Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in the second installment of the Iron Man franchise.
Ten years on from his show-stopping performance as a moonwalking maniac in the original Charlie’s Angels movie Sam Rockwell returns to his roots with two familiar roles–one evil and the other innocent–strikingly similar to those that made him a star. In next month’s Iron Man 2—playing what he calls “a cousin” to his Charlie’s hooligan—he again turns in a hot ember of stylized villainy in a blockbuster franchise, while presently he treads the Broadway boards as a simpleton hotel employee in Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane at The Schoenfeld Theatre. These are signature pieces, both of them, which fit snuggly into the Rockwell oeuvre if you will, and, according to him, make up the meat of his métier. “I think that I have made a reputation playing baddies,” he says. “But, also nymphs, you know, kinda innocents—characters that were really childlike.” He mentions a few of his movies that are in accord with this template, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Safe Men, to which we could also add Welcome to Collinwood (innocent), Galaxy Quest (innocent), and certainly The Assassination of Jesse James (innocent again). “But then there is The Green Mile,” he says, of the Stephen King-penned tale set in a death row prison, and his crazed convict character ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton, “he’s more of a rascal.”
Understatement notwithstanding, that brings us to the next tier of Rockwell’s career—the outlaw eccentric—something he first authored in The Green Mile, but which, in 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, as Chuck Barris’s (perhaps) fantasy self, rocketed him into a new echelon of film actor. Somewhere during the filming of that movie, under the direction of George Clooney on a highly touted Charlie Kaufman script, Sam Rockwell became a movie star. Witness the gritty, tough independent movies Choke and Moon he made subsequently. Even for all their heavy material and sensitive subject matter, they are patently star vehicles, albeit short of iron men or anything transforming. “I don’t really know what a movie star is any more,” he says, in casual protest. “I think a movie star is someone who is financially viable, so I guess I’m an independent film movie star, not a Tom Cruise movie star.” If by this he means not cartwheeling on sofas and mucking up the tabloids, we have to agree and confoundedly hand it to him. Yes, even though he dates a beautiful young actress (Leslie Bibb) the man keeps a low-ass profile. He’s not at the Laker games with Leo or even highballing with Clooney on page six and that goes a long way toward creating leeway for his on-screen mutability. But, if he means he’s not redlining it as hard as Maverick in every scene, we beg to differ. There is paint blistering in the background when he’s doing his thing and, clearly, when studio heads hire him now for a gig, they are buying in for the Rockwell brand. They want the searing Sam or the silly Sam. They want the baddie or the innocent and, let’s be honest, we do too. We wanna see Sammy dance.
But, he goes on, “I think of Phil Hoffman as a movie star—he’s amazing, he’s got an Oscar, you know?” Like Hoffman, Rockwell has that rare talent of so possessing a character you cannot even fathom another actor in the role. How does he do it? “I think there’s probably 30 actors who couldda played the part, you know, or maybe five, you never know. Everybody’s got some weird thing that they do—Chris Walken or Chris Cooper, or Phil. Everybody’s got some sorta stamp they put on it.” Whether it is an actor’s superstition or willful naiveté, Rockwell claims to have no grasp on his own ‘stamp,’ but offers to venture a guess. “I like to go for it, you know. I don’t like to pussyfoot around, don’t like to half-step, so to speak. Maybe that’s my MO.”
Actor/director Clark Gregg, when explaining why he chose Rockwell to play the sex addict with a god complex in his adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke, said that he had been so spellbound by a performance Rockwell gave in a play he couldn’t take his eyes off him—even though he too was in the show. Gregg cited Rockwell’s fearlessness and willingness to go all in and never repeat himself as reasons he cast him but Rockwell is quick to shirk the compliments. “I don’t know about that; I repeat myself a lot of the time,” he says, guiltily.
Rockwell’s fearlessness is displayed nowhere better than in Moon, a sci-fi mind-bender in which he is the only actor on screen the entire movie. What he describes as, “both a nightmare and a dream for an actor,” may be his most underappreciated performance to date. Rockwell plays several different manifestations of himself and, without giving anything away, breaks your heart, makes you laugh, and makes you shake your head in astonishment. “Yeah. Yeah, that was a blast,” he says, of the grassroots on-line Oscar campaign for his performance, which, though he doesn’t have a computer, he was made aware of.
So now, ten years in as a top-flight star, with at least one performance (Confessions) criminally neglected by Oscar behind him, what does Rockwell feel he’s missing? “There’s all kinds of stuff. I just did a reading of Streetcar Named Desire. That’s a part I’d love to play. I’d love to play Hamlet. I’d also like to play Darth Vader and Han Solo but those parts have already been taken.”
But in the meantime he’s keeping a cool head. “I’d just like to play some juicy parts. I bought an apartment for my mother last year. I have a mortgage on a beautiful loft. I’d like to buy an apartment for my Dad. I’d like to do more theatre, more often. The last play I did was seven years ago. Even if it’s in like Cleveland I’d like to do theatre more often in conjunction with films. But that’s really it. I don’t really have a goal—I just wanna keep working and changing and growing as an artist and trying to become a better actor and stuff like that.”
Wherever it takes him, we’ll be watching.
Rockwell with co-star Christopher Walken in A Behanding in Spokane at the Shoenfeld in New York.