Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s funny and heartfelt “The Way Way Back” chronicles the summer adventures of introverted 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) who finds himself on a forced “family” vacation with his mother (Toni Collette), her overbearing boyfriend (Steve Carell) and his daughter (Zoe Levin). Duncan discovers an unexpected friend in Owen (Sam Rockwell), the gregarious manager of the local Water Wizz Water Park, who takes Duncan under his wing and becomes his unconventional mentor. Owen has a hard time getting his act together and his devil-may-care approach to life eventually gets him in trouble with Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), a no-nonsense water park employee who has everything under control except her own love life.
At an entertaining and completely improvised roundtable interview, Rockwell and Rudolph talked about their characters, their ying and yang dynamic, shooting on location in New England, the advantages of being directed by directors who are also actors from the world of improv, how they’re always learning when they’re surrounded by great people, how comedy can be a delicate weapon, the three rules of improvisation and why it’s a team effort, and their upcoming projects including Rudolph’s “Turbo,” “Inherent Vice,” and “Grown Ups 2,” and Rockwell’s “A Single Shot” and “Better Living Through Chemistry.”
Question: Maya, you and Sam have a very ying and yang dynamic.
Maya Rudolph: (to Sam Rockwell) I hope I’m the yang to your yang.
Sam Rockwell: I hope so, too.
Rudolph: Don’t yang my ying.
Rockwell: Don’t yang *my* ying.
Q: Sam, how do you pass somebody inside in the water slide tunnel?
Rockwell: Good question. Flexibility. That is the answer.
Rudolph: What do you mean? Like you stretch past them?
Rockwell: I think you gotta be flexible. It’s like pliametrics. You have to be able to hop around.
Rudolph: Wow, he just pulled that out.
Rockwell: Yeah. I pulled that right out of my butt.
Q: Sam, Liam said you were a wonderful person to work with and a very generous actor.
Rockwell: Oh, that’s nice.
Rudolph: That was so nice of him.
Rockwell: Lies. All lies.
Q: Can you talk about what the experience was like working with him?
Rockwell: It was great. He was such a sweet guy. He’s really earnest and he’s just a natural actor. Yeah, he was great. He’s a really cool kid and a funny guy, too.
Rudolph: We got into some stupid apps. That was my contribution to his youth.
Rockwell: You got stupid apps?
Rudolph: I introduced him to stupid apps.
Rockwell: What kind of apps?
Rudolph: I can’t remember, but there was this photo one. Maybe it was Old Booth. I always turn people onto Old Booth.
Rockwell: I need more apps in my life. What’s Old Booth?
Rudolph: It’s the one where you can stick your face into an old high school photo.
Rockwell: Oh, that’s cool.
Rudolph: You can do like 50’s, 60’s portraits and then you have like a crazy Afro.
Rockwell: Oh yeah. I’ve seen that app. Justin Long does that app a lot. He likes it.
Rudolph: It’s really enjoyable and it’s G-rated.
Rockwell: Exactly. G-rated fun. There you go!
Q: But see, with all your characterizations, Sam, you don’t need that app. All you have to do is pop in one of your movies.
Rockwell: We do a lot of characters, me and Maya. We’re apped out on characters.
Rudolph: Apped out?
Rockwell: We’re apped out.
Rudolph: Did you make that up?
Rockwell: I just made it up.
Rudolph: We’re apped out, guys.
Rockwell: I’m apped out.
Q: There are a lot of references in this movie to old 80’s beach comedies, but this movie seems to take that set-up and play it more realistically, particularly with your character. Can you talk about developing that portrayal?
Rockwell: It was pretty much on the page. We talked about it a little bit and rehearsed a little bit, but it was pretty much all there. It was a pretty immediate understanding of what the tone was, which is real. Just keep it real. Even the funny stuff, try to keep it real.
Rudolph: You know what I just thought of when you said 80’s movies?
Rudolph: I never thought about it as another great character for your character, but did you ever see the movie, “Summer School”?
Rockwell: No, who’s in that?
Rudolph: Mark Harmon with boys in the Hawaiian shirts.
Rockwell: Really? Oh wait a minute. Maybe I did see that.
Rudolph: It’s so good.
Rockwell: No kidding. Maybe I did see that.
Rudolph: And there’s the boys that are into the horror movies. It’s great, but it’s another father figure kind of cool guy that can’t get his life together and he’s living on the beach.
Rockwell: Another prototype. Wow!
Rudolph: It’s awesome.
Rockwell: We love those.
Rudolph: And then the foreign guy goes, “Cut me some slacks will you, dude?” It’s pretty funny.
Rockwell: I want to see it right now.
Rudolph: Let’s go!
Rockwell: Let’s go right now?
Rudolph: To Netflix!
Q: They just did a midnight screening of it at the New Beverly.
Rudolph: Of “Summer School”?
Q: Last Friday night.
Rockwell: Where was that?
Q: At the New Bev.
Rockwell: Oh yeah, real cool.
Q: Speaking of which…
Rockwell: Speaking of which, yeah.
Q: How hard is it to spend 24 days of your summer vacation on the beach in houses on the Atlantic Ocean?
Rockwell: It’s dreadful.
Rockwell: It’s really rough.
Q: And getting paid to do it, too.
Rockwell: Yeah. It’s really awful.
Rudolph: And getting paid to eat lobster rolls. In New England, summer is really pretty idyllic, especially being there for 4th of July, and being there with friends, and Nat and Jim and Kevin Walsh, the producer. They all rented a house, and everyone was invited over and to come to the beach and BBQ and hangout. Nat grew up out there. They just wanted this experience to be what summers on the East Coast are supposed to be. You really felt that the whole time we were making it. We were mostly at the water park. It’s the way it should be. I think New Englanders especially, East Coast people, really appreciate summer. They don’t take it for granted like we do out here. They’re like, “Let’s do this!” It’s time to get wet and burned and eat some stuff, and then it’s going to get cold again.
Q: Hanging out on the beach for a few weeks, did you see any interesting little crabs or snails that informed you for voicing Burn?
Rockwell: What’s that?
Rudolph: He loves it when I talk about “Turbo.”
Q: A seamless segue there.
Rudolph: No, but I appreciate your segue. What do you want me to say? Sure, I’ll say it.
Q: Was there anything you saw that helped get you in the mood or informed you about voicing Burn?
Rudolph: I just felt I was going to be a snail in my future. I really felt that.
Q: And I’m sure Sam inspired you in that regard?
Rudolph: Yeah, he loves it when we talk about “Turbo.”
Rockwell: I’m really snaily. Are you guys going to ask us any questions?
Rudolph: They just want to hang out.
Rockwell: They just want to hang out. I get it.
Q: Was there any improvising going on with you?
Rockwell: There was some improvising. Yeah. But Maya, Nat, Jim and Steve all come from that world. It’s a natural fit. But it’s a good script, so we didn’t need to improvise that much.
Rudolph: Yeah. It’s more just like a natural part of Jim and Nat, so I knew it would come out here and there, but it wasn’t necessarily geared towards… It wasn’t like “Waiting for Guffman,” a completely improvised movie, although that would be fun, too. It’s like a natural weapon.
Rudolph: [mimics the sound of a gun going off] It just busted out. It’s like nunchucks.
Rockwell: Yeah. But you have them in the back pocket.
Rockwell: You get the bow and arrow, but the nunchucks are there ready to go.
Rudolph: Just in case…
Rockwell: … if you run out of arrows. Does that make any sense?
Rudolph: Yes. I always carry nunchucks.
Q: So comedy is a weapon?
Rudolph: Yes. Sometimes it’s a delicate weapon.
Q: Sam, the character of Owen also goes through his own coming of age just like Duncan does. What did you tap into to develop that arc for Owen?
Rockwell: (joking) Well, it’s hard because I know nothing about loneliness and isolation, so that was really tough for me. (laughs) No. I think that the guy is kind of lonely, and he lives in a little shack above where he works, and he can’t really deal with adult things. He can’t even handle the intimacy because he’s trying … he can’t even connect in a serious way with this woman that he digs. And so, he’s got even intimacy issues, I think. He’s probably trying to work through that in his own way, but he has this funny comic defense to cover all the stuff. So there you go. There you have it.
Rudolph: That’s it? Are we done?
Rockwell: Is that it? Shall we go?
Q: I’m wondering from your vantage point if you think acting is something that can be trained as a skill? Or is it something that’s innate and is nurtured and grows over time?
Rudolph: Acting? It’s absolutely something you can get better at, like with anything. I mean, I think it’s important to study.
Rockwell: I think you have to have talent, and then you have to nurture the talent and train and work hard.
Rudolph: I don’t go to school anymore, but I’m always learning when I’m surrounded by great people. In every experience, I feel like I’m learning. I’m not like, “Oh good. I’m done! I don’t have to learn anymore.”
Rockwell: But you go back and do shows. Right? You go back and do long film and whatever?
Rudolph: Sometimes I go to The Groundlings. I wish I did it more regularly. That does feel like going to the gym, if I ever went to the gym, like using a great muscle because it lubricates it.
Rockwell: Yeah. I think it’s important. It’s good.
Q: Can you talk about the difference between working with directors that have also acted or are also actors and do improv?
Rockwell: It’s great. It’s the best.
Rudolph: Especially because of where they come from. Improv is way more of a team sport, too. They’re not used to being the only actor. It’s a group effort. That was very clear on this one. That’s pretty easy to see.
Rockwell: That’s what’s really cool about that training. It’s that it is a team effort.
Rudolph: And also, in this particular movie, they’re not just coming from being actors. They’re actually acting in the movie, so they’re in there. I mean, I’ve never seen Jim with the hairdo that he has in this movie and I’ve known him for many years. That was kind of fun.
Rockwell: What are the three rules of improv? Always listen, always say “yes,” and what’s the last one?
Rudolph: “Yes, and…” is the big one. Everybody has different versions of one thing which is “Yes, and…”
Rockwell: And what are the others? Are there sort of…?
Rudolph: I don’t remember.
Rockwell: I remember my mom told me, “Listen, yes and,” and then she said…this is weird, “You’re smarter than you think you are”. Did you ever hear that?
Rockwell: She told me that.
Rudolph: Maybe she said that to you.
Rockwell: Maybe she meant that to me. Maybe it wasn’t an improv role. Maybe it was a life lesson.
Rudolph: Maybe it was like, “Don’t be a jerk!”
Rockwell: Don’t be a jerk to your mother.
Rudolph: Yeah. Her third rule was, “Listen to your mother.” And you were like, “I didn’t know they taught that in improv. Okay.”
Rockwell: Don’t be a little dick. We digress.
Rudolph: “Yes and” is the ultimate. It’s an information giver. It’s the difference between like when you see kids playing something and you say like, you suck the other person up like, “Hey, mom. I’m home from school.” And then, the other kid says, “I’m not your mom.” And you’re like, “Well, that conversation’s over.”
Rockwell: Yeah, yeah, yeah. “I’m a dinosaur.”
Rudolph: But you go, “Hell yes, honey. And I just came from the hospital. I delivered three babies.” And you’re just adding information. See how I did that there?
Rockwell: Yeah. And you’re not supposed to ask questions in improv because that’ll lead to…
Rudolph: Yes, that’s true.
Rockwell: Although I’ve broken that rule so many times.
Rudolph: I break it every time. I don’t even…yeah. I break a lot of things.
Rockwell: If you make it like a question/statement like, “What are you doing with the dinosaur in your backyard?,” that would work.
Rudolph: That works. You just added information. You’re not … because the other one is like you’re hanging the other person up to dry, like “You do it! You do all the hard work.” That’s not nice.
Rockwell: Yeah. That’s not nice.
Rudolph: We have to support each other.
Q: I want to know, Sam, who’s the better co-star? Christopher Walken or Maya?
Rockwell: Maya. It would be great if Chris was with us now. That would be fun bags.
Rudolph: Would it be fun bags?
Rockwell: It’d be such fun bags. Forget about it!
Rudolph: I referred to myself earlier in the afternoon as Mrs. Fun Bags and it has not seemed to cease, which by the way I’m very happy about, not to mention it came out of my mouth. But I’m enjoying it. I hope when we’re 80, I am known as Fun Bags.
Rockwell: That was fun, Fun Bags!
Q: You guys had such good chemistry on screen and your timing was wonderful. Did you have any time to rehearse?
Rockwell: I had a lot of [help]. That all was written out and I just memorized it verbatim. I just had to spit it out really quickly.
Rudolph: All of it? Really?
Rockwell: Most of it was all written out, and I just spit it out very quickly, as quick as I could in that sort of Robert Downey, Jr., Bill Murray, whatever that is kind of thing.
Rudolph: Remember that scene in “Short Cuts” where he wakes himself up with his own fart?
Rockwell: Who’s that?
Rudolph: Robert Downey, Jr.
Rockwell: No, I gotta see that again.
Rudolph: He’s funny.
Rockwell: That’s amazing. He’s a funny motherfucker.
Rudolph: God dammit!
Rockwell: Well, we knew each other socially, too, from way back in New York.
Rudolph: You keep saying “from way back.”
Rockwell: “The Way Way Back.”
Rudolph: We’re not talking like 1972.
Rockwell: 1965-ish. Yup.
Q: What are you working on now and what do you have coming up next?
Rudolph: “Inherent Vice.”
Rockwell: (to Rudolf) “Turbo.”
Rockwell: What else?
Rudolph: “Grown Ups 2.”
Rockwell: “Grown Ups 2.” They’re pretty big movies.
Rudolph: Yours is called…
Rockwell: “A Single Shot.” “Better Living Through Chemistry.”
Rockwell: (repeats her mumbling)
Rudolph: dot.com (laughs)