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.