Sam Rockwell is no stranger to Sundance – in fact the first time we met was at this very festival some 10 years ago. This time around he’s here with two films: the sci-fi thriller Moon, in which he plays an isolated moon station who discovers a clone of himself. Then there’s The Winning Season, just picked up by Lionsgate, in which he stars as an alcoholic basketball coach of a girl’s team. And the busy actor also signed up for Iron Man 2, script unseen. Paul Fischer caught up with the actor at the tail end of Sundance for this exclusive interview.
Question: What was it about Moon? Was it the fact that it gave you the chance to do something as an actor that had never been done before?
Rockwell: Yeah. I think that’s a big part of it. I think Duncan and I met, and then he wrote this part for me. We had talked about different sci-fi movies that we were fans of. We had met for another film. And he went off and wrote this thing and sent it to me. And I just thought it was an amazing challenge, but it was also a theme that I – you know, is fun to explore. And I think– that being loneliness and isolation– is an interesting theme as an actor. I think you can do a lot with it. In a way, it’s like Cast Away. It’s like Robinson Crusoe, you know? And it reminded me a lot of the old Twilight Zone episodes that I’d seen as a kid. One in particular with Jack Warden, when he was stuck on a planet. There were so many influences. I think at the time, right before we started shooting it, that movie I Am Legend had just come out, and I watched that. And I thought Will Smith was amazing, and it was very inspirational. I loved what he did in that, and I loved that film. And so we obviously had a lower budget. We didn’t have any monsters or anything. But we wanted to do a similar kind of film. But it’s a tough movie, I think, probably for people to keep their attention. I mean, it’s all on a space station. And it’s one actor playing whatever, two or three parts. So I’m sure it’s not an easy movie for people, probably. But I think it was worthwhile for me, creatively.
Question: What were the challenges for you to be playing the different aspects of this character? Two clones.Who do have very distinct – almost distinct personalities. And certainly just in issues that they deal with to keep up with what was going on?
Rockwell: Well, you know, the way that Duncan explained it to me was that this is basically the same guy. It’s a copy of the one guy, the original guy. So, one character is only there years older than the other character. So you think, like – well, you and I met, what, ten years ago? But, what were you like three years ago? Or, what was I like three years ago? And what are the big differences? So that was an interesting – the nuances of that is an interesting thing to explore. Also, that the question of the whole movie is, if you met yourself, would you like yourself? Or would you not? So, that’s the question that Duncan’s asking with the film. So when you think about that essential concept, I think – start from that. And go, ” Okay. Well, let’s examine that. Let’s see, how can we test that? How can we – you know, shake that up?” So that’s where we began. And then from there, you know, certain scenes developed. You know, I was always looking for behavior just to bring to the table.
Question: What are the physical challenges of doing a movie like this?
Rockwell: You know, you gotta stay healthy. I was trying to stay skinny, because one of them is getting sick. But not too skinny, because the other guy should be healthy. So we used a little makeup to help us with that. To make one guy look healthy and one guy look sick. And Midnight Cowboy was very useful for me. I watched that a lot. And Dead Ringers, with Jeremy Irons, was very – those are the two films I watched over and over again, to help me with this. Dead Ringers. Jeremy Iron’s performance is amazing. And then Midnight Cowboy, I thought – because we wanted enough of a contrast. Duncan really wanted a contrast between the clones. And we didn’t really have a big contrast in their appearance. So we had to work on very subtle things. You know, the makeup helped, and the way that they dressed. We did subtle things. I think he had – the healthier clone had sort of snugger clothing. He looked more fit, you know? We had loser clothing for the sicker one. So, little tricks like that could help to sort of make differences. And the makeup, obviously, for the sick one. But the physical challenges, I think were just – any 25-day, 30-day a month shoot is going to be taxing. You’ve got to take your vitamins and stay healthy. So you try not to drink too much, and go to bed early, and that’s about it.
Question: You’re at Sundance with two movies. It must be very fun for you to be here with two such contrasting pieces.
Rockwell: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Question: You’re a basketball coach.
Rockwell: Yeah. Alcoholic basketball coach.
Question: An alcoholic basketball coach.
Rockwell: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Question: Was that a character you could identify with?
Rockwell: You know, I like the character, because he’s kind of – he’s a misanthrope. He’s a curmudgeon, you know? So he was fun to play. And a lot of the movies, like Meatballs, and – Bad News Bears.
Question: It’s almost like Tom Hanks in League of Their Own.
Rockwell: Yeah. It’s a lot like that. It’s a lot like that. You saw it. So it was fun to play a character like that. I’ve never had a real chance to play a guy like that. I’ve never been old enough to play a guy – I have a pretty young-looking face. So I’m just starting to be able to play parts like that.
Question: You know, it’s interesting. You’re a character actor. You play lead roles in indie films, and really interesting supporting roles in studio movies. What are the challenges for you to find a balance between the kinds of work you want to do, and the work you need to do to make it as an actor?
Rockwell: I think that I’m pretty picky about the supporting roles that I do and the leading roles. But I think that I tend to do supporting roles if there’s somebody that I just can’t say no to, like Ron Howard, or Ridley Scott. Sometimes you just can’t say no to a script, or a person. Or people that you hear about, and you go, ” Well, I’ve got to show up for that, you know? In one capacity or another.”
Question: How would you define Ron as a director having worked with him in Frost/Nixon.
Rockwell: Yeah. He’s great. I mean, he knows what he wants. He’s got a vision, and he sticks to it. He knows exactly what he wants, and what he needs. He’s somebody – he’s a director to be reckoned with. He’s really – he’s a passionate director.
Question: Are you a research kind of guy?
Rockwell: Yeah. I do a little research. I didn’t – there wasn’t a lot of research to do for Moon.
Question: But Frost/Nixon.
Rockwell: Frost/Nixon, there was a lot of research. The Winning Season, I did some research for basketball coaches and stuff. I interviewed coaches, took some lessons. But, yeah, a lot of research for Frost/Nixon. A lot of research for that, yeah.
Question: And now that we have a new president, is Frost/Nixon even more relevant?
Rockwell: You know, had it been McCain, it would have been as relevant, as well. But I think it’s a very relevant movie, considering what’s going on in Iraq. And the Bush legacy. I think it makes it a very relevant film. There’s a lot of parallels between Richard Nixon’s Presidency, and Bush Junior’s Presidency.
Question: Do you think that in five or ten years time, he will be remembered differently than he is now? Do you think that history will continue not to be kind to him? As it was with Nixon for many, many years.
Rockwell: Yeah. I think he’s going to take a beating for what happened. But – I think he has taken a beating. And I think he will continue to. I don’t know. I mean, different people see it different ways, you know? I see the Iraq War as a travesty, just like Vietnam was. I think – you know, different people see it different ways. There’s definitely a lot of parallels. The Patriot Act is very similar to The Houston Plan, which Nixon and his people came up with. So there’s a lot of parallels.
Question: Did you see the Inauguration?
Rockwell: I did. I saw the speech. Yeah, it was great. I thought it was really – that guy can talk, man. He can – he’s a great speaker.
Question: And what are you doing next?
Rockwell: I’m going to go do a movie with Hillary Swank.
Question: Is it a major studio movie?
Rockwell: Tony Goldwyn’s directing it. It’s called Betty Ann Waters. Based on a true story.
Question: And you play?
Rockwell: I play a guy who’s wrongly accused of a murder, who goes to prison.
Question: And Hillary is your –
Rockwell: She’s my sister, and she becomes my lawyer. It’s a true story.
Question: Sounds great.
Rockwell: Yeah, it’s cool.
Question: And after that?
Rockwell: After that, possibly Iron Man 2. And I’m gonna do a play. I’m gonna do a play.
Rockwell: New York, on Broadway. Martin McDonagh wrote it.
Question: Who would you be in Iron Man?
Rockwell: Iron Man, I will be a character named Hammer, who was a rival to Tony Stark. Favreau’s an amazing director, yeah.
Question: How would you define the character?
Rockwell: You know, the thing about it is, I’ve accepted the part without – there’s no script, so I’m taking it on good faith, because the scriptwriter’s a friend of mine, Justin Theroux. So I’m taking it on good faith. And it’s been explained to me, the concept of the part. I’m just kind of jumping in. But it’s an opportunity to work with Favreau and Theroux and Don Cheadle and Robert Downer Junior. You can’t complain about that, you know what I mean? And Mickey Rourke. So, I mean, it can’t be a waste of time. Something will come out of it.