It’s been a kudo-worthy season for Sam Rockwell, who emerged as the motor-mouthed, big-hearted highlight of July’s shore-town dramedy “The Way, Way Back,” and now ends the summer with a bang in David M. Rosenthal’s “A Single Shot,” a tight backwoods thriller that sees Rockwell deftly slip back into dark territory. Such is the way it’s been through much of the 44-year-old character actor’s career: he’s regularly wowed in roles both comedic and dramatic, often alternately, and as he continues to foster relationships with budding directors like Rosenthal, he’s stepping up to become a bona fide leading man (in “A Single Shot,” he takes the lead as John, a West Virginia hunter who accidentally shoots a woman in the wild, then wrestles with the aftermath while dealing with a crumbling family and a mysterious bag of money to boot). In other words, it seems there’s little Rockwell can’t do these days.
When Rockwell meets me in Tribeca, he’s not alone. Along for the chat is the actor’s German Shepherd, Sadie, who seems the ideal companion for a man promoting a film about the animalism that can surface in the hunting world. Sadie may not be much of a movie buff (she’s out cold in no time), but Rockwell is, and during the course of our interview, he talks about working with new new filmmakers, shooting on location, getting into character with facial hair and firearms, and how going to the movies can be a religious experience.
So the last time we saw you on screen, which was recently, you were serving up breathless humor in “The Way, Way Back.” Now you’re deep in dramatic territory again with “A Single Shot.” Do you like toggling between these tonally different projects? Or do you just take the good jobs as they come?
I take whatever good jobs I can as they come, but I definitely like to shake it up. Mainly, though, my artistic aesthetic is usually darker than most people’s, I think, so I tend to like stuff like this—isolated people who are a bit off the grid and a little lonely. I like characters like that. They’re fun, and, dramatically, there’s a lot to chew into.
I feel like we can often gauge what kind of Sam Rockwell character we’re going to get based on how much facial hair you have. The bigger the beard, the darker the role, perhaps.
[Laughs] Sometimes, yeah. Maybe that’s true. You know, the facial hair is a good device, isn’t it? It’s a good tool to play around with in terms of the regionalism, and whether [the character] is working class or not. It’s fun to play around with that stuff, for sure.
Speaking of things that help you get into character, there’s an immediate, beautiful gloom to this film’s woodsy atmosphere, and it’s all shot on location in Vancouver. As someone who comes from the theater, do you always find it helpful to be immersed in a place like that, as opposed to, say, pretending the environment’s there?
Absolutely. When you’re really running through the woods, and you could really twist your ankle at any second, and you’re running around with a gun, it’s definitely more crisp, and it’s going to bring some more reality to it, for sure. And it was cool to be in that world.
When the incident of the title first happens, your character, John, turns around and vomits. And personally, I almost always find the vomiting of characters in turmoil to be very dramatically effective. It’s that primal gut-punch. What’s it like to fake-vomit on camera?
Well, you know, it’s another good device, dramatically. We talked about it a lot, me and David [M. Rosenthal], because [John] doesn’t really deal with the trauma of killing this girl until really later in the film. And I think before that he’s in a little bit of denial, and having a strange reaction to the killing, because he’s not really addressing it. He’s making some poor choices, he’s scrambling, he’s having a meltdown slowly, and he’s not in touch with everything that happened initially. I think the vomit is a nice way to introduce his body to this trauma, and slowly, his emotions catch up with his body, I think.
And there are layers of denial and moral conflict in the film, as John has unwittingly done something terrible while also trying to do good by his family amid a potential divorce. I imagine that dense push-pull is what you found most compelling about the role.
Yeah. I think this whole thing of him wanting to get his family back together, and just how pathetic it really is when you realize [his wife] is with somebody else—it’s very sad. Because he’s really living in a dream world. He’s killed this girl, and he’s thinking he’s going to get back with his family, and he’s got this money hanging around. He’s really in denial.
It reminded me of the movie “A Simple Plan,” with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, wherein simple, well-meaning people make some epically poor decisions involving money and murder.
Oh, yeah. There are a lot of similarities there. Very much so. That’s a very good movie. I really like that movie. And “No Country for Old Men.” There are a lot of movies like that, and noir films, that tackle that subject well. “One False Move” is another one.
Given that this is a film about hunters, another moral quandary that’s presented is the killing of animals versus the killing of humans, and how one is justifiable and the other is not. The lines are blurred further by the idea of flesh, and meat, that’s brought up. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, yeah, we kill both here. “The Deer Hunter” deals with that idea a little bit too. I think it’s an interesting thing to talk about. I mean, we could talk about it forever. But it definitely says something—I think there’s definitely an anti-violent message in [the film]. I guess you could say it’s anti-guns, in a way. And, oddly, “Seven Psychopaths “was anti-guns. People might not see that at first viewing, but I think some movies that deal with violence and weapons are giving an anti-gun message. The other message [in “A Single Shot”], I think, is just, “Be careful. Don’t fuck up.”[Laughs]
Well, where do you personally stand when it comes to gun legislation and things like that?
Oh, man, I think guns are fun to play with, but you gotta be very careful. I mean, I play with them in movies, but I think it’s a very tricky thing. I think that I would lean toward the more liberal point of view when it comes to guns. We’re a little gun-crazy here in this country, for sure.
Ever do any hunting?
No, I haven’t. I’ve shot a lot of guns, in movies and outside of movies, at targets and stuff, but I haven’t hunted an animal. I eat a lot of animals, so I guess that’s the same thing. But David has done a little hunting, and I talked to a lot of hunters before I did the movie, even just about how to hold the gun properly and stuff like that. But, yeah, it’s a strange thing to hunt an animal, isn’t it? Have you ever hunted?
Yeah, it’s an odd thing. But, then, we eat meat. I guess if you use the meat then I sort of feel like it’s okay. But there so many instances of just killing animals and leaving them there. Like, we used to shoot the buffalo for marksmanship, and just leave it there. Which, you know, is a waste of good buffalo burgers.
In regard to David, who’s fairly green on the film front, you’re someone who works with a lot of either first-time or up-and-coming directors—Duncan Jones, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and David Posamentier and Geoff Moore, who are co-directing their upcoming debut feature, “Better Living Through Chemistry,” with you as the lead. Do you think you’ve built up a reputation as someone who’s approachable for new filmmakers? With the roles they’re giving you, it seems like you’ve formed a lot of symbiotic relationships.
Yeah, I think I probably do have that reputation, only out of necessity, because that’s where I do find a lot of the good roles most of the time. I’ve never really gone for the money. Sometimes it’s part of the equation—everybody’s got to make a living—but it’s never been the whole equation for me. So, yeah, I will hold out for a good role, and I have turned down a lot of money before by doing that. And I don’t necessarily think it matters whether it’s a studio venue or a small venue. But I do think you gotta be willing to get a little scared, be uncomfortable. Sometimes that can be good for the work. And sometimes it works out, like with David Rosenthal, and Duncan, and Nat and Jim, but sometimes it winds up being a movie that nobody sees. So you’re taking a chance. But you’re always taking a chance.
In terms of your movies getting seen, “A Single Shot” is one of many smaller, arthouse films that have been using multimedia platforms like VOD to gain exposure. Are you digging this approach to promoting and disseminating some of your less mainstream work?
Yeah, I think we have to find a way, you know? It’s all changed so much. So I think it’s okay to do it that way. I would hate to just do it on TV or VOD, though—I would always want to have something in the theater. Because I believe in going to a dark movie theater. I think that’s important. But this method seems to be working, and it’s a good way to market some of these films. By the way, “A Single Shot” was shot on real film, which I think is important to mention, since film is kind of a dying medium.
Do you go to the movie theater a lot yourself?
I do. I’ll go see just about anything. I just like to go, and have some popcorn. I think that whole experience is pretty great. Like you’re in a church or something.