Sam Rockwell Rocks the Indie Scene with Three New Films
by Anthony Kaufman
Sam Rockwell is on a roll. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the young
New York actor starred in three features, all of which were picked up for
distribution. The first of which, John Duigan’s “Lawn Dogs” (Strand
Releasing), in which Rockwell plays Trent, a sympathetic, dangerous
loner, opened last Friday. Also, coming up next month is the farcical
Rhode Island Jewish mafia movie, John Hamburg’s directorial debut, “Safe
Men” (October) which partners Rockwell with Steve Zahn as two
suburbanite-turned-safecrackers. And lastly, “Jerry and Tom” directed
by actor, Saul Rubineck, features Rockwell in the title role of Jerry, a
used car salesman and novice hit man. You can also see Rockwell as a
goofy moving man in Alexandre Rockwell’s latest, “Louis and Frank“,
which remains without domestic distribution.
Low-key and light-hearted, indieWIRE caught up with the charismatic
actor during the madness of Sundance for a conversation about his three
movies, the machismo of Steve Zahn, the depth of John Duigan and the
problems of film school directors. Of his experience at Sundance, he
said, “That’s really the only reason to be here, that’s what’s it
about. Let’s face it, people just want to shag.”
indieWIRE: Everyone’s saying that you’re the “It girl” of Sundance, this
year’s Parker Posey. . .
Sam Rockwell: Well, that’s cool. I love Parker, as a person and as an
actress. We worked together in this independent film “Drunks,” me and
her and Calista Flockhart who’s Ally MacBeal, a lot of New York stage
actors. “Drunks” is a really cool movie. Parker’s great in it. Parker
and I had this little thing at the very end, which was kind a cool. She
yelled at me. I told her character to “fuck off” and she told me to
“fuck off” and it was fun. That’s about as much contact as we’ve had.
I’d love to do something with her.
iW: Have you worked in theater a lot?
Rockwell: Yeah. I did theater since I was 10 years old. Theater is the
real deal. It keeps you sharp. It keeps you honed. It’s like a gem
iW: How did you manage to do these three films so close together?
Rockwell: We did “Lawn Dogs” a year and half ago. And we did “Jerry and
Tom” right after “Safe Men,” then I got terribly sick on Jerry and Tom,
off and on through the whole filming. I couldn’t do my normal. . . I
was really off kilter when I was shooting Jerry and Tom. If it wasn’t
one fucking thing, it was another: food poisoning, flu. It was
ridiculous. In the dog track scene, I had a terrible temperature. I
almost fainted walking to the set. “Safe Men” was exhausting, although
I had a great time on it. I have a special place in my heart for “Safe
Men.” That was a true independent film. In a budget sense. There were
no trailers. Steve [Zahn] and I were hanging out. It was guerilla
filmmaking. But we had a blast. And such good actors. For such a low
budget, we had top rate actors, Michael Lerner, Harvey Fierstein. Steve
Zahn, by far, one of the best actors I have ever worked with. He is a
truly gifted actor. Skilled. He comes from the stage, he’s from ART.
He’s a farm boy turned theater actor turned film actor. He builds barns
and hunts deer, and drinks beer and drives a Chevy Nova — he’s a man,
he’s a real man. In “Lawn Dogs,” I played this country, kind of macho
guy and I’m so not that, I’m such a city kid.
iW: How come you’re getting cast as thieves, and robbers and criminals?
Rockwell: But in “Safe Men,” that character is kind of a middle class
white guy, kind of a slacker. He turns safe cracker, but he’s never
really. . . I think Safe Men is actually one of the more normal
characters. I love “Safe Men.” I can’t figure out why it doesn’t have
distribution. I think it’s the most commercial movie of all three of
the movies. The other two have distribution. I don’t get it. “Safe
Men” is more straight out laugher. It’s just a matter of time. My
character in “Safe Men” is kind of fragile. He’s kind of a Felix Unger,
fragile is the key adjective, what’s his name again?
Rockwell: It is Sam. Jesus, that’s why I forgot it. Isn’t it that
weird? Samuel is actually his name. Samuel, which is not my name
actually, I am just Sam. My birth certificate says, Sam. So anyway,
the guy is very fragile, and almost bordering on hypochondria, kind of a
weird little guy and he’s afraid of everything. And Steve (Eddie) is
his only strength. So what’s great about it is that Steve immediately
made me feel like Samuel, because he’s such a macho farm guy that I
immediately felt just being in that relationship with Steve Zahn, I felt
like Samuel was to Eddie, because Sam Rockwell feels that way towards
Steve Zahn. Wow, this guy can build stuff, barns and stuff. And I’m
just like scared of going skiing. He uses powertools and shit. So, it
immediately made me feel like I was the woman in that relationship. I’m
the wife and he’s the husband.
iW: What do you think of John Hamburg?
Rockwell: Hamburg’s mind is so weird. He could be like the next Mel
Brooks. I really feel like he could do that. Or Woody Allen.
iW: So what was it like working with these three very different
directors? Like what was it like working with Duigan?
Rockwell: Duigan’s great. Incredible. He’s very calm and nurturing.
No pressure. There were a few times on the set where there was
pressure. Really calm and nurturing. When we had to do an emotional
scene, John and I were really, it was hands on, we were in there with
that character. We were both in there with Trent. What are we going to
do with this moment. We really broke it down. I had my game plan and
he had his point of view, his game plan, and we were pretty much on the
same train. It was great. He would have me do it again. This one
moment in the movie, with the girl, where I say, “What do you want from
me? You got all that out there. You’re a rich girl.” And it’s
beautiful. John had me do it again and again. It was really great, we
got just the right, it’s not too much, it’s this one little moment, it’s
really subtle, it’s real “Tender Mercies” type shit. It was a little too
over the top and then we did another one and it was just right and he
used that one. The scene with the parents I hope people understand
that. It’s pretty dramatic, I don’t know if it makes sense to
everybody. I know that someone in the audience asked me about it. Why
does Trent get so upset?
iW: Is this the most serious film you’ve done?
Rockwell: Yeah, I would have to say so. I did an HBO drunk driving
thing which was pretty heavy where he killed this guy and I have to live
with the guilt and all of this, but yeah, this is my dramatic whatever.
This is my Spartacus meets whatever, Jeff Bridges, so kind of my chance
to be Tommy Lee Jones in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Martin Sheen in
“Badlands,” kind of mix those guys together and maybe a little Travis
Bickle too and some John Voight thrown in there, and a little Duvall.
Steal from all the best. He’s the man. Did you see “Lonesome Dove“?
His performance is, man, it’s like they went back in time in a time
machine and got a Texas ranger and brought him back and said okay, we’re
going to have you do this movie. And he’s a Texas ranger from that
iW: Who else would you want to work with?
Rockwell: I really want to work with Gary Oldman. I want to play his
brother or something. Or have him direct me or I just want to get
inside that guy’s head, you know, and I know, I just feel that I know
the guy even though I don’t know him. I feel like I know him. If he
reads this, it’s going to freak him out, he’s gonna want to stay away
from me, “Oh, Jes, this guy’s a psycho.” I love his ballsiness. Whether
you agree with his choices or not, the guy’s got ‘cajones’ — he’s got
balls. And you know, he goes for it. I just think he’s great.
iW: What about directors?
Rockwell: Kubrick, Scorsese, but the future Kubricks and Scorseses —
who are those guys, where are they coming from? The Sidney Lumets or . .
. See, it’s hard because a lot of guys come out of film school and they
haven’t done theater. Sidney Lumet came from the theater, Pollack came
from theater, they directed plays. They know about structure. They
know about acting. That’s what Saul Rubinek knows, he knows about
theater, that’s why he was great for “Jerry and Tom.” I don’t know
where those guys are going to come from. That’s why I like it when
actors become directors and even though they’re not good directors, at
least, the process is easier with them. You can talk to them. These
guys that come out of film school, these young guys with money in their
pocket, it’s scary, hopefully that time is going to fade. I’m
iW: So does anyone mistake you for Alexandre Rockwell?
Rockwell: They think we’re brothers because we worked together three
times. Alex is like my spiritual brother. I was in “In the Soup,”
“Louis and Frank,” and “Someone to Love.” In “In the Soup,” I was the
retarded cousin of Jennifer Beals with the feathers. That was my
Leonardo DiCaprio cameo. Although I think DiCaprio did a better job as
a retard than I did. I met Alex’s ex-wife in acting class and we became
friends and then she introduced me to him and he saw me in a play as a
Brooklyn, Italian-American tough guy and then he cast me as a retard, so
I don’t get the connection.
iW: You get these tough guy roles. I’m still trying to figure out why
you get these tough call roles?
Rockwell: Yeah, I’m doing a play in New York. It’s called
“Goosepimples,” an old Mike Leigh play. But it’s great. It’s a very
deep play. I’m playing a really scary guy in this play, a street guy
who’s wants to be posh, who’s a car salesman and terrible racist and
kind of a thug who wants to be an aristocrat. So that’s a weird part,
an angry guy. I’m definitely not a tough guy. “Safe Men” is more like
the real me, probably, scared of everything. Or Jerry, I’m kind of a
goofball like Jerry.