Sam Jones: Hey folks, Sam Jones here. Welcome to another edition of Off Camera, the show where I get to talk to iconic, creative, curious artists and find out how they got this way. And in this episode I sit down with actor Sam Rockwell. Back in 1998 the New York Times ran a profile of up and coming actor Sam Rockwell, who had three films at Sundance that year.
Sam Jones: The headline called them a one man gallery of rogues, crooks and odd balls. Not many years later, critics calls for award nominations began. His performance in Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri might actually answer those calls. In it he plays a small-town cop who’s kind of funny, a bit dumb, and then maybe unhinged and possibly quite dangerous.
Sam Jones: He says that alarming transformation is exactly what drove him to her role. He might have otherwise turned down. Sam grew up in an acting family and went to a performing arts high school, but says he was more interested in pot and girls than acting. When finally moved to New York to make a career of it. He learned just how much he didn’t know.
Sam Jones: Thanks to a Two Year Meisner program and demanding acting coaches, Sam developed a studious technical approach that you never suspect in watching his loose performances. The cliché of an actor’s actor truly applies here. And I think that’s why so much of his work stands the test of time. Go back and watch Box of Moonlight, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and especially Moon, and you’ll see what I mean.
Sam Jones: Sam’s an actor who makes me nostalgic for the kind of films and actors we rarely see anymore. When being a leading man, didn’t require a modeling background or more muscles than depth. In this episode, Sam explains why it took George Clooney and a golf club for him to get his first big lead in a studio film. He also breaks down the technique behind some of his favorite roles and talks about the screen moments he’d redo if he could.
Sam Jones: You’ll also hear why Robert Duvall is the guy, and the importance of knowing just what kind of sick you are. So pull up a chair and listen in. Hey Sam.
Sam Rockwell: Hey Sam.
Sam Jones: Thanks for doing this.
Sam Rockwell: Thanks for having me.
Sam Jones: Well, I’ve wanted to have you on here for a long time. As a matter of fact I think I saw Moon in 2009 and I wanted to have you on the show even then, although I didn’t have a show then and now you’ve made this film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, which is a mouthful.
Sam Rockwell: It is a mouthful.
Sam Jones: Tell somebody about that title. But no, it’s this incredible film about a woman who erects some billboards in town to try to spur the police department into looking into the death of her daughter. And you play this really like not too smart, racist, ozark area cop, right?
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: And I got to thinking that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you play a cop.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, I never played a cop and I played a cop in a movie. I did Law and Order. I did a cop once, but that’s about it. So this was really exciting for me. It’s kind of a red herring to the audience. You’d think it’s the comic relief, perhaps a benign villain or something, but you know, and then it turns into something else that’s so much more interesting, you know.
Sam Jones: Now when you say it’s like a red herring, is that also a way in for you in terms of, “Oh, I can use the audience and I can play that up a little bit so that when he has his turn it can be more impactful?”
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely. I mean, I joked at the arc of it is Barney fife turns into Travis Bickle, and that’s a simplification. I mean, it was written that way and the trick I think is that he’s got to be goofy, but he has to also be dangerous. So you have to tow that line. And I went to southern Missouri and did some research, I went did some ride alongs with some cops and did a ride along with a cop here in LA.
Sam Rockwell: And that was really helpful. So we had some, excuse me, we had some discussions about the haircut, and sort of more superficial things like the sunglasses and stuff and got some tidbits. Got a couple … had this officer Josh McAllen taped my lines in a tape recorder.
Sam Rockwell: In fact, my dialect coach Louis Himmelstein found one cop and he wasn’t quite right, he didn’t really have enough of a dialect and Martin didn’t want too much of a twang, but I want to do a little bit so we had to have the right amount, so we taped this one cop and he just didn’t have enough of a twang so I said to Liz, I said, “I’m really sorry, because we spent like two hours taping this guy. I think we’ve got to find another cop.”
Sam Rockwell: So she found this Guy Josh McAllen, and he was perfect, and we taped him and then I liked-
Sam Jones: I have to stop you that’s fascinating. So you actually gave him the script and let him read your lines?
Sam Rockwell: Yes I did that with Chuck Barris too. I did.
Sam Jones: You did?
Sam Rockwell: Yes, I do that all the time and Liz has found me so many great people. She found me a cowboy in Arizona when I did Fool for Love.
Sam Jones: I would think that when you have to take on an accent, it’s one part of the puzzle, right? Like obviously there’s other things you have to do, but the accent seems like the surface, like you have to have that, right?
Sam Rockwell: You have to have that right. It’s almost like a separate job.
Sam Jones: Now do you get anything else off that tape other than just the accent?
Sam Rockwell: Oh certainly. Yes. You get ad-libs. I remember getting Chuck Barris to do ad-libs. Like what would you say? You know, Mr Charlie Kaufman scripts. You don’t want to mess with it too much. It’s just like, this is a Martin McDonagh script. But Martin welcomed a couple of changes. He was okay with a couple of things. Instead of the the county jail, Josh said the clink and Martin liked that so we kept that.
Sam Rockwell: And then he sits that was a line he said he just didn’t voluntarily. Josh said, “Just get out of my ass.” And I really liked that. So I did that at one of the takes, to my fellow actors, Yoko Ivanek who was playing the other deputy. And so it worked. So you got to be careful with that stuff because you don’t want to ad-lib … it’s garnish to the main meal.
Sam Jones: That’s such an interesting and obviously easy way to do it, but I don’t know if that’s something that is widely known as a way-
Sam Rockwell: I know De Niro’s done it. I don’t know if he did it all the time, but I know he used to do it. I just think it’s a easy way to get the sound, you know.
Sam Jones: Well, in this film, this guy Jason Dixon is not smart. He’s sort of still unnaturally connected to his mother sort of co-dependent relationship there. And he has this reverence for his chief of police.
Sam Rockwell: Yes that’s right.
Sam Jones: Played by Woody Harrelson.
Sam Rockwell: That’s right.
Sam Jones: And what I’m curious about there is the accent is your surface, but how do you then go about, especially when it’s not someone you’ve grown up being around or someone that you can relate to, his belief system, whatever it is. Do you need to know that, like do you need to know his sort of history and why he still lives with his mother?
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely. I’m not a big backstory guy, but I do think he was probably maybe abused by his father somehow. And that was a rough relationship and he obviously has a very codependent thing with his mom, which was kind of like I think a little bit … although I don’t really know Coriolanus too well, but I think it’s similar to that or it’s weird.
Sam Rockwell: It’s got a little glass menagerie. So I piece it together. I have an acting coach that I work with. His name’s Terry Knickerbocker. And I met him, he was subbing for the class. I was in this Meisner class with a teacher named William Esper, who’s pretty much the Sanford Meisner protege on the East Coast and he is a two year program.
Sam Jones: Tell me in a few sentences how you would describe the Meisner technique.
Sam Rockwell: Well, it’s a very practical, shall we say vocabulary. And even, I wouldn’t say science, but it’s a way to break down a script into several acting problems that you then are able to solve. So there’s a two plus two equals four solution, you know, and I don’t think people … I think people think that acting is a mystical thing and it’s some kind of magic trick and to some extent it is.
Sam Rockwell: But I think there’s a technique to acting. Otherwise, anybody could do it and I think that there is something to be said for the craft of acting and studying that craft and doing theater and stuff. So for instance this whole thing about ad-libbing, actually paraphrasing is a legitimate rehearsal technique.
Sam Rockwell: And what I mean by that is that if you’re doing an audition for like the soap opera, young and the whatever or something, and you don’t like the script and you’re like having trouble, then what you can do is put it into your own words and take it off the page and say, “Well, what would you say?” to be or not to be? What would you say? “Well, I don’t know what to do? I want to fucking my mom’s fucking my uncle, or whatever you’d say.
Sam Rockwell: You’d feel like you put it in your own words, you know, I don’t know whether she killed me, slit my throat. So you then go back to the text and then you say the text and that’s paraphrasing. And that’s a legitimate rehearsal technique that was Meisner I guess came up with.
Sam Jones: So you learn how to have all the intentions behind your own words and you put those intentions into it.
Sam Rockwell: Exactly. And as if would be something. As if as a substitution or particularization where you go. Okay, you’re going to do this scene. You got to say, I was in a movie, I played a KKK guy and the guy comes next scene we series this actress says, “Well, that’s it. You know, our kids are going to that … they’re going to have black kids go to our school,” and I can’t really relate to that.
Sam Rockwell: But to me the director said, “You know, it’s as if your son has cancer.” So that’s a particularization, that’s the substitution or what we call an as if. It’s as if your son has cancer. So I don’t care. You know, I went to an interracial school me Sam, sure. So I can’t really relate to that. So that particularization that as if it’s helpful.
Sam Jones: Right. So you don’t have to do some magic trick of “I’m suddenly going to feel that way.”
Sam Rockwell: Yes, If I’m playing Hitler or a racist, I can’t all of a sudden be like, “I’m not going to become anti-Semitic or something.”
Sam Jones: But you know, what’s interesting about that to me is that, that reveals though that you still have to believe that it’s real. You’re just putting it an as if in.
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: For us as an audience to see it, you still have to find some way to believe.
Sam Rockwell: Yes find somewhere to personalize it. Yes. I’ve been saying this a lot lately. I talked with this X white supremacist, this guy Christian who now pulls people out of hate groups. I had a very brief conversation with him. He said “It’s not so much that you hate black people or Brown people if you’re a racist or a white supremacist that you hate yourself.”
Sam Rockwell: And that was really helpful when I was working on, on this part where I played a Ku Klux Klan guy, but it was also, I think I kind of knew that with Dixon as well, instinctively in this movie.
Sam Jones: Right in the Billboards movie because he’s also a racist.
Sam Rockwell: But he’s got incredible low self-esteem, and he lives with his mom and he’s kind of a loser. Nobody likes him in the town. He’s kind of a leper in the town because he supposedly tortured this black guy in custody. And so that’s something where he’s got a little bit of a Napoleonic complex and so you start with, “Well, how am I going to feel like that is …” I Guess Gene Hackman said something once.
Sam Rockwell: He said, “You start with what traits does the character have that I have that are similar?”
Sam Jones: Right.
Sam Rockwell: And you start from there, you go, “Well, I’m not a dangerous person necessarily, but we’re all capable of whatever.” And I think you just sort of start with that. What do I have in common with this guy?
Sam Jones: Or what could under the circumstances.
Sam Rockwell: What could I do under those imaginary circumstances?
Sam Jones: Right.
Sam Rockwell: Yes. If I were a cop in a small town and this was my reality, well, how would I deal with this?
Sam Jones: Using that as if, how do you dumb yourself down? You know, like there’s a scene in this new Billboards movie where Frances McDormand comes in and calls you a name and you respond to it.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, yes, yes.
Sam Jones: And Joe Keevonic and says, “Don’t answer when she calls you that.”
Sam Rockwell: Yes. Yes. Yes.
Sam Jones: And then there’s a little pause by you, like you’re trying to work that out, like it’s not immediately. It’s not even an immediate dumb guy. It’s like, now, wait a minute, let me see.
Sam Rockwell: Well, that’s interesting, I don’t think Dixon as dumb, but I think of him as … But I Sam can be a bit scattered or distracted sometimes and that you don’t … I think Christopher Walken said once, he said, “I’m not a dangerous guy, but because I maybe come from a Bohemian background or I was a theater kid or eccentricity sometimes equates as danger in front of the camera.” You know what I mean?
Sam Rockwell: So like my kind of absent-minded professor quality in real life, which I have a little bit. I sometimes have a delayed response to a question or something because I kind of have a vivid imagination. I kind of space out sometimes and I am often the kind of thinking about it I free associate and I’m thinking about other things.
Sam Rockwell: So if you say surfing, I’ll start thinking of Laird Hamilton, then I’ll think of my friend Brian Garrity. And then I’ll think, “Oh, I got to get a beer with Brian.” So I’m like off doing all these things. I think on camera I can accentuate that and it equates as kind of dumb or whatever or kind of absent minded and really that’s just me going, just really trying to process the moment, but just taking my time and it’s actually fairly authentic.
Sam Rockwell: I’m not really putting on … but you’re right, it’s hard to be an innocent or it’s a play that kind of Forrest Gump or like Tim Robbins and Bull Durham that’s not an easy thing to do, or what Tom Hanks did in Big I think is to be childlike is I think an extremely hard thing to do.
Sam Jones: What do you think that is? Because obviously Picasso’s famous quote is, “I spent my whole life trying to learn to draw like a child.” And I wonder what-
Sam Rockwell: That’s interesting.
Sam Jones: What quality or what work it takes to do that very thing you’re talking about.
Sam Rockwell: You know, my buddy Matt Ross, he says, “Having a kid,” you know, a young child toddler, “Is like hanging out with a drunk, crazy person.”
Sam Jones: It’s true.
Sam Rockwell: You know what I mean?
Sam Jones: Oh I am someone with three kids, it’s true.
Sam Rockwell: You know what I mean?
Sam Jones: It is literally like, aaaaaaaaaahhhh.
Sam Rockwell: Go to bed. Like go to bed.
Sam Jones: Ha, ha, ha, they’re like laugh and cry. Yes, go to bed. They’re like crazy.
Sam Rockwell: They’re not going to bed. They haven’t destroyed the whole house yet.
Sam Jones: So I mean that’s kind of what, when you do acting training, that’s sort of what they encourage you to access that side of yourself. Which is why I think it’s hilarious when people get sort of … people are sort of puzzled when actors have temper tantrums on a set or something. And I’m like, “What are you … what’s the big puzzle about” You hired an actor, you’re paying this person to basically be a child on camera. You think that’s not going to spill over into real life once in awhile.
Sam Rockwell: Just because someone arbitrarily says, cut, you’re going to transform into an adult like corporate executive.
Sam Jones: Yes. It’s like, exactly like all of a sudden we’ve got to be responsible now, we got to go like shake hands and it’s like, no, this is what we were trained to do. We’re trained to be like blublublu. And so I think it’s so funny when people are like, “Whoa, you got to be an adult.” And we yell cut. That’s not quite how it works, there’s a little spillover.
Sam Rockwell: I think I heard Jeff Bridges paces before … you know he has an emotional scene or something. I haven’t taken a umbrella and broke it over some rubber trash cans and I broke a chair. Then the last thing I did … you know, it was fine. Nobody cared. It who was in a room and it was an old chair, but I was trying to get it up for the scene and it was a heavy scene. And you can do what you got to do it.
Sam Jones: In other words, you’re just saying you can’t just turn that stuff on and off.
Sam Rockwell: I can’t. Some people can. I think the great late Phil Hoffman, who was a friend of mine, I think he could kind of … he had that volcano kind of simmering at all times. I think he paid a price for it too, but I’m not like that. I think maybe John Malkovich he could just kind of like explode. Maybe Gary Oldman, I got to have a few Espressos, work up and listen to some music, whatever, like do something.
Sam Jones: Do you think that watching yourself over the years you’ve learned from it or do you think sometimes that just like that thing of retaining or trying to retain a childlike quality. If it’s better not to know too much about … like if you got two good at observing yourself on the monitor or whatever, could you lose something or is that something that you can really take and learn from?
Sam Rockwell: When I watch something, if it’s good, I like it. If it’s not good, if I see a moment and missed opportunity, then that hurts a little bit. I go, “Oh, I should’ve done that.”
Sam Jones: That’s interesting.
Sam Rockwell: I could have lifted that moment up a little more or maybe that wasn’t full enough. That could have been a fuller moment, if I haven’t squeezed everything out of the scene then I’m not happy. I want to squeeze everything. That’s why I like a lot of time to prepare because I want to kind of marinate in it a little and give myself time because you know on a set, you don’t have the luxury. They don’t, you do 3, 4 takes now. The budgets they have now.
Sam Jones: Well that’s what’s crazy to me, and especially talking to someone like you who’s done a lot of theater. You get so much time to prepare and even when you’re up and live and running, you’re developing that character, but on a film you’re supposed to know exactly where you’re supposed to be emotionally at whatever page you’re on and you’re supposed to be able to get there and that’s supposed to be in concert with what’s going to happen later that you haven’t shot or what’s going to happen earlier. What’s the work that you have to do every time?
Sam Rockwell: I think it’s nonstop script and now you’ve got to keep going back to the script and kind of going over where am I coming from? Look at your notes. You got your notes in there.
Sam Jones: What kind of notes do you make?
Sam Rockwell: My notes look like a five year olds writing. I mean literally. Like sometimes I’ll have a happy face and literally like a sad face. I mean it’s so rudimentary.
Sam Jones: The secret of acting folks.
Sam Rockwell: I mean it’s so, this scene, me happy. Dude sometimes it’s as simple as that, because it’s often those faces will be on the opposite kind of scene too. Stanislavski has a thing called opposites where … So Chris Walken is a master of that, where he takes all the punctuation out and he will take a line. Like when you watch Biloxi Blues, I read the play once out loud with some friends and I read the sergeant that Chris Walken part.
Sam Rockwell: And if you read the Broadway play, that first speech that he has, where he’s talking all the soldiers, it has nothing but exclamation points throughout the whole written speech. Written with Nielsen wrote exclamation points. 10-hot, you know, it’s like that kind of thing. And when you watch the movie Chris Walken the Mike Nichols movie, he doesn’t raise his voice at all.
Sam Rockwell: He just said, “10-hot” just that kind of tone. And that’s why Chris is a genius because he takes something and he just says, “Well, I’m going to do the other thing. I’m going to go the other way.” And that’s theater because Chris did all these great parts. He did Romeo and Hamlet, he did Coriolanus. He did all these, you know, he did Streetcar Named Desire.
Sam Rockwell: So I always say when he gets to that monologue in Pulp Fiction, he’s already done all that theater. So he’s chewed on all that text. So that Pulp Fiction monologue is nothing because he’s done all these soliloquies you know?
Sam Jones: What do you get in the theater that you just can never get on a film in terms of the script?
Sam Rockwell: Well to let you know, in a film you act maybe five minutes out of a 12, 14-hour a day. So with the five concentrated minutes, if that and then in a play you act the entire story in two hours, three hours and maybe three times that day.
Sam Jones: It sounds like to me, hearing you discuss Stanislavski and geek-out. It sounds like there’s a work ethic there and there’s a discipline and there’s like a studious nature, like is that you by nature or were you a studious guy?
Sam Rockwell: I was terrible at school, and I was really a dilettante with acting until I went to William Esper.
Sam Jones: What do you mean?
Sam Rockwell: And I met Terry Knickerbocker too and a woman named Maggie Flanagan who was very helpful. Well I did some acting with my mom when I was a kid and my parents were actors for awhile and I went to a performing arts high school in San Francisco, but I really didn’t take it seriously. You know I smoked pot, I chased girls and I didn’t really take it seriously.
Sam Rockwell: I kind of grew up in it and I took it for granted. And then I went to New York and did some restaurant jobs and did all that stuff. Started booking like commercials and did a couple of movies, like small parts.
Sam Jones: Was it like, “Oh, this is easy. I know how to do this. I saw my parents do it.”
Sam Rockwell: Yes exactly. I knew enough about acting because I grew up within the theater with my mom and stuff. But I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing, you know what I mean? And I did learn from watching the adults act and stuff, but I hadn’t … you got to go train and figure it out and whatever that means. That could be on the job training or just doing a play.
Sam Rockwell: But there’s an apprenticeship in London, that’s not here as much and I think that that’s … I think that’s too bad because I think there’s a tradition in London or the conservatories and here Yale or Julliard where you play the small part and then you play Horatio and then you play Laertes and then you play Hamlet.
Sam Jones: Right.
Sam Rockwell: We don’t have that as much here and it’s sad. And I had a little bit of that because I didn’t become famous overnight, but I worked as … I was a bar back and a busboy and then I was kind of getting like commercials, like TV commercials, which you could do back then and now you can again. I guess now it’s all changed. But I went to Bill Esper for the summer session just like a six week.
Sam Jones: How old were you?
Sam Rockwell: I was 24.
Sam Jones: Okay. So now you weren’t 19 and doing this?
Sam Rockwell: No, no, I was doing. So I was still … I was booking a couple of jobs.
Sam Jones: So what was the impetus for I need to know more? Like what walls were you around or what ceiling were you bumping up against?
Sam Rockwell: That’s a good question. I don’t know, I think I was just not able to be consistent. I think I would go into the room and it would be kind of Loosey Goosey and I’d get lucky.
Sam Jones: Isn’t that funny? Because I think that’s the definition of a professional versus anybody else’s. A professional. Like I always say, I always relate to terms of photography of like anyone can get lucky and take a good picture.
Sam Rockwell: Sure.
Sam Jones: But can you take a good picture at 3:00 next Tuesday?
Sam Rockwell: Exactly. Exactly. Yes, exactly. That’s the point is can you do that 3:00 next Tuesday. And can you do Medea when you’re in a good mood? Can you do Schindler’s List? You got to do the list and you just got married or whatever. It’s like you’re having a good day and then you’re got to have a bad day. So the training really … So I did the summer session and I said, “Well that’s good. I’m good. Six weeks, I’m good.”
Sam Rockwell: And Bill said, “Well, why don’t you do the two year program?” And I said, “Well, I’m very busy Bill. I got a callback for a Colgate commercial. I think I’m up for this Law and Order. It’s like five lines. I’m moving, man.” He’s like, “Yes, don’t worry kid. I think you could be going to be able to just do it.” You know what, if you get work, we’ll talk about it and it’ll go by like that. And so I started, I did it, and it changed my life. It really taught me the kind of responsibility you have.
Sam Jones: Do you remember when you found out how much there was to know or when you, when you felt like you changed as an artist?
Sam Rockwell: They were pivotal moments during the training where I would have, what do you call a breakthrough or something?.I was doing a play at the time in my first year and it was about child abuse and my wife and the play Kelly Overby Pitch abuse, we find out that she beat the kid, threw the kid down the stairs and the place called Face Divided.
Sam Rockwell: And so I would describe her, our child’s face at the end of the play. And when I would do it I somehow, one night I got very connected to it. I felt like I was actually really telling somebody that my daughter … what my daughter looks like.
Sam Jones: It showed up truthfully.
Sam Rockwell: It was really truthful, like she’s got wires in her jaw and this is what she looks like and so it came to life for me and it happened in class one time. We do these things called activities and I came and somebody comes to the door, you have a preparation. And I came in and I had some preparation and I hadn’t been doing well in the class at all.
Sam Rockwell: Bill had been reaming me out. I was really lazy and he called me out on it and he really was on my case. And he said, “You got to apply yourself more, this is bullshit.” And then I went and I did this preparation and somehow I came to life in the room and I remember … it’s a completely safe environment, but the actress I was with was … I remember I was kind of in a daze and when it was over, I saw her in the corner.
Sam Rockwell: She was kind of like afraid of me. And I had been pacing and screaming and it was just like, it was almost like I saw red, it was a crazy experience. But it was all supervised of course in a classroom and everybody’s fine and she’s fine but that’s what’s great about an acting class is like it’s a safe environment to do something like that.
Sam Rockwell: You should feel safe to be able to explore those kinds of things. Something happening. And Bill said, “I think that you had a bit of a breakthrough today.” I think that’s a-
Sam Jones: He didn’t have to tell you that for you to know that right?
Sam Rockwell: I kind of knew something had happened. It was kind of an out of body experience. So you feel like kind of like, I mean not to be dramatic, but it feels like Jedi training or something, but it’s training or something. You feel like you’re really … you were so scared of disappointing the teacher that when you went out into the real world and for the casting director, that wasn’t scary anymore.
Sam Jones: So was it a distinctly different experience going out for work after being in that?
Sam Rockwell: Oh yes. Because whatever their expectations were, they were never going to be as high as Bill’s.
Sam Jones: Or as your own. Right?
Sam Rockwell: Or as my own. But later became my own standards?
Sam Jones: And it’s interesting to hear how much of a technical side you come from or how much thinking about some of the things you’ve done it, whatever. From Box of Moonlight to Seven Psychopaths to where there’s a looseness to it. I would as a non-actor think, “Oh, that’s just channeling something on that day.”
Sam Rockwell: Yes, and sometimes it is. Sometimes you use your environment and you take what you know … If something is inspiring you, but I think that you got to do your homework and then you’re open to stuff and I think then you can maybe be relaxed enough that you can appear to be unhinged or really be unhinged in that moment. And there is some danger in the moment, which is what I think we all want to see. We don’t want to see like, well I think we want to see a little rock and roll in front of that.
Sam Jones: I don’t think we go to see ourselves. I think we go to see our interior lives. I don’t think you go to see your exterior lives.
Sam Rockwell: We go to see the thing we wish we would’ve said, or the thing we wish we would’ve done.
Sam Jones: Yes man. Or the risk that we wish we would’ve taken.
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely. It wants to be cathartic, I think for all of us. Yes.
Sam Jones: I’m curious about what makes in your mind a performance great? Like what elevates a performance for you?
Sam Rockwell: That’s interesting. Because Bill used to say, “You have to have an opinion about acting.” That doesn’t mean you need to share it with everyone, but you must have an opinion. You must have an opinion. And so you do become a critic and you have a standard. I’m thinking of Meryl Streep and she plays a Prime Minister. That movie-
Sam Jones: The Iron Lady?
Sam Rockwell: Yes. I was blown away by her in that, but something like that or her and Sophie’s choice or her in anything. Or Gene Hackman or Duvall or Dustin Hoffman or Jon Voight and so many things, and Di Nero.
Sam Jones: As someone who does it, are you more impressed with the fact that you can’t see the architecture of what they’re doing? Is that what makes a good performance to you?
Sam Rockwell: Yes. I think simply that is what it is. Yes. If you don’t see the acting. I don’t want to see the acting. I think that’s why Duvall is the master.
Sam Jones: Because you know he’s acting.
Sam Rockwell: You know, he’s acting, but I think we’re doing a round table and Tom Hanks was talking about Duvall and we all kind of lit up. You know, Duvall’s sort of … he’s the guy, he’s the guy. And they’re all the guys, you know, all those guys.
Sam Jones: Why is he the guy?
Sam Rockwell: Because pound for pound, I mean all those guys were amazing. But there’s the transformational aspect of Duvall and then there’s just no acting. There’s no acting when you see Lonesome Dove, they’ve just taken a Texas ranger and put him in a time machine, and he’s here in front of this camera.
Sam Jones: Right.
Sam Rockwell: There’s no actor. It’s a fucking Texas ranger. It’s amazing.
Sam Jones: Did that make you want to quit or does that make you want to?
Sam Rockwell: No, quite the contrary. It makes me want to, it inspires me. In fact, when Phil died, it was like because he was a dear friend and he directed me in a play. And I said to Billy Crudup, I said, “What the hell are we going to do now?” Who are we going to … because it was me, Leah, Billy and Jeffrey Wright and Michael Shannon and Mark Rufallo and Josh Brolin.
Sam Rockwell: All these amazing actors. And Phil was the guy I think of our generation, you’ve seen that Magic Johnson, Larry Bird documentary?
Sam Jones: Yes.
Sam Rockwell: The 30 for 30 where they’re … they raised their game. The two of them, they raised each other’s game, and that to me is healthy competition. You know, when you see somebody and make makes you want to be better as opposed to like unhealthy envy competition stuff which can eat you alive. I think that’s bad energy.
Sam Jones: Your first, I would say big role, and tell me if I’m wrong, was Box of Moonlight?
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: But you’ve really got to stretch on screen right? And I think of that film even though it came out in the 90s, right?
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: It feels like a movie from the 1970s.
Sam Rockwell: It does doesn’t it?
Sam Jones: It got me thinking like I re-watched that film when I knew you were coming in and I had a lot of nostalgia for not only that kind of film, but for that America and in that you play a character. He’s kind of a man-boy that runs around in a coonskin cap and he lives off the grid and steals his phone line from the government and you eat Oreos for breakfast and you steal tomatoes from your neighbors.
Sam Jones: Swimming naked in the quarry.
Sam Rockwell: Great role.
Sam Jones: I wonder how getting that role early in your career kind of set the dye and I also wonder, looking back what your memories are of the kind of acting you thought you’re doing then.
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: Versus now knowing what you know.
Sam Rockwell: I saw it a couple of years ago and it made me cringe because I look so tense.
Sam Jones: What happened when you look at younger you acting that hard?
Sam Rockwell: Oh God. I was just smacking my brains out. I saw a Hitchhiker’s Guide the other night, it came on and I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of acting. Sammy. Wow, I’m glad you got that out of your system.”
Sam Jones: But I wonder if what you don’t see is the youth on you like the spirit.
Sam Rockwell: That character was very kinetic. I think you’re absolutely right. And you’d have this image of yourself, you know, and that was not my MO at that time. I was not wanting to do parts that were boyish and excited and exuberant.
Sam Jones: Is that true?
Sam Rockwell: No, I did not. I mean, the way I kind of connected to that particular part was I kind of connected to like this … for lack of a better term, this kind of young Gary Busey, the Great White Hunter kind of thing. And through that I found … when I initially went in for the audition, I did a whole kind of like a cowboy character.
Sam Rockwell: And then he wanted me to pull back the cowboy and just do this boy. And that was tough for me, this kind of Peter Pan thing because I was-
Sam Jones: Watching the scene at a different way.
Sam Rockwell: I was watching Mean Streets and Good Fellas you know I was-
Sam Jones: But you were so Peter Pan character.
Sam Rockwell: It was such a Peter Pan character. It was so hard to do.
Sam Jones: It’s funny, I was in bands growing up, but if I go and listen … to this day, if I go listen to old music I made, I don’t even want to play it for my wife and kids, because I don’t want them to not see me as I am. I’m sure my own experience and nobody else’s, you know what I mean?
Sam Rockwell: Yes, yes, yes. It’s a nightmare isn’t it? You’re just like no. You just don’t-
Sam Jones: You see all the things that you think make you not a man. You know you were probably watching that and going, this is nothing like Mean Streets.
Sam Rockwell: Nothing like Mean Streets.
Sam Jones: But what it was is this beautiful time in life and, I was thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. What’s notable about that whole … like the business side of that is that it’s pretty well known how George fought for you to be in that film and for him to stand up and go, “Okay, these people have more foreign box office value or something.” I really want this guy. And I wondered what that looked from like from your side.
Sam Rockwell: It was bananas.
Sam Jones: I would think that while that would be very flattering on one hand, part of it would be like, “Wait a minute here.” You know, you’re going to bat against Studios and everything.
Sam Rockwell: Yes.
Sam Jones: Did that add pressure?
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely. You know, we had an old fashioned screen test with like dollies and tracks and costumes. It was an old fat with real film.
Sam Jones: Really?
Sam Rockwell: Ellen Pompeo was the reader. And what I didn’t realize there were other actors auditioning and Harvey Weinstein had approval and Steven Soderbergh was also part of the muscle there. Steven Soderbergh and George teamed up against Harvey to get me that part. And Harvey didn’t want me for the part.
Sam Jones: Well we found he has questionable judgment across the-
Sam Rockwell: Yes, apparently. Yes, so there you go. But I think George put a golf club through his office wall.
Sam Jones: Is that true?
Sam Rockwell: Once having a conversation maybe with Harvey? I don’t arguing about whether I should be in the movie.
Sam Jones: So were you made aware of all of this going on behind the scenes?
Sam Rockwell: George tried to protect me from it, but inevitably I found out because it took a while to get an answer after the screen test. And after the screen test I asked him what was on and he kind of said, “Well, you know, this person and this person, that person, this person.” But there were so many people attached to play that part I think Johnny Depp, Robert Downey Jr.
Sam Rockwell: And there were all these people talked about it for it and I’m getting ordinate at one point. So he said, “Don’t worry about it. You’re my guy. You don’t worry about it.” And I said, “Well, listen, if it doesn’t work out, let’s be friends.” And he’s like, “Don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it.” So I got this, you know.
Sam Rockwell: So that was kind of his attitude and in fact he did have it in him and Soderbergh fought for me because when they saw the screen test, he went, “Hey, well this is the guy. This is the guy.” It was an amazing experience to do that with George. I learned so much.
Sam Jones: What kind of anxiety, did you experience after getting the role? When it was-
Sam Rockwell: Terrible.
Sam Jones: Describe what you go through in those situations.
Sam Rockwell: Oh my God. It was unbelievable. I was going to star in a studio movie opposite Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore and George Clooney and I was the lead. I had to carry this movie.
Sam Jones: Playing Brad Pitt [crosstalk 00:42:46]
Sam Rockwell: Matt Damon did a cameo. And I was the guy. I was the guy in the fucking movie and I had to do this crazy impression of this very eccentric guy and the Gong Shows I had to watch the gong shows. So it was a Charlie Kaufman script. Which is like gold. And so it was a big deal. It was a big deal.
Sam Rockwell: And I would weekly have anxiety attacks and have to get through them and my acting coach would have to talk me down and my friend Ivan, we’d be reading it and I’d have to stop and go like, “All right, I got to just go to the kitchen for a second.”
Sam Jones: Really?
Sam Rockwell: You know, I’d have to like gather myself a little.
Sam Jones: What ultimately provided the-
Sam Rockwell: I think after working on it so much, I realized that I knew what I was doing and I was the guy. I was the right guy.
Sam Jones: Isn’t that funny how you have to like relearn that lesson over and over and over?
Sam Rockwell: Yes, over and over.
Sam Jones: Why is that?
Sam Rockwell: I don’t know what it is, man. I think it’s when it’s costly, you get nervous again. I remember doing Frost/Nixon. I felt that, that was a costly endeavor for me. You know? I don’t know why. I think maybe because it was about Watergate, which feels like an important topic.
Sam Jones: It’s always hard to see yourself as … like I find this to like I always look at my parent’s generation and the men of the … Those are the serious guys.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, yes, yes.
Sam Jones: And we’re the guys that are one step away from being thrown out of the room because we don’t belong here.
Sam Rockwell: No, exactly.
Sam Jones: Do you have that?
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely no. I feel like I’m going to play like a smart person in Frost/Nixon. That’s acting, you know what I mean? Doing Fool for Love on Broadway was very costly. That was a legendary, production with Ed Harris and Kathy Baker that people still talk about 30 years ago. Not only were we going to do it in New York, we were going to do it on Broadway.
Sam Jones: Does that anxiety, does it crop back up when you’re doing theater, even after you’ve done all the work? Like does it have a way to hit you like right before opening night what you’re about?
Sam Rockwell: Yes, it can and you have to you have to talk yourself through that and you have to … I think Laird Hamilton actually talks about this in the documentary, but I think you have to … you kind of have to make friends with fear. I think when you’re doing live theater or you’re doing whatever you got to do it’s scary. To a certain point, you have to kind of give over and you can’t fight that feeling.
Sam Rockwell: You’re going to have to embrace, that feeling is going to overwhelm you. And if you don’t make friends with it, it’s going to suck you down into the swamp.
Sam Jones: I would imagine it’s overwhelming.
Sam Rockwell: I think with the difference now is with experience fear, it still scares you. You still have those feelings. But what happens with experience is that it makes you sharper. So you become like a laser. Now I think experience teaches you that you fear becomes your friend and it actually makes you like razor sharp.
Sam Rockwell: Oh God. I mean there’s so many little movies I did there where I was like … you know, I once went on a set for NYPD Blue and I had prepared and this director, she turned on me a little and I didn’t know I prepared a junkie, like a heroin impediment. Which is kind of like nodding out and “Hey man,” you know like that kind of thing.
Sam Rockwell: And I went to set thinking I was doing like a heroin impediment for this drug addict I was going to play. It was a little day player part. And she says, “What are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean, I don’t understand.” And she’s like, “What are you doing, it’s totally wrong, that energy is totally wrong.” I was like, “I don’t understand. I’m a heroin.”
Sam Rockwell: She said, “No it’s not heroin, it’s crack. You’re supposed to be a crack addict. I need a jittery energy from you. It’s supposed to be just totally wrong.” I’m like, “Oh, okay, okay. let me go … I’m going to go figure it out.” I didn’t want to get fired, you know, so I’m like, “Okay, I can go with my little fucking honey wagon”. And I go in there and I’m like, I call my acting coach Terry or whatever I called somebody. And I say, “What the fuck do I do?” You know?
Sam Rockwell: He said, “It’s okay. Just change it up, maybe have a cup of coffee.” And I talked myself through it and I did whatever I did on the show and it was probably terrible. But I was like, it’s overwhelming. You’re like what the fuck I’m I supposed to do?
Sam Jones: There’s a whole crew standing around, and now obviously being experienced, you look back and you go, what a horrible director.
Sam Rockwell: What a horrible thing to say to a young … that’s not what you do.
Sam Jones: That’s not how you get a good performance.
Sam Rockwell: No, so I don’t know, it can happen at any time.
Sam Jones: Still. So you still get scared?
Sam Rockwell: Always. But there’s this great moment like when you get on stage, where you just kind of go … where you get in front of a camera and you know, you’re about to do this and you know, Clint Eastwood’s says, I think he says, he doesn’t say action. He says “Whenever you’re ready,” which I love. So I think that’s what Brandon used to do. He’d just be like, just because you say action doesn’t mean I have to do anything. You know what I mean? So there’s that moment when you go ahead-
Sam Jones: That’s the way to give it back to the director.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, exactly. But there’s a moment where you go, “Okay, everybody’s done their thing and they’re doing the focus and they’re doing the lights and then doing the clothes. Okay, now this is my time. This is my time.” And now I don’t play. I mean business. This is my church now. And when they yell, cut or whatever, then it’s your time again and you can tweak and do little tweaks or whatever you got to do.
Sam Rockwell: But when that little bubble is so precious, and you go, that’s the time to like where you just, you become whatever. A man or whatever you want to call it, you become a warrior. I’ve learned so much from actors like Gene Hackman, once there was a thing he did and … we did a David Mamet heist, but he had to get angry at me in this car and a cinematographer will sometimes try to talk you into doing certain things and you accommodate them and sometimes-
Sam Jones: That’s good for the camera.
Sam Rockwell: It’s good for the camera. And you know, I think George and I used to even say today’s camera day or today’s acting day, or today’s both. Today is camera day and acting day.
Sam Jones: Interesting.
Sam Rockwell: I say to George, “Is this acting day or is this camera day?” Says, “Well, it’s both.” I’d be like, “Okay, all right, lay it on me. What are we got to do?” So you’ve got to accommodate the camera. Sometimes the camera’s got to accommodate you. So it was a lesson I learned once from Hackman. We were in this car and I’m in the driver’s seat. He’s got to read me the riot act. I just did something really stupid and he’s going to yell at me for being an idiot, and so he has to get hot.
Sam Rockwell: So, the guys are going, I just need you to … can you go, just give me a little more by the dashboard, if you could just put your. And he goes, “Hey guys, guys don’t hit me in. I got to be able to move around here.” And they were like, “Okay, no worries Gene,” and he wasn’t a dick, he was just protecting himself. He was saying, “Guys, you’re going to have to accommodate me now. This is my turn now.”
Sam Rockwell: And he had to be emotional. He had to be emotional in the scene to yell at me. So that was him protecting himself. And I thought that was an invaluable lesson. I never forgot that.
Sam Jones: Right, because you were worried if I tell the cameraman that is he going to-
Sam Rockwell: Because you weren’t thinking differently now, he’s going to make it harder on me to- know what you’re working with. Sometimes you work in or if you’re lucky enough to work with like Roger Deakins or somebody and Roger’s very accommodating, but like sometimes they’ll say, you know, very nice where they’d be like, you’re driving or something and you’ll be like, can you just go down a little bit and be like, “Okay, I’m I in the framing? Or just like, just a little bit more. That’s it.” And then you can’t even drive.
Sam Jones: Let alone act.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, let alone act. [crosstalk 00:51:37] So you got to tell the line, but it’s interesting.
Sam Jones: Well I have to ask you about Moon, because that’s a film I regarded as one of the best science fiction films of all time. I don’t know how much it was seen, but this is a film made by Duncan Jones. You’re the only actor in the film and there’s a few scenes of your wife pre-taped back on Earth and a flashback with her, but, but really, it’s you and you’re a clone. And I would imagine that had to be one of the hardest jobs you’ve ever had to do.
Sam Jones: I mean, you’re carrying the whole film by yourself. You have to be in this horrible state and you don’t have anyone to talk to. When I say that film, what memories come to your mind about that?
Sam Rockwell: I saw Duncan today, I saw him today. Well, I recently got to tell Dustin Hoffman at this event that I saw him at the Governor’s awards and I got to tell him that I completely stalled. My cyclone was a total rip off of Ratso in Midnight Cowboy.
Sam Jones: Oh, in Midnight Cowboy.
Sam Rockwell: The cough, the whole sickness because when Duncan and I talked about, I said, “What kind of sickness are we talking about here? Is it like, flu, malaria, tuberculosis, like what are we talking about?
Sam Jones: Is it heroin or crack.
Sam Rockwell: Exactly. And so, we talked about it, is it HIV, like what is the … And he said, “No, it’s more like a really bad flu.” And I said, “Well that sounds kind of like Ratso in Midnight Cowboy, like a kind of a cough thing. And my acting coach Terry, he said, “Why don’t you watch Midnight Cowboy because of the buddy aspect.” Not so much for the sick thing but-
Sam Jones: Because there’s an antagonistic buddy thing.
Sam Rockwell: Yes, and they’re total opposites. Joe Buck and Ratso so that was a great note motion control camera that they used to make to do that effect, which they’re doing on the deuce now. And they’ve done since then. But the first time I ever saw that trick done, as well as it’s ever been done was Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers. And that was just an acting lesson.
Sam Rockwell: And he talked about what he would do was very subtle because they didn’t really change the hairstyle too much in the two twins. But he talked about a different energy, contrasting energies and that was really helpful because it would help separate the clones or the twins per se, and that if one guy kind of jittery and the other guy should maybe be the opposite of that, so that would help distinguish who these guys were because you might get confused.
Sam Rockwell: In fact, Duncan was worried that the audience would get confused and he wanted me to have a fake beard and the long hair, which we had in the beginning, but he wanted me to have that for one of the clubs, the whole movie. And I said, you know, we had this really cheesy beard, didn’t work.
Sam Jones: Oh, so you tried it.
Sam Rockwell: We tried it, I think I had a real beard and I shaved it in the movie. And then we were going to use the … we were toying with a fake thing and this and that. And I said, Duncan this looks like shit, man, this is not going to look good. I said, you just got to trust the … I’m going to be able to do the acting and that’s going to. They’re going to know which clone which is has got to trust me. I know I can do it.
Sam Jones: Now, again when he says, “Okay, I’m going to trust you.” Is the anxiety level ratchet up?
Sam Rockwell: Big time.
Sam Jones: And there’s a fragile state to the whole thing too. Especially, I feel like as your character finds out what he is, and his entire reason for being or his entire foundation is gone. That’s an incredibly fragile place to be as a human being, to find out something like that.
Sam Rockwell: I still don’t think I did that. You go as deep as I should have with that scene. I know that scene, I think I could have gone a little deeper with that.
Sam Jones: It’s funny, I know the exact scene you’re talking about and I remember watching it again a couple of days ago and thinking that choice was so brilliant because he wasn’t going to let himself be taken over by the pain. So, I thought it was perfect. That’s the Duvall aspect if there’s no acting there at all.
Sam Rockwell: Well, sometimes I think in your head what you think the moment needs to be you put all this responsibility on the moment. Okay, the guy’s going to tell me I’m a fucking … I’m not even a human being. I’m a clone. It’s so big?
Sam Jones: Where’s the as if there?
Sam Rockwell: How do you act that? So, you got to figure it out-
Sam Jones: I was asking you that.
Sam Rockwell: I don’t know. So, you got to figure it out. It’s very tough.
Sam Jones: I would imagine that would be tough like where does Meisner fit into, where’s the as if of, you find out you’re a clone.
Sam Rockwell: I don’t know, I still don’t think I’ve solved that problem. But I know that … I remember I got to talk with Holly Hunter once about acting and she said, “Sometimes if you don’t nail a moment” … she just recently did a great podcast that I listened to, it was fucking amazing. And she said, if you don’t nail a moment and maybe you get to look at some of the dailies or you don’t, or you just know you didn’t, and you can always make it up maybe in another scene.
Sam Rockwell: And I never forgot that. That you could be like, “Okay, so maybe I didn’t get it in this scene, but maybe I can hit that color, that note in a different scene,” you know? And so the moment I feel that I am proud of is when he says, “You know, I want to go home,” and he’s in the spaceship. That moment I was happy with and maybe that’s when it all comes to fruition.
Sam Jones: Well, it’s funny to hear you break apart your performance and break it down a little bit because I just find that film to be so … it’s overwhelmingly good.
Sam Rockwell: Thanks yes.
Sam Jones: And I wonder if you are hard on yourself after the fact. Even on a film like that where that’s clearly some of the best work of anybody’s career.
Sam Rockwell: Thanks man.
Sam Jones: It’s interesting you can still be hard on yourself about that.
Sam Rockwell: I still go over moments. Yes, there’s still moments. There’s a lot of it I’m very happy with.
Sam Jones: What does it feel like when you put so much work into a film-
Sam Rockwell: And nobody sees it?
Sam Jones: Yes, and nobody sees it.
Sam Rockwell: It’s heartbreaking. Yes nobody sees the fucking … It’s tragic. It’s tragic. So that’s why it’s exciting that Three Billboards is getting a lot of attention because that’s not enough to be good in a movie and it’s not enough to be good in a good movie. So you’ve got to be good in a good movie that people see.
Sam Jones: The triumvirate.
Sam Rockwell: Yes. You got it.
Sam Jones: You need all three things.
Sam Rockwell: You need all three things man.
Sam Jones: Performance, not only you were good, the film was good and that people actually went to see it.
Sam Rockwell: And people for some reason it catches on and that’s so random.
Sam Rockwell: I mean I think we all feel that at some point. I feel pretty lucky. I’ve had a great career. I’ve had a great career. I’ve been in some amazing films. A lot of my film with the exception of maybe the Green Mile and Charlie’s Angels, a lot of stuff that I’ve done is had afterlife. Like Galaxy Quest or Assassination of Jesse James, did not do necessarily that great.
Sam Rockwell: Especially Jesse James when it came out, but then since then there are revered as really great movies, you know?
Sam Jones: Well, that’s probably the best test for a film anyway is if it doesn’t stand the test of time, doesn’t hold up. I mean you can still go watch Midnight Cowboy and you’re riveted to it and a lot of films are a product of their time only. And what you’re talking about is maybe it’s delayed gratification.
Sam Rockwell: It’s delayed gratification, but when people come up to you and they talk about Galaxy Quest or whatever that’s a really nice feeling, you know?
Sam Jones: Yes.
Sam Rockwell: It’s a good movie.
Sam Jones: Yes. Well, what I think you’ve managed to do as an artist is create a career that compared to most of your peers is more undefined and still holds the possibility for a wider potential role. Right?
Sam Rockwell: Yes. Thanks man. I feel blessed I guess is the word. I don’t know I’m not religious, but I do feel lucky. I mean, I’ve had some great opportunities. It’s good. It’s a good life. You got to appreciate it.
Sam Jones: Yes. Well listen, I appreciate you coming in.
Sam Rockwell: Absolutely.
Sam Jones: I appreciate you telling me these stories.
Sam Rockwell: I appreciate you asking good questions and we’re having a real conversation.
Sam Jones: I appreciate your socks and your shirt.
Sam Rockwell: I appreciate your shoes in the studio and the lights.
Sam Jones: Very nice to chat with you. Thank you.
Sam Rockwell: Very nice man. Thanks. Thanks Sam. Thanks a lot.
Sam Jones: Hey folks, that’s our show for today. Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did and if you’re like me, when you hear a few of these stories, you can’t help but get excited about watching the films that the stories are about and, I would suggest you do just that. Start with Moon, checkout, Box of Moonlight, watch Confessions of a Dangerous mind.
Sam Jones: Go deep into Sam’s career. It’s a rewarding journey and it’s full of amazing performances and, if you want your mind blown, watch both of the Martin McDonagh films that Sam is in. Seven Psychopaths and the new Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri. And then if you really want your mind blown, go to offcamera.com. Do you know that we’ve already done a 127 episodes, and you can watch them all by getting a subscription to off camera for only 499 a month.
Sam Jones sits down with Oscar winner Sam Rockwell to discuss, life, art, Terry Knickerbocker, and all things acting on Jones' podcast "Off Camera".