life, it makes you a little off-center. But if you talk to my girlfriend, I’m probably pretty predictable.”
Or maybe his predictability is like his inclination to optimism. It depends on the day. And those are the days that Oscar will be waiting for.
PHOTOGRAPHS ROE ETHRIDGE
FASHION CLARE BYRNE
GROOMING ANDREW COLVIN
HAIR EVANIE FRAUSTO USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE
SET DESIGN DANIELLE SELIG
PRODUCTION HEN’S TOOTH PRODUCTIONS
LOCATION ROOT NYC
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