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.