Sam Rockwell has played his share of interesting characters, but Choke is a whole different ball game. Here he plays Victor Mancini a medical-school dropout who has devised an ingenious scam to pay elder care for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother: he pretends to choke on pieces of food while dining in upscale restaurants.
He then allows himself to be “saved” by fellow patrons who, feeling responsible for Victor’s life, go on to send checks to support him. When he’s not pulling this stunt, Victor cruises sexual addiction recovery workshops for action, visits his addled mom, and spends his days working at a colonial theme park. The often shy actor talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: So, this is really a very – really unusual character, by any stretch of the imagination.
Question: Obviously you have always been drawn – I think the first time I met you was at Sundance for Lawn Dogs, so you’ve always been drawn to these kinds of very odd characters. Why is that?
Rockwell: I don’t know. I just think of them as outcasts, or antiheroes. And – I didn’t think of them as that odd, I guess. But I guess people – you know, they’re not your typical – I think they’re more interesting.
Question: What was it about this particular guy, and his – that appealed to you? Was it the overall character, or the general script?
Rockwell: I liked the character. I liked the script. I liked the story. It was about people connecting, and people trying to find love, you know? In all the wrong places.
Question: Is it about somebody craving attention, as well?
Rockwell: Yeah. I think it’s about that. I think it’s about somebody trying to really find some kind of connection with somebody, you know? Find some love.
Question: Could you identify with him at all?
Rockwell: Yeah. I mean, I think everybody has a little bit of Victor in him. Maybe not everybody, but I don’t think it’s that obscure. I think it’s pretty universal. Mothers and sons and stuff like that, and just trying to find – you know, have a normal relationship. You know? Anybody who’s single can kind of relate, I think.
Question: What about the kinds of physical challenges you had to prepare for this? I guess the choking aspects of this. What difficulties were there for you in being able to do that, and to work through all that stuff?
Rockwell: Yeah. I guess that stuff was a lot of fun to get into. It’s the choking stuff is a way for him to get someone to embrace him and take care of him, and stuff like that.
Question: Do you think that there’s not enough films that deal with the purity of emotion in American film?
Rockwell: The purity of emotion.
Question: Films that really get to the emotional core of relationships and characters?
Rockwell: I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I think there are movies like that, like Terms of Endearment deals with that kind of stuff. I think – yeah. Yeah. I think that there are movies like that. But, you know, they’re few and far between.
Question: Are they the kinds of movies you also like to see as an audience member?
Rockwell: I do. You know, Harold and Maude. The Fisher King. Movies like that, you know, they stayed with me. They had that kind of tone.
Question: What was it about acting that appealed to you, when you were younger?
Rockwell: I guess hiding under another character, and trying to sort of just pretend – you know, trying to – wanting to be a cowboy, or be a detective, or something romantic like that – that’s usually what it was all about. Pretend.
Question: Did you always see yourself, when you were working as an actor, do you feel it’s more important for you to be in independent films as a way of expressing yourself as an actor, more than what mainstream Hollywood was prepared to offer you?
Rockwell: Oh, yeah. I think it’s a better venue to do the kinds of parts that I’d like to do, you know? I think so, yeah.
Question: Frost/Nixon is hardly an independent film. How much fun was it for you to play James Reston in that piece?
Rockwell: That was a lot of fun. It was hard work, to do all the research and play a smart person, so to speak. It was good, though. It was a lot of fun. I mean, it was working with all those people. Ron Howard, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen. It was a lot of fun. Lot of fun.
Question: How would you describe Ron as a director?
Rockwell: I had a great time with him, yeah. He’s very passionate. Very passionate man. I really had a good time with him.
Question: Had you seen the play?
Rockwell: I did see the play. Yeah. I liked it a lot. I’m really happy with what we did in the film. I haven’t seen it, but I felt good when we walked away from it.
Question: You’re incredibly busy. You seem to have a few things coming out, or that you’ve finished working on.
Question: Is that gratifying for you?
Rockwell: It is. I think it’s probably better to be busy than not busy, as a rule.
Question: How selective are you?
Rockwell: I’m pretty selective. I’m pretty selective, but I’ve had some good opportunities lately that I didn’t want to pass up.
Question: Such as Moon, I presume would be one of them?
Rockwell: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That’s – I’m real proud of that. It was a tough shoot.
Question: In what sense?
Rockwell: Well, technically challenging. I’m playing clones and stuff. So that was kind of tough. You know. But it was a real acting challenge. It was fun, though. It was a lot of fun.
Question: What sort of character do you play in that?
Rockwell: I play a guy who’s mining a product called Helium Three on the moon. He’s stranded on a space station on the moon. And he’s been up there quite like Robinson Crusoe. And he meets his clone. And he’s been up there with a robot. And then he meets his clone, and he has to deal with the clone.
Question: So you were acting – you were playing both the character and the clone.
Rockwell: Yeah. Yeah. And so technically, it’s a bit of a trick, with the stop-motion camera. It’s a lot of effects. And to do it – we did it in a month, you know? So we did, like, five weeks or something. It was a tough shoot, you know?
Question: Wow. I guess there’s also fairly high expectations on this Robert DeNiro movie that you did called Everybody’s Fine.
Rockwell: Yeah. That was a lot of fun, yeah.
Question: With Kate, and – who do you play in that?
Rockwell: I play Bob DeNiro’s son.
Question: So, what’s it like being Bob DeNiro’s son?
Rockwell: It was fun, you know because he’s a big hero of mine. So I got to act with him, and that was a real – that was a treat. You know? Because, I mean, I grew up watching Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Raging Bull. You know? I mean, he really is my idol, you know? So working with him was a bit surreal.
Question: He has a reputation of being a very, very shy guy. Do you find that yourself?
Rockwell: Yeah. Well, I think he is shy. And I think he is not a big talker, you know? But he likes a good laugh as much as anybody else.
Question: What else have you finished?
Rockwell: Well, we’ve got Gentlemen Broncos by Jared Hess, too. That’s in the can, too. The guy who directed Napoleon Dynamite.
Question: Is it another sort of strange comedy?
Rockwell: Yeah. It’s kind of like Rushmore meets Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon.
Question: Really? Does it have a sci-fi tone to it?
Rockwell: Yeah, it does. You’ll see. It’s a movie within a movie. It’s an interesting film.
Question: What kind of character do you play in that?
Rockwell: I play, like, a hillbilly Buck Rogers. Sort of a cowboy Flash Gordon.
Question: You’ve been in the business a long time, Sam. Do you have any aspirations to do anything else besides being in front of the camera?
Rockwell: You know, I don’t know. Maybe someday. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens. We’ll see what – if it’s the right job, you know?
Question: Do you want to direct?
Rockwell: I don’t know. It’d have to be the right material. I don’t really have a big desire right now, but you never know.