Sam Rockwell…that's really all you need to say about any movie to get excited about it. If that doesn't do it for you, you probably don't like movies as much as you should. To bring Rockwell into your film means introducing an element of the unknown, but it's a chance that almost always pays off.
Take a look at his standout roles, either as a supporting player or lead, in such films as BOX OF MOON LIGHT, SAFE MEN, THE GREEN MILE, GALAXY QUEST, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, WELCOME TO COLLINWOOD, CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, MATCHSTICK MEN, JOSHUA, SNOW ANGELS, CHOKE, FROST/NIXON, EVERYBODY'S FINE, MOON, CONVICTION, SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, and earlier this year in the extraordinary THE WAY, WAY BACK.
I get dizzy just thinking about how good Rockwell is in these films. And in the coming months and year, we'll see him still in Clark Gregg's second film as a director, TRUST ME (his follow up to CHOKE); A CASE OF YOU; Lynn Shelton's LAGGIES; BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY; and WHY NOW? By all accounts (including his own), he's also preparing to star in the remake of POLERGEIST, which we discuss a bit at the end of our talk.
His latest film and reason for us chatting recently is the beautifully atmospheric, mountain man noir A SINGLE SHOT, a disturbing work in which Rockwell plays John Moon, a hunter who accidentally kills a bad man's girlfriend and steals his money, and is forced to pay the price for attempting to cover up both indiscretions. It's a film that has has familiar touches to such films as Sam Raimi's A SIMPLE PLAN and early Coen Brothers works, but there's something utterly unique about it as well, and that largely because of Rockwell's brooding, haunting performance.
The film is available On Demand now, and begins its theatrical run this weekend. Rockwell fans will rejoice. This is my third time talking to Rockwell, including a rather rousing screening of CHOKE before an audience of college students who were clearly moved by the film. And with that, please enjoy my talk with the great Sam Rockwell…
Sam Rockwell: Hey, Steve. What’s going on?
Capone: Hi, Sam. How are you?
SR: How are you doing?
SR: What’s the latest?
Capone: There’s no way you would remember this, but you were here in Chicago a few years ago with CHOKE, and we did a Q&A together at the Columbia College.
SR: Fuck yeah! Fucking hell, that’s so crazy. That was like really… I feel like that was a good crowd that showed up.
Capone: It was a great crowd. One of the single most entertaining things I have ever seen. It was really fun.
SR: Yeah, college kids love CHOKE. [laughs]
Capone: Anyway, so A SINGLE SHOT hit me out of nowhere. I really knew nothing about it when I saw it, which is the way I prefer it, and it floored me. John Moon is the quintessential desperate man even before he kills somebody. Is it more interesting as an actor to play a character who is just so fully front loaded with flaws and troubles? Is that kind of the meat and potatoes of what you enjoy the most about being an actor?
SR: Yeah, yeah. I think that’s well put. I think it is meat and potatoes. It’s really dark, fun, and gritty shit, you know?
Capone: Then you get to wear the full mountain man beard. In all seriousness, does that change the way you do something, when you’ve got the full facial hair?
SR: [Laughs] It’s fun. It’s just like another tool, another device for an actor, like putting on a mask. It’s another way to do that and get under that camouflage, so to speak.
Capone: There’s such a definite rhythm and pattern to the way that John unravels. I know they don’t shoot movies chronologically, so was that a tough thing to capture each time you’re shooting a new scene, remembering where you’re supposed to be on that scale?
SR: Yeah, you’ve really got to map that out, and that’s all in the preparation and homework. I have an acting coach I go to, and his name is Terry Knickerbocker, and we work out all of that stuff ahead of time. I worked with a dialect coach, Liz Himelstein, and you’ve got to do a lot of homework. And David [Rosenthal, director] and I did a lot of work on it ahead of time, so you would know exactly where you are.
Capone: Initially, what was it about this screenplay that really pulled you in and made you say “I think I want to tackle this guy?”
SR: Well, I think it’s just a great part in the way that some of these… You tell a story silently for the most part, and it’s what I like to do more than what I’m probably known for, a lot more “schmacting,” kind of broader characters, people who have to be dynamic. I prefer some of these other movies. The closest I’ve done is maybe MOON or LAWN DOGS or SNOW ANGELS or JOSHUA. I prefer to do this kind of film acting. I find it very concentrated and focused. It’s a throwback to what inspired me to be a film actor, movies like TAXI DRIVER and TENDER MERCIES and BADLANDS, and when you watch somebody like Isabelle Huppert in THE PIANO TEACHER, you know very internal performances where a lot is going on, but it’s all contained just at the surface. Those characters fascinate me. What Anthony Hopkins did in REMAINS OF THE DAY--those kinds of very internal characters fascinate me, and I find that really challenging to do. I’m interested to see THE BUTLER for that reason. I imagine it will be that kind of a performance
Capone: Forrest Whitaker definitely does. It seemed like the first 10 or 12 minutes of your film have no dialog, and that's such a great choice.
SR: Right on, man.
Capone: What was fascinating was that, as interesting and intricate as the story itself is, it all seems like an excuse to dig deeper into John’s demons, with his wife and son and the farm and the trouble with the law. The murder is piling on to problems he already has fully established.
SR: That’s exactly right. He’s already a fucking hot mess, and it just gets hotter.
Capone: You mentioned some of the other characters you're known for, and seeing this in fairly close proximity to THE WAY, WAY BACK, which is just quintessential of what people think of you as doing best, it was really great to get that range within a couple of months of each other.
SR: Thanks, man. Thanks a lot.
Capone: I was talking to David about the oppressively grim landscape where you were shooting and how that adds to the tension and the sense of isolation. Can you talk about being there and feeling that?
SR: You know, it definitely helps. We had a lot of fun, me and David, as well. We're about the same age and have similar aesthetics and friends in common. We had a good time doing the movie, but yeah, the physical terrain was tough. Everybody was in danger of twisting an ankle; I think we did twist a few ankles up there. There was mud and rain and the commute was a little rough, sitting in a car two hours a day was probably the worst of it. Once we got out and stretched around we were okay, but yeah.
Capone: People have done it before, but it's interesting when you put a noir story in the backwoods. What is it that you think works about that combination?
SR: I’m glad you picked up on that. The structure of the film is more like a CHINATOWN or MALTESE FALCON or THE BIG SLEEP. But you’re right, we're doing it with some hicks in the Appalachians. I think that’s really cool. I think that’s what we were shooting for, and then there’s the Edgar Allen Poe kind of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT aspect of the story, which is very dark. We debated whether to do that ending or not. That’s the ending from the book.
Capone: I forgot to ask David about that ending. I was going to say “was there ever another ending other than that?”
SR: We thought up some and talked about different options, but we just went with it, the one from the book.
Capone: I’m not going to lie, that’s some grim shit.
Capone: I love that look on your face of just resignation. Did you have to do anything to learn the behaviors of a hunter?
SR: Yeah, you can pick up some tips from real hunters and how to hold a gun and how they move a little bit. I talked to some real dear hunters a little bit and shot that gun specifically. I’ve shot a lot of guns, but that’s a different kind of gun. That was a 12-gauge shot gun. Yeah, you want it to feel authentic.
Capone: I’m wondering if the guy who is poaching behaves any differently than a licensed hunter.
SR: That’s a good question.
Capone: Is he a little sneakier?
Capone: It seems like his goal would be to get in and out as fast as possible.
SR: Yeah, I think a lot of guys poach. It’s actually pretty common.
Capone: John Moon is not an easy guy to like. I think it’s got a lot of flaws. He’s making life tough for his wife and son. He’s already in trouble with the law. How do you go about making an audience care about his fate want him to stay alive when all of these people want him dead?
SR: [laughs] That’s a good question. To some degree, that’s the filmmaker’s responsibility, but it’s also my responsibility. I just try to identify with this guy and ask “What would you do if you found all that money?” or “What would you do if you did something really horrible thing? How would you really react?” I think what’s happening with this particular guy is that he’s in a real denial about what he’s just done, he’s just killed this girl, and I don’t think he really comes face to face with it emotionally until maybe the scene where the bad guys put the dead body in his bed in plastic with a note at one point. I think that’s when it starts to hit him.
Before that he’s a little bit running away from the problem and in a bit of a fantasy land, like he’s thinking he’s going to work it out with his family and get money, and then he finds out his wife is with somebody else, and it really comes down on him, that he’s fucked, and all the money in the world isn’t going to help him. I think he finally melts down and tries to redeem himself at the end.
Capone: Before they shut us down, I had a couple of questions about some film already finished, but I’ve got to ask about the one that we’ve just started hearing rumors about, which is this POLTERGEIST thing. Is that a real thing?
SR: It’s in the early stages of what you call "negotiations." There are some rewrites that are being done and making the character a little more “actor friendly,” shall we say.
Capone: Wow, okay. Is it a new story?
SR: It's changed. The relationship is different. There’s more of a financial dilemma. Yeah, so it’s a little different, but it’s the same basic story.
Capone: Of the list that I see you’ve already shot, the one I’m actually most curious about is Lynn Shelton’s film LAGGIES. I assume she did her style of directing where there’s a lot of improv. Maybe not, because it’s not her script.
SR: There was a little bit of that, but this script is so good. This young girl [Andrea Seigel] wrote this amazing script, and the dialog is very good in a James Brooks vein, I suppose. That’s the closest thing I can compare it to. But she definitely is improv friendly, Lynn, and I had a blast with her. But I was very respectful of the text, and I think so was Lynn. This girl wrote a great script, and it’s Keira Knightley’s character’s story; I’m a supporting character, but I have a lot of fun in it.
Capone: But Lynn does let you guys go off script if you feel the desire?
SR: Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. We had a great time. She’s awesome. I think we're going to work together again. She’s awesome.
Capone: Alright. Sam thanks. It was great talking to you again, man.
SR: Yeah, man. If you come to New York, maybe we’ll do an interview there.