Most people come to Sam Rockwell sideways. Maybe they happen across one of his forays into the mainstream—his bad guy in Charlie’s Angels, say—and something snags their attention: the crackle of anarchy behind his eyes, the improvisatory scat of his line readings, or maybe just the way he seems to be grooving on his own badassness. So they start looking for him in other films. They might spot him in the sweetly inane Star Trek spoof Galaxy Quest, or as a con man in alligator boots in Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men, gently stealing scenes from under Nicolas Cage’s nose. Now they’re ready to make a gesture of serious commitment. They rent Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Snow Angels, or Moon, all indie films in which Rockwell stars, giving transfixing performances as men slowly losing their minds. At which point, they know they’re looking at an actor with all the voltage of a young Gary Oldman plugged into a very American playfulness—gentle, puckish, lemurlike.
“I remember seeing him very early on in Woody Allen’s Celebrity and thinking, Who is that guy?” says Christopher Walken, who co-stars with Rockwell in the new play from Martin McDonagh, A Behanding in Spokane (opening March 4). “Sam makes intelligence palpable, but he also has that playful quality that all great actors have. It’s remarkably similar to watching a kid make things up.”
I meet Rockwell at Angus McIndoe restaurant on 44th Street, close to where he’s been rehearsing. “I’d forgotten what hard, hard work theater is,” says the 41-year-old actor, who’s skinnier than you’d expect, fine-featured, with a thin aquiline nose. He orders vegetable soup, then drinks it straight from the bowl—tipping it up until it runs into his mouth—before moving on to a packet of chewing gum: one, two, three pieces. “I have this thing for eating too many pieces of gum,” he says, a little apologetically. Rockwell has a slight air of having been raised by wolves, but very considerate wolves who write thank-you notes after they’ve eaten all your sheep. When another actor recognizes him and heads over to the table—“Hi, Sam? We read together once?”—Rockwell shoots out of his chair to reassure the guy. “Of course, man, nice to see you, man, nice to see you … ”
Spokane is a black comedy about a small-town guy (Walken) being scammed by a couple in his efforts to get his left hand back. There’s an explosion, plenty of blood, and a prying hotel clerk played by Rockwell. “Pulp Fiction meets Arsenic and Old Lace,” is how he describes it. He says he’s tried to limit the number of off-the-wall roles he plays, but “people like Martin write these amazing parts and they’re oddballs, but such great oddballs. You go, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna do leading men,’ but I wouldn’t have gotten to work with Martin or Ron Howard on Frost/Nixon—that was a great supporting part, like Hotspur in Henry IV. So you can’t make rules,” Rockwell adds. “I’ve tried to sell out. It just never quite works.”
Spokane is the first work of the Irish playwright’s to be set in America. “Whenever I write an American character, I’ve always got Sam’s voice in my head,” says McDonagh. “He’s so consistently surprising. You can never quite put your finger on him, whether he’s the hero type or the bad guy. There’s a danger and an edge, but he’s got great comic timing too, which is perfect for this play.”
The other day during rehearsals, Rockwell and Walken got to swapping stories about their similar upbringings. By the time he was 16, Walken had posed naked in a calendar (admittedly as a baby), tamed a lion, and acted opposite Jerry Lewis. By the time Rockwell was 10, he’d acted in his first play, seen his first bare-breasted women, and smoked a joint. “I think that’s something Chris and I have in common, we were exposed to such weird stuff,” Rockwell says. “I was exposed to things that kids aren’t exposed to. It takes a lot to shock me—maybe that makes me a bit strange. I don’t know.”
Both of Rockwell’s parents were actors. But when he was 5, they separated, and he went to live with his father in San Francisco, visiting his mother in New York in the summers. “She couldn’t afford a babysitter, so she would take me to work. She used to sing telegrams for a living. She sang one to Jack Lemmon once. We’d go to the Greek coffee shops and order coffee, and I would get rice pudding and then she would take me to rehearsals with her.” It was a “magical” time, he has said, but also profoundly disorienting: One minute Rockwell would be backstage with a bunch of guys smoking dope and kissing girls, then “I would go back to the very provincial life in San Francisco.” When he moved full-time to New York, at 18, “I was just looking for adventure—for action. Like Holden Caulfield.”
It’s impossible not to see that childhood echoed in his work, with its abrupt switches from solitude to stimulation, from stardust to longing: his sex addict in Choke, for example, yanked from his mother’s breast and suckling himself in recovery, or last year’s astronaut, going stir-crazy on the dark side of the moon. Rockwell’s solitude can feel more populous than most people’s parties. “You do have to embrace your dark side, but you don’t have to drown in it,” he says. “I recommend therapy for actors. Brando was in therapy during the whole shoot of On the Waterfront. Like clockwork, every day. You don’t have to be an asshole to play an asshole.”
Rockwell’s next role, opposite Robert Downey Jr. in this summer’s Iron Man 2, is the leading-man rule broken again. Rockwell took the part because, for a blockbuster, “it was like an indie film, and a very actor-friendly set.” As with the first film, director Jon Favreau shot using multiple cameras and left a lot of room for improvisation. “No matter what film you put Sam in,” says Favreau, “or who you put him opposite—whether it’s Tom Hanks or Mickey Rourke—he never loses his footing. He’s got amazing balance, great poise.”
The only way to throw Rockwell off balance, I found, was to ask him to explain his Iron Man 2 role, Justin Hammer.
“He’s the bad guy,” he tells me.
“Isn’t Mickey Rourke the bad guy?”
“Actually, no, he’s not the bad guy. He’s more the hero.”
“But isn’t Iron Man the hero?”
He thinks about this. “I’m the plucky comic relief. Maybe with a bit of bad guy.” Which is another way of saying: The role will be played by Sam Rockwell.