We’re not going to be another one of those magazines that calls Sam Rockwell “quirky.”
Oh sure, it’s probably true. Just look at his resumé. From his first acting gig in the 1989 indie flick Clownhouse, where he played a mental patient dressed like a clown, to the upcoming black comedy Choke, where he portrays a sex addict and historical war re-enactor who chokes on food to pay his mother’s hospital bills, his film work has been consistently… well, you know the word we mean. It rhymes with perky.
Not convinced? Well, consider his other movie roles, like the lawn-mowing social outcast in Lawn Dogs (1997), or the Davy Crockett wanna-be living in a half-built mobile home in Box of Moon Light (1996), or the game show host tricked into becoming a CIA assassin in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), or the two-headed, solipsistic former President of the Galaxy in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005). Sam Rockwell may be a lot of things, but he’s not the chiseled and humorless Hollywood leading man or the lovable and innocuous boyfriend in a romantic comedy. He’s something altogether more…
Please don’t make us say it.
We called Sam at his home in New York to ask about his latest films, Snow Angels and Choke, and much to nobody’s surprise, we didn’t discuss either movie for very long. Instead, we talked about private detectives and Kevin Bacon’s super-cool walk and why you shouldn’t own a computer even if your friends think you’re crazy.
We’re not entirely sure what Sam was doing during the interview. At several points during our conversation, we heard flushing and the unmistakable grind of a blender and what sounded like something being crushed under a boot. We didn’t ask questions because honestly, even over the phone, Sam Rockwell scares us a little bit. In a good way, we mean. In a… okay, fine, we’ll come right out and say it… in a quirky way.
Are you satisfied now?
Eric Spitznagel: Both of the characters in your upcoming films could be described as a little depressing. There’s Glenn from Snow Angels, a suicidal Born-Again Christian who just wants his wife back. And then there’s Victor from Choke, a con man with a Jesus complex and a penchant for fucking strangers in church bathrooms. Why are you drawn to such troubled characters?
Sam Rockwell: I don’t know. I’ve always been attracted to outsiders. I guess because I’ve always thought of myself as an outsider. When I was growing up, my favorite movies were The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver, stuff like that. I didn’t really relate to conventional heroes or good guys. I liked characters with real problems.
When you approach a character like Victor in Choke, who believes he’s a direct descent of Jesus Christ, do you keep him at arm’s length because he’s such an obvious nutjob, or do you find a way to identify with him on a more personal level?
At least in the beginning, it’s all analytical. But as you get more involved, you have to start identifying with the guy on some level. And if you can’t relate to him, you find your substitutions – the “as ifs” – and do whatever it takes to make it work for you. If the script isn’t personal enough, you do what’s necessary to make it come to life for you.
But you’re not a method actor, right? You’re not going to go out and have sex in a church bathroom just because Victor did?
No, I wouldn’t do that. I don’t think you need to do that. I think the imagination is enough.
Unless you’re just doing it for your own kicks. You could always call your girlfriend and say, “Hey, I’m doing some research for a movie. How soon can you meet me at the Catholic church downtown?”
[Laughs.] I’ve done some nutty things, but I haven’t done that. I have enough weird experiences to draw on.
[A long pause.]
You’re just going to tease us, aren’t you?
[Another long pause.]
Okay, fine. Choke is only the second adaptation of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Does it feel like there’s a lot of pressure for this movie to become a cult hit like Fight Club?
Naw. It’s nothing like Fight Club. This is a guerilla version of a Chuck Palahniuk book. Fight Club had a bigger budget and a lot of special effects. We don’t have any of that shit. We were low-budget and we shot the entire thing in twenty-five days.
Is that short? We have no idea.
That’s extremely short. The schedule was exhausting. And the scope of the film is huge. It’s like Boogie Nights with all the different locations and costumes and set pieces. Three months would’ve been more realistic. It was a tough shoot.
It sounds like it was draining both physically and emotionally.
Very emotionally draining, yeah. The part of Victor is like a modern Hamlet.
But a way more fucked-up Hamlet who likes raping elderly women in senior retirement homes.
Oh yeah, definitely. A fucked-up Hamlet, to be sure.
Speaking of, Choke the novel had a lot of explicit and sometimes violent sex scenes. Was there anything that had to be changed or edited for the film version?
I’m sure there was, but I think we were pretty faithful. Clark (Gregg, the director) wrote a great screenplay. It’s been awhile since I read the book. I don’t know what we left out.
Let’s cut right to the obvious question. Did you keep the scene involving anal beads?
[Laughs.] Oh yeah, that’s still in there.
Seriously? Good lord, man. You are a dedicated thespian.
There are anal beads, I’ll just say that. I don’t want to give anything else away.
The New York Times once described your childhood as a “footloose upbringing.” Did you grow up in a small Midwestern town that banned dancing and rock music?
[Laughs.] I don’t know what they were talking about. I might’ve told them that I related to the character in Footloose because I was a city kid and a couple of times I had to move to the suburbs and I never felt comfortable there. But it was never really a Footloose upbringing.
So you’ve never been involved in any dance competitions?
Well, sometimes I’ll go to a party with a bunch of white people and, you know…
You’ll bust a move?
Yeah. I can dance. I like dancing. It’s funny, I just worked with Kevin Bacon on Frost/Nixon, and he was so cool. He’s got the coolest walk ever. I think I stole his walk when I was The Kid (his character in the 1996 movie Box of Moon Light), and I just can’t shake it.
What is it about the way Kevin Bacon walks? Is there a lot of swagger in his shoulders?
Yeah, there’s a little bit of that Jimmy Caan shoulder thing. It’s a very authentic, genuinely cool walk. It’s not put-on. It’s for real. You can’t pretend to do a walk like that.
Is it true that you made your stage debut at age ten, doing an improv comedy sketch at an East Village theater?
Yeah, yeah. It was with my mother. It was a skit about Casablanca and I did a pretty good Humphrey Bogart impression.
Would you do a little Bogart for us right now?
Uh, okay, let’s see. [Speaking vaguely like Bogart.] “Sam, I thought I told you never to play that song again.” Oh man, that’s terrible. I can’t do it anymore.
Try Humphrey Bogart asking somebody to have sex with him in a church basement.
Okay. “Sam, why don’t you come down to the basement with me?” [Laughs.] That didn’t sound like Bogart at all. That was a little more Edward G. Robinson.
And when Edward G. Robinson asks you to come down to a church basement, you probably shouldn’t go.
Yeah. Nothing good can come from that.
Every actor has had crappy day jobs as they’ve waited to be discovered, but you probably had the best crappy day job ever.
Really? What are you talking about?
When you worked as a private detective’s assistant.
Oh, yeah, that. Actually, I was just an intern for a private detective. But yeah, I did that for a couple of months in the early 90s.
How do you land a job like that?
It was a complete fluke. I was roped into it by another intern. We were both students in the same acting class in New York, and one night I bumped into him at a restaurant and he was acting really quiet and mysterious. So I said, “What the hell are you doing?” And he said, “Shhh, I’m following somebody.” He was on a job, which seemed so cool to me at the time. Then he called me a couple of days later and said, “You wanna make $50? We’re gonna tail this chick that might be having an affair.” And that was it.
Well, who could blame you? Nobody in their right mind would say no to an offer like that.
That was in 1991, so $50 was a little more money.
Even if there was no money, c’mon, who doesn’t want to be a part of a spying mission? Please tell us that you were in a van with “Flower Delivery” painted on the side and you were both dressed in Dickies overalls.
It was nothing that cool, I’m afraid. We were in a car and we followed her to a hotel. I think it was a girl, it might’ve been a guy, I forget. Somebody was suing somebody for more alimony and they needed evidence of marital infidelity.
Was the job always that exciting?
I didn’t find it exciting at all. It was too sleazy for me. I didn’t have the stomach for it. And it was too boring. The rest of the time I was just doing paperwork. Once I went out to Queens to do some research. It was pretty boring stuff.
So you were never in a smoky office in Chinatown with a yellow neon sign flashing in the window and no overhead lighting?
No such luck.
You never used words like Dame or Moll?
No, sorry. I use them now, though. All the time.
Let’s get back to your films. Although you’ve done a few big-budget movies, you’re probably best known for your indie projects. One of the best, as least for those of us who never leave the house and get all of our information from the Internet, is “Robin’s Big Date.”
[Laughs.] You saw that?
For those who don’t know, it was a short you did with Justin Long for the Red Headed League website.
That’s a funny little movie. Justin and I are friends, and we just did it on a lark. There’s talk that there might be a sequel.
In the film, Batman walks in on a date with Robin and tries to seduce his girlfriend. It’s a revelation for those of us who thought Batman was a morally-upstanding guy. You play him as kinda a dick.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I do.
Why is that? What’s at the root of his behavior? Is it jealousy? Or is Batman just afraid of losing Robin?
He’s the slick wanna-be ladies man. But he’s not nearly as cool as he thinks he is. He’s kinda a dorky version of Vince Vaughn. He’s trying too hard.
The movie is probably the first and only time that Robin has ever been referred to as “Cock Block Junior.”
[Laughs.] I hope so, anyway. That was all scripted. We didn’t do much ad-libbing at all. I wish I could take credit for it.
It was an unconventional choice to give Batman a beard.
Well, I was getting ready to do Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so it was mostly because of that. But yeah, for Batman, it was kinda an out-there choice. Watch out, Christian Bale.
Would you consider taking over the role of Batman in the inevitable sequel, Batman Lets Himself Go and Gets a Potbelly?
Sure. If Christian gets tired and wants to take a break, I’m available.
Let’s play a game of free association. I’ll say a few random quotes from Chuck Palahniuk’s book, Choke, and you tell us whether you agree or disagree.
Okay, let’s try it.
“A good addiction takes the guesswork out of death.”
I like that sentiment. It’s very Victor. He’s a great anti-hero.
“Art never comes from happiness.”
[Long pause.] Ummm… I don’t know if that’s… I don’t know if I agree with that. [Another long pause.] Yeah, there is a lot of pain in art. It’s probably true. Great art can be painful. But I don’t know if that’s an absolute.
“We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Or we can decide for ourselves.”
That’s the last line of the book, isn’t it? I think that’s very true. You just have to be who you’re going to be without any apologies. As long as you don’t hurt anybody, you’re fine. It’s amazing how often people judge you for the weirdest things. Like, for instance, I don’t have a computer. Sometimes when I tell people that, they get angry about it. “Why don’t you get with the fucking program?!” Or some people think it’s adorable or quirky or lovably idiosyncratic. I don’t really care either way. That’s just who I am. Maybe someday I will get a computer, but I’m not going to get one because of expectations.
“Without access to true chaos, we’ll never have true peace. Unless everything can get worse, it won’t get any better.”
Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that. Again, it’s about expectations. People can screw themselves up trying to live up to the expectations of strangers.
“Even the worst blowjob is better than sniffing the best rose, watching the greatest sunset, hearing children laugh.”
I don’t know. I’d have to think about that one.
Seriously? Wow. You must’ve seen some jaw-droppingly beautiful sunsets.
(Softly.) Yeah, yeah.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2008 issue of Mean magazine.)