Pin It

Sam Rockwell on playing violent weirdos & his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is Martin McDonagh’s anticipated Oscar shoo-in – we talk to its supporting star who nearly quit acting

Since making his movie debut in 1989’s Clownhouse, Sam Rockwell has been building an impressive body of work on screen and in the theatre. A scene stealer in supporting roles, and a compelling lead in films including Moon, Choke and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the California-born Rockwell has thrilled critics and audiences, but been overlooked by the Academy.

The buzz around his complex performance as a violent cop, in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s anticipated Oscars shoo-in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, suggests this could now be about to change. As Jason Dixon, Rockwell plays a racist who finds himself up against a vengeful mother prepared to do almost anything as she vents her fury against a police force she blames for failing to find her daughter’s killer. As the stakes rise, Dixon plausibly evolves from thug to hero-in-the-making, thanks to McDonagh’s skilful writing and Rockwell’s intelligent, compassionate acting.

If Rockwell does win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, it will be well deserved. However, he almost never became an actor. The child of divorced parents, he lived with his father, Pete, in San Francisco, and spent summers with his mother, Penny Hess, in New York. He often appeared on stage with Hess, but when he dropped out of a performing arts school, it looked like a future in acting wasn’t for him. Thankfully this changed when Rockwell moved to a school that suited someone who, in his own words, just wanted to “get stoned, flirt with girls, go to parties”. Instead of drifting, though, he rediscovered his love of performing.

We met Sam Rockwell at the Venice Film Festival, where the amiable star discussed playing racists, violence, his upcoming film appearance as George W. Bush, and what made his late friend Phillip Seymour Hoffman the greatest actor of his generation.

Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards screenplay is flawless. It must be thrilling to get something like this.

Sam Rockwell: It’s like a Christmas present. You’re like, wow! You’re blown away by it.

Your cop character, Jason Dixon, begins as a violent, racist dimwit, but grows in stature. Did you like him?

Sam Rockwell: I did like the character. I think he’s initially a bit of an idiot, and then he goes through a transformation. There’s a bit of redemption.

There’s a lot of talk in America about police brutality and racism. This character taps right into that, doesn’t it?

Sam Rockwell: That’s right. I’ve actually been playing a lot of racists recently and it’s an interesting world. It’s not where I’m from so it’s interesting to examine it. I went down to southern Missouri and met some lovely police officers. I met with burns victims, too. That was interesting.

Did you meet any cops who you felt weren’t so lovely and actually racist?

Sam Rockwell: I didn’t meet any racist cops but I did see a lot of assertiveness from them. I did a ride-along a couple of nights and that was interesting. But I think the racism part of it is obviously going on in America and it’s very scary. It’s a good time to be talking about this. I just did another film (The Best of Enemies) where I play a Ku Klux Klan leader (Clairborne Paul Ellis), it’s a true story, who became friends with a civil rights activist - Taraji Henson plays the civil rights activist (Ann Atwater) – and now with what just happened in Charlottesville, it’s very timely.

Dixon lives with his racist mother and the film touches on the idea of how mothers influence the kind of men their sons become. What are men’s relationships with their mothers like in the US?

Sam Rockwell: In the US? Is it easy to separate, not be co-dependent? Well, I think the Oedipal thing is interesting and it’s all over the world. In America we’ve got mamma’s boys, but I think every male goes through an Oedipal complex at some point in your life. Hopefully it stops. It’s always fun to play in a drama or a comedy because it’s essentially Hamlet. It’s Shakespearean.

After your parents divorced, you were mainly raised by your father, weren’t you?

Sam Rockwell: Yeah, that’s right. My upbringing was more like a working class Kramer vs. Kramer upbringing. We had less money than Dustin Hoffman.

Could you understand Dixon losing his father, though, and what that would feel like?

Sam Rockwell: Sure. I didn’t have my mother early on because she was in New York and I was with my father. I would see her in the summer. But, you know, we all can experience all these things - loss and anger, rage - and everybody on the planet is capable of being a coward or a hero. It just depends if you have a good day or not. If you have a good day you can be heroic; and we could all kill somebody. We’re all capable of these things. So an actor’s job is to find that within himself or herself that is close to the character.

Did you have a strong imagination as a kid, and were you drawn to acting early on?

Sam Rockwell: As a kid I grew up make believing. I watched movies, I acted with my mother and stuff, we did plays, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was a lot older. When I studied acting in my twenties, that’s when I started to take it seriously, and that was fun to have a new respect for it.

“I was not very good at school, so I could have easily been pumping gas or doing some bullshit job. I don’t have any skills. I did a lot of restaurant work, bussed tables, and I bartended” – Sam Rockwell

Didn’t your parents then send you to an Outward Bound-style school?

Sam Rockwell: That’s right! Urban Pioneers! I was not very good at school, so I could have easily been pumping gas or doing some bullshit job. I don’t have any skills. I did a lot of restaurant work, bussed tables, and I bartended. I did a lot of stuff like that early on.

When did you start to feel like you could make a living as an actor?

Sam Rockwell: When I was 30-years-old. I started when I was 18, so that’s 12 years. But I didn’t buy an apartment until I was, I think, close to 40. So it took a while. Do you know Sanford Meisner? He’s an acting teacher, he died, but I studied the Meisner technique, and he’s quoted as saying it takes 20 years to become an actor. I think that’s true. It’s been over 20 years, so maybe I’m an actor now. But there’s always a learning that happens on every job.

You’re going to be playing George Bush in Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, Backseat. There seems almost to be nostalgia for him now in the United States. Is this how it feels to you?

Sam Rockwell: Yes, I do think so. I play him around the age of 53, to maybe a little older, right up to 9/11. I would love to meet him. I’ve been watching a lot of him, the debates and everything, with Kerry and Gore, and he’s very likeable.

Will you do the moment when he gets told about the plane strikes on the Twin Towers while reading The Pet Goat to children, and appears to freeze?

Sam Rockwell: That’s not in the movie but I feel for him in that moment. What do you do? I don’t know if that’s shock or he’s processing what he needs to do. I judge him less harshly now for sure. Maybe because of Trump.

Did Frances McDormand scare you in Three Billboards?

Sam Rockwell: I’m scared every day of everybody. No – she’s lovely. She’s a laser with her acting, she’s very formidable is the way I would put it, but she’s also cute and adorable, too. That’s why she’s such a good actress.

There’s an amazingly violent scene where you throw a character out of a window. What was that like to do?

Sam Rockwell: Isn’t it fun? I love that scene. Fighting is like dance in movies and theatre. I’ve done a lot of fight scenes the past couple of years. I did a movie, Mr Right, and I just did a Sam Shepard play, Fool for Love, that had a lot of fight scenes, and it’s a dance. That’s all it is. You know ballerinas, dancers, get injured more than football players, and, when you think about it, it’s just football without the banging (punches his palm twice). I love to dance so I love fighting in movies. In Moon I fought myself. I actually had to kick my own ass!

Do you find the anger necessary for these parts easy to access? You seem pretty laid back.

Sam Rockwell: It’s not always easy. I have to have some coffee, listen to some music. Depending on the scene, you might be joking around with the crew, then some days if you have a dramatic scene, you have to shut down. You can’t talk to anybody. I’ve been in corners, I’ve been in rooms before a scene with an umbrella and a trash can, beating the trash can. I broke a chair and then went into a scene. People think you’re fucking nuts.

How much distance do you have from your characters?

Sam Rockwell: I go home, watch the Simpsons, have a beer, have some cereal, whatever. I don’t take it home with me. Between takes, sometimes, you have to stay in it, but it can be exhausting. I know Daniel Day-Lewis does that. Maybe Christian Bale does that, I don’t know. I’ve worked with Gene Hackman and De Niro and Chris Walken and they don’t do that. Phil Hoffman, you know, he tells jokes. He used to tell jokes. I knew Phil, he was a friend of mine, and I think if you are a theatre actor you don’t have to do that, because you know how to repeat. A theatre actor has to be able to repeat himself for an eight-hour rehearsal period or a five-hour rehearsal period, and go back and take a coffee break and come back. So I think theatre actors can maybe pace themselves better, repeat and pace with more consistency.

“He was a beautiful guy. A beautiful, beautiful man. I miss him very much. But yeah, great fucking actor, Phil. In my generation, he was the best” - Sam Rockwell

Did you realise how troubled he was (Philip Seymour Hoffman)? Can acting, because it involves sensitivity and the manipulation of emotions, exacerbate problems someone might have?

Sam Rockwell: Well Phil didn’t like to phone it in, you know? And I guess that’s why you would destroy a chair before a scene, because you’re trying to be genuine in the scene. You don’t want to do a dishonest moment in a film or on stage. So there’s an expression, ‘phoning it in’, and Phil would refuse to do that. That’s why Phil was an amazing director – he directed me in a play – and Phil was an amazing actor: he could walk the walk and talk the talk. He demanded so much of himself and it does take its toll. And he had a huge appetite for life, you know? A huge appetite for life. He was a beautiful guy. A beautiful, beautiful man. I miss him very much. But yeah, great fucking actor, Phil. In my generation, he was the best.