sam-rockwell

Committed

Sam Rockwell is the greatest actor you’ve never noticed.

Lisa Rosen Arts & Entertainment

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In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Rockwell plays a small-town cop from your 
worst nightmares.
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY FOX/SEARCHLIGHT

You’ve heard of actor’s actors? Sam 
Rockwell is a chameleon’s chameleon. He’s been a not-so-innocent man imprisoned for a crime 
he didn’t commit in Conviction, a goofy variety-show-host slash spy in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an astronaut suffering from his long lunar stint in Moon, a sweet rebel showing a kid the ways of the world in The Way Way Back, a troubled alcoholic turned fundamentalist in Snow Angels, a washed-up coach seeking another shot in The Winning Season … and those are just a few of his favorites. The list goes on, and on, for more than 60 films — 
he has no idea of the exact number. But every time out, he commits himself entirely.

Somehow, he’s managed to top himself with his latest role. Jason Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the worst kind of racist, ignorant, overheated cop, living in the titular town. When Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand with biblical rage, sets her sights on the police department for failing to find her daughter’s killer, Dixon is driven over the edge in ways he could not anticipate. In the work of writer and director Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths), who chafes at neat categorization, even a villain can find redemption.

Three Billboards has garnered awards-season buzz, and the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) has honored Rockwell with its Spotlight Award for his all-out, unapologetic portrayal.

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Sam Rockwell plays opposite Woody Harrelson, who is the chief of police in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

His dedication is apparent in every role, but that may be all they have in common. Looking over his filmography, from Iron Man to Frost/Nixon, no throughline emerges. His pattern is more of a patchwork quilt, reflecting his eclectic range of interests. “My influences are all over the map,” he acknowledges, speaking by phone from his home in New York. “Everything from The Deer Hunter to Stripes to Animal House to Taxi Driver to Badlands to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Bustin’ Loose to The Bad News Bears.”

That last film’s leading man, Walter Matthau, was a lodestar for Rockwell’s 
lovable misanthrope in The Way Way Back, “along with Bill Murray, Richard Pryor, and John Jiler.” John who?

Jiler, an author and playwright, was the young Rockwell’s first director, when the actor was the tender age of 10. His actor parents divorced when he was 5, and Rockwell lived in San Francisco with his father and spent summers in New York with his mother. She had a crew of theater friends who were his de facto aunts and uncles; they’d babysit him when his mother was working.

“She was singing telegrams and rehearsing at the same time,” he recalls of one summer. “So John Jiler threw me in the play.” And he never really left. In Rockwell, nature met nurture. He didn’t stand a chance.

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A mother, played by Frances McDormand, buys three billboards to shame the chief and his police department into taking action over the murder of her daughter.

He delivered burritos on his bicycle while studying the Meisner technique, starred in endless NYU student films, took commercials for the money, and did the rounds of the requisite New York episodic series like Law & Order.

Hollywood eventually discovered him, sort of. He’s played big roles in small films and small roles in big films and gets the kind of notice that makes writers write roles for him and actors want to work with him, even if the general public hasn’t quite caught up yet.

Three Billboards reunited him with McDonagh, with whom he worked on Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh wrote the role for Rockwell, “mostly because he’s the best actor of his generation,” he says. “But specifically, because the character is such a dark and brutish one, you need an actor who would show some chinks of humanity through that mean-spirited exterior without sentimentalizing him.”

Still, Rockwell doesn’t quite believe the role was really written just for him. “You always think, Well maybe it went to Brad Pitt first. That’s always the thought in your head: I’m probably the fifth choice.” He didn’t say yes before seeing the script, but he knew it would probably be pretty good. “As you keep turning the pages, everything is such a huge Christmas present. You get surprised.”

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This is beyond black comedy — it’s bleak comedy. Mildred is grieving the loss of her teenage daughter in a horrific crime. She hits on the idea of shaming police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) into action by renting three local billboards and posting notices asking why he’s done nothing to find the killer. Her act has a ricochet effect on the entire town, particularly Dixon, who worships his chief.

The story manages to touch on the subject of sexual harassment and assault that’s making daily headlines. Mildred is every woman saying “no more,” but instead of hashtagging, she’s posting it on blood-red billboards. It’s riveting and disheartening to watch the anger that ensues in the community — not at the crime, but at the victim speaking truth to power. Everyone is caught up in the repercussions, especially Dixon.

One scene finds him taking his anger out on Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the hapless young man who rented the billboards to Mildred in the first place. In a sequence shot, Dixon crosses the street from the police department, goes upstairs to Red’s office, throws him out the window, goes back downstairs, and continues beating the broken, bloody guy in the middle of the street.

“That was so fun,” Rockwell recalls. “We had an amazing cinematographer and camera department, and Doug Coleman, the stunt choreographer who choreographed the bear attack in The Revenant and stuff in Mad Max.” Coming from theater, Rockwell is used to that kind of sleight of hand. “It’s very theatrical, very live TV, John Frankenheimer kind of stuff. It gets your heart pumping.”

The shock and awe of a moment like that is mixed with a kind of incredulous hilarity, as when Mildred knees two kids (one a girl) in the groin for lying to her. The tonal mix keeps the audience engaged almost against its will.

“With Three Billboards and In Bruges, you’re dealing with rape and the killing of an altar boy,” Rockwell explains. “These are heavy themes, so the trick with this is as soon as it gets too heavy, or it’s just about to get sentimental, [McDonagh] infuses humor. I think that’s the reason the audience is able to process these almost Greek tragic themes that would not be digestible unless we had a moment of levity to take a break from it.”

Hollywood eventually discovered him, sort of. He’s played big roles in small films and small roles in big films and gets the kind of notice that makes writers write roles for him and actors want to work with him, even if the general public hasn’t quite caught up yet.
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Rockwell is a fiend for research “when I have the luxury of time,” he notes. “I did that on The Winning Season quite a bit, talked to a lot of high school basketball coaches. For Seven Psychopaths, I read a book called The Psychopath Test [by Jon Ronson], and I talked to a few therapists, a couple of psychiatrists.”

Working on the play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at the LAByrinth Theater Company back in 2005, with Philip Seymour Hoffman directing, he researched his role with help from a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who had coached Hoffman on Doubt. “So when I did Snow Angels, I had to play a born-again Christian, and Jim would take me to services,” Rockwell says. “It was real fundamentalist stuff. That was fascinating.” His Snow Angels role also taught him to perform drunk scenes. “Cut to Three Billboards, and I had a couple of drunk scenes in that. So I guess what I’m saying is that everything is sort of derivative, and everything prepares you for the next thing.”

This time around, he headed down to southern Missouri and went on ride-alongs with police officers. He asked one of them to speak all of Dixon’s lines into a tape recorder, a tactic he often employs to get a character’s accent down. He also works regularly with his acting coach, Terry Knickerbocker.

The character was a stretch in many ways. “Dixon is a little bit of a redneck. It is very far from me. I’m a city kid, but I play a lot of country folk,” Rockwell says. Even further is Dixon’s virulent bigotry. “I really had to reach deep for that. What you can tap into is low self-esteem. I talked to an ex–white supremacist who now pulls people out of hate groups, and he told me, ‘It’s not so much you hate black people, or brown people, or whoever, or that you’re a bigot, it’s that you hate yourself.’ And that’s sort of the key to Dixon.”

Another key was Dixon’s relationship with his even more atrocious mother. As dysfunctional as it is, they have a powerful bond that the actor found relatable. “My mother and I were sort of more like friends when I was growing up, and that’s similar — although my mother isn’t a backwoods racist,” he deadpans. “But I understand Dixon and his mother.”

He also understood how to reach Dixon’s level of comprehension — or lack thereof. Just as playing drunk isn’t about stumbling but about trying too hard not to stumble, playing someone slow isn’t about not thinking but about trying to think harder. “If you really take your time with your thought process, it comes across as either being absent-minded professor or just being a little slow,” he says. “You can create that effect by just slowing down your thought process, which is something I think people do all the time, they just don’t indulge in it. In this day and age, you’re expected to have quick answers and immediate gratification.”

Just when Dixon can’t get any lower, events take another series of incredible turns. One of his victims offers him a gesture of kindness, which forces him to reflect on his behavior. “The whole thing is about forgiveness,” Rockwell says emphatically. It’s as unexpected a turn of events as everything else in the film.

The actors all rose to the film’s occasion, matching grounded performances with the surprising twists. Rockwell calls McDormand “one of the great actors.” Working with her was simple, he says. “We show up loaded for bear. We know what we’re doing, and we show up prepared. And it’s a great script. The script is a beautiful road map on how to play the part.”

People have asked if he found McDormand intimidating to work with. “That’s a huge compliment to Frances, because there’s an element of danger to her work, and whenever you’re dealing with an actor like that — whether it be Frances McDormand or Holly Hunter or Gary Oldman or Gene Hackman or Phil Hoffman or John Malkovich or Ellen Burstyn, people who have this volcanic emotional power — it always comes from vulnerability.”

Playing such a terrible man can be a particular challenge; many actors want to have the audience on their side, to love them despite their worst impulses. But that can come at the cost of integrity. As Dixon, Rockwell never gives a wink to the viewer: See, I’m not really that bad. He is that bad and a bag of chips. “If you’re being an asshole in a scene, you have to commit to that,” Rockwell says bluntly. “I don’t think people trust actors who half-step.” He doesn’t seem capable of that — not in his blood, or his training.

Meanwhile, he’s got five projects coming up, including playing an ex-con in Blue Iguana, an Exalted Cyclops of the KKK opposite Taraji P. Henson’s civil rights activist in The Best of Enemies, and George W. Bush in Backseat.

As busy as he is, Rockwell’s looking forward to the PSIFF Gala, mostly because of its reputation as a lively event. Or in his words, “I heard it’s a riot.” He’s also excited to see Gary Oldman again. “I’ve hung out with Gary, and I’m a big fan.” Rockwell finds the entire awards-season whirlwind “thrilling, because it means people are going to see the movie.” And that’s what it’s ultimately all about — the work.