Sam Rockwell Interview, Star of Joshua

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline caught up with actor Sam Rockwell at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, "Joshua,” a smart, bone-chilling psychological thriller about an upscale American family directed by George Ratliff.

In a breathtaking Upper East Side apartment, the seemingly perfect Manhattan parents, Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga), are celebrating the birth of their second child, Lily. Lily is surrounded by love, toys, a doting uncle (Dallas Roberts), an attentive grandmother (Celia Weston), andher 9-year-old brother, Joshua (Jacob Kogan), who is no ordinary boy. Exceptionally intelligent and frighteningly precocious, he has an angelic politeness and an easy cool that belie his young age.

As the mood darkens in the Cairn’s apartment, the veneer of their polished lives begins to crack. Lily cries incessantly and an upstairs renovation drives Abby into what may or may not be a bad case of post-partum psychosis. Stressed to the limit and living on no sleep, Brad and Abby find themselves wrapped up in an escalating chain of domestic terror. Is it all a series of eerie coincidences or are they in the midst of an unimaginably evil mind? And could it be Joshua who, like his Biblical namesake, is bringing the house tumbling down around his family?

While known for his dynamic leading performances in the independent film world, Sam Rockwell has made a successful transition to starring roles in mainstream films. He currently stars opposite Kate Beckinsale in David Gordon Green’s new film, "Snow Angels” which, like "Joshua,” had its world premiere in the dramatic competition of the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. He will also be seen in the upcoming "The Assassination of Jesse James” with Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard and Mary-Louise Parker and has two films in pre-production, "Choke” and "Frost/Nixon.”

Rockwell first gained considerable notice in three independent films: John Duigan’s "Lawn Dogs,” for which he won Best Actor Awards at both the Montreal and Barcelona Film Festivals; John Hamburg’s "Safemen,” and Saul Rubinek’s dark comedy "Jerry and Tom,” in which he starred as a used-car salesman who moonlights as a part-time hit man. He also won critical praise for his portrayal of Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.”

He starred in the Russo brothers’ comedy "Welcome to Collinwood” opposite George Clooney, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Esposito and William H. Macy; David Mamet’s "Heist” opposite Gene Hackman, Rebecca Pidgeon and Danny DeVito; "Charlie’s Angels” with Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu; Frank Darabont’s Oscar-nominated "The Green Mile” opposite Tom Hanks; and "Galaxy Quest” with Alan Rickman, Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver. Rockwell has also starred in the cult classic adaptation of "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” playing larger-than-life Zaphod and in Ridley Scott’s "Matchstick Men” with Nicholas Cage.

Sam is a sensational actor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new movie and his insights into the mysterious art and craft of acting:

MoviesOnline: [referring to his long hair and moustache] Is that for a new role?

SAM ROCKWELL: No, just for shits and giggles

MoviesOnline: Just because you can? You’re not playing Wild Bill Hickok, are you?

SAM ROCKWELL: Just because I can. Yeah. Exactly.

MoviesOnline: Since we’re talking about a scary movie, what is your greatest fear?

SAM ROCKWELL: My greatest fear? Jeez, that’s a heavy question. I have so many fears, I don’t know where to begin.

MoviesOnline: Spiders, ants, not getting work?

SAM ROCKWELL: [Laughs] Not getting work. Yeah, that’s pretty good. I have that fear for sure. That’s a big fear. Yeah, definitely.

MoviesOnline: Do you see yourself as a character actor who gets lead roles sometimes?

SAM ROCKWELL: That’s a pretty accurate description. I think I do a little bit of both. I aspire to do what Dustin Hoffman did in the 70s maybe or Jon Voight or Jeff Bridges – kind of do both character parts and leading man parts.

MoviesOnline: Do you find that the bigger the film the less chance you have of that control?

SAM ROCKWELL: I suppose so. It depends. A lot of time you will get really good parts in independent films. There’s only so much room for the A list. There’s only so many people who can be on an A list just by the nature of economics. You’re not going to have as many people on the A list as you would on the B and C list. I’m happy where I am because I might get edgier things too sometimes than A-listers will get.

MoviesOnline: You never have to worry about being stereotyped?

SAM ROCKWELL: I pretty much don’t have to be worried about getting stereotyped. I’m not sure what you mean by that exactly. Are you saying that people who are really famous, there’s too much knowledge about who they are?

MoviesOnline: They keep getting the same script all the time whereas you get different scripts.

SAM ROCKWELL: That’s true. I get a real diverse selection. I really do. I get everything. You can’t even imagine, which is good, you know. I get so many weird parts offered to me and then parts like this.

MoviesOnline: The director, George Ratliff, told us that Vera Farmiga, who plays the lead role opposite you, was what attracted you to the project.

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah, definitely.

MoviesOnline: Was there some particular performance of hers?

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah, I saw her in "Down to the Bone” and it blew my socks off. I really wanted to work with her. There’s something really gritty about her. We’re both very athletic actors. I can’t explain it. It’s like a sport to me and Vera. She’s doing push-ups and I’m running up and down the stairs shadowboxing and stuff like that. I think acting is very physical and emotional for me and Vera. We work the same way. We like to really get in there and get our hands dirty. It’s a kind of blue collar aesthetic.

MoviesOnline: What makes a seemingly sane person become an actor in the first place?

SAM ROCKWELL: That’s a good question.

MoviesOnline: Is it the opportunity to be somebody else, the desire for acclaim, what is it?

SAM ROCKWELL: You know I have no idea. It’s weird. My parents were actors. I think you get addicted to telling stories. The ironic thing is quite often actors are very shy and they’re not good joke tellers necessarily. There’s storytelling and then there’s being a character in the story and that’s an interesting thing to live a life on stage or in film. There’s something about the detail. I just know the movies that affected me as a kid like "The Deer Hunter” and "Sophie’s Choice” and "Taxi Driver” and "Badlands” and "Midnight Cowboy.” And then movies like "Mr. Mom” or "Stripes” and "Animal House” are just as important as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” or "Citizen Kane.” I think a movie like "Wedding Crashers” is a fantastic comedy. All these things influence you and you become who you are. You just get used to doing this – whatever this is – acting. And then you learn that there’s a technique to it and a craft and you go study with a teacher and you realize that there’s an art form to it. It’s a very serious thing, but you don’t know that at first when you’re just relying on instinct.

MoviesOnline: What’s the process you go through to create a character and does it vary from film to film?

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah, it’s kind of like building a house, layer upon layer, mixing things in a stew. You might do some research, you might not. I played a born again Christian and I did a little research for that. I went to some services. I watched George Ratliff’s documentary, "Hell House.” There was a documentary called "Soldiers in the Army of God” which Brad Pitt turned me on to. He said, "You should check this out.” I told him about the character I was going to play in this movie called "Snow Angels.” It’s about these guys who blow up abortion clinics. You might see that and it might stimulate your imagination and then I think script analysis, just going over the script over and over and over and sort of daydreaming about it. My technique is called the Meisner technique. It’s based upon a teacher named Sanford Meisner. I studied with a teacher named William Asper for two years. The technique is really about fantasizing about the part and the imaginary circumstances. It’s hard to describe why anybody would want to be an actor. I don’t really understand.

MoviesOnline: When we spoke to your co-star, Jacob Kogan, he said that you were doing Meisner with him.

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah, we were doing the repetition exercise which is a listening exercise that is taught in the Meisner course. It’s a really good exercise to hone your listening. Acting is all about listening. A lot of it is about listening. I think I listen a lot better as an actor than I do in real life. Acting is so pure. It’s not necessarily all the mundane moments that we have in real life. It’s like condensed drama. It’s like all the exciting moments in two hours. Your senses have to be heightened. It’s such a silly, weird profession and yet when you see it done really well by someone like Robert Duvall or Meryl Streep or Vera Farmiga or Alison Lohman, you see there’s a nobility to it when you see someone’s performance like Duvall in "Tender Mercies” or Meryl Streep in "Sophie’s Choice.” It’s like a beautiful painting if you see it done really well. You start to think, "Well, wait a minute, maybe there’s something to this.” It’s not just this silly thing. That’s what I aspire to do as an actor but sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t.

MoviesOnline: Was there a high degree of difficulty in this role because you’re playing somebody who has to be believable in that they’re trying to be somebody that perhaps they’re not?

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah. It’s an interesting part. It came pretty easily. I really identified this guy pretty quickly. It’s a similar emotional through line to Michael Douglas in "Fatal Attraction” or Ellen Burstyn’s character in "The Exorcist.” There’s a similar arc that she has and that my character has -- like the parents in "Poltergeist” or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It’s like all those Spielberg movies and all those parts we’ve seen Harrison Ford do like "The Fugutive.” It has that kind of an arc to it where he’s slowly unwinding, uncoiling. Right away I identified the guy and then I related to personal things in my life like my father.

MoviesOnline: Why your father?

SAM ROCKWELL: My father was a really good parent and yet there were times when he did the best he could. There was a lot of pressure. He was a single parent. He had a lot of empathy and he was a really good dad. I think parents are amazing if you can do that. It’s a full time job and I think really good parents don’t get enough credit. There are so many dysfunctional families. When you meet somebody and they’ve got manners and they’re nice, it’s like it’s a fucking phenomenon that people come out okay. You’ve got to take your hat off to parents sometimes. Maybe this is my thank you letter to my father. Now Brad fails obviously as a parent but he’s really trying. He’s trying to do the right thing.

MoviesOnline: He has this crazy family.

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah and he’s got this fucked up son so it’s not Brad’s fault. [Laughs] I think Brad’s trying to be a good guy.

MoviesOnline: About two months ago you said you might be doing a movie with Jennifer Aniston, what’s happening with that?

SAM ROCKWELL:We’re supposed to do a movie called "You Are Here.” It’s supposed to happen in March or April of next year. I think it’s going to happen. It’s me and Peter Sarsgaard and Jennifer.

MoviesOnline: Who plays the love interest?

SAM ROCKWELL: It’s a triangle. It’s kind of "Jules and Jim.” We all get involved.

MoviesOnline: Is that weird for you being a friend of Brad’s?

SAM ROCKWELL: No, it’s an acting part. It’s not like I’m really going to have an affair with Jennifer. I know Vince Vaughn too. Vince is a friend of mine and Brad’s a friend of mine. I’ve met Jennifer. She’s a lovely person.

MoviesOnline: Didn’t you just finish "The Assassination of Jesse James”?

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah. I don’t know when that’s coming out. They’ve had different cuts of it so we’ll see. We’ll see whenever it comes to the theaters.

MoviesOnline: How was it working with Jacob (Kogan). He’s so smart.

SAM ROCKWELL: Yes, he is. He’s too smart. I think you should give me his paycheck. That’s what I think. He’s a nice kid. He’s really professional. He did a great job. We hung out. We got along. There was recreation. We laughed. There was a lot of levity on the set. He’s in a band. He and I are from very different environments. I went to public schools, I’m a city kid. I mean he’s a city kid too but he’s been in private schools. He reads books. [Laughs] I can’t remember the last time I read a book. Actually that’s not true, I read Jim Ruston’s book. He’s definitely from a different environment than I am.

MoviesOnline: Could you understand on some level the dad in the movie just wanting to smack him?

SAM ROCKWELL: Yeah. Brad’s kind of a more blue collar, working class kid who makes good with the hedge fund thing. That dynamic really works – that Jacob comes from private schools and I come from public schools. It makes a difference in who you are. When you get your lunch stolen from you and beat up and you have to stick up for yourself, it changes you. I don’t know what private schools are like really. I went to one for one semester but I think it’s different. It’s a different environment. That dynamic was definitely good for the characters.

MoviesOnline: If you weren’t an actor, what would you do for a living?

SAM ROCKWELL: Oh man, nothing. I’d be pumping gas. I’d be still bussing tables or delivering burritos or something. I don’t know how to do anything else. I have no skills except for this (acting). I’m still learning how to do this.

MoviesOnline: You mentioned Bruce Vaughn and Brad Pitt, do you learn or take things from other actors?

SAM ROCKWELL: Oh sure. I worked with Gene Hackman on "The Heist.” That’s a mentor. He’s really something. He’s an amazing actor. I learned a lot. I learn from everybody. I learned from Jacob. I learned from Brad Pitt. I learned from Steve Zahn and Vince Vaughn. You learn from everybody you work with. When you work with people like Gene Hackman, Patricia Clarkson, Nicholas Cage, Vera Farmiga, Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, you’ll get a lot from those type of actors. I’ve worked with some amazing people.

MoviesOnline: Do you sometimes work with somebody and think "I just don’t understand how they’re approaching it”?

SAM ROCKWELL: I think after you study acting and you’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been – I’ve been doing it for 20 years – I think you start to understand the pros and the cons. Like that scene in "All the President’s Men” where Dustin Hoffman is telling Robert Redford "You didn’t put Magruder’s name in the first paragraph.” He’s telling him how to write the article. "You should mention him in the first paragraph.” You can do that with acting. You go, "That was good and I understand why because he did this and this and this.” I think there is a science to it and once and a while you’re mystified by an actor’s performance. It’s like, "Holy shit. That is tough.” Actors have an affinity for different kinds of parts that you might not have an affinity for. That’s for sure.

MoviesOnline: Did playing the parent of such a terrifying child make you more or less inclined to want to be a parent?

SAM ROCKWELL: I definitely don’t want to be a parent. Not for me. I’m not really the parent type.

MoviesOnline: Have you always felt that way?

SAM ROCKWELL: Pretty much. That’s not my bag.

MoviesOnline: What about marriage?

SAM ROCKWELL: I don’t know. We’ll see.

"Joshua” opens in theaters on July 6th.


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