Sam Rockwell certainly likes to work. To date, he’s appeared in over 70 (70!) movies that range from indie darlings like Duncan Jones’ Moon to blockbusters like Iron Man 2. He’s an actor who has an uncanny ability to make everything better. (An example of this is actually the aforementioned Iron Man 2, a movie that’s often criticized as being bloated, yet people love Rockwell’s dancing, villainous arms dealer, Justin Hammer.) Speaking to Rockwell, you get the sense that’s his mission – to make whatever he’s in just that much better. It’s hard not to imagine Rockwell game for just about anything, but he explains that even when he has to be talked into doing a movie – he uses 2000’s Charlie’s Angels as an example – he’s still going to do everything he can to add something special.
In Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Rockwell plays one of his most complicated characters to date (which is really saying something). With Officer Dixon, Rockwell takes us to the precipice of how much we can loath a character, then still, somehow, at least consider the possibility of redemption. And that’s been the big debate surrounding Dixon: Can a character like this even be redeemed? I get the sense Rockwell is enjoying this debate quite a bit.
In Three Billboards, Francis McDormand plays Mildred Hayes who is leading a crusade to pressure the local police department into solving the case of who murdered her daughter – culminating with Mildred renting out three billboards in an effort to call out the local authorities. Rockwell’s Officer Dixon and McDormand’s Mildred do not like each other – Dixon is a crude man prone to throwing innocent people out of second-story windows. Yet their relationship grows more complicated as the film goes on.
I hadn’t interviewed Rockwell since 2010, but I remember from that previous encounter his answers are always thoughtful, which actually can throw an interviewer off. Because sometimes his pauses before answers can be construed as something else, and human nature wants you to say something, anything else to break up the silence. But like Rockwell’s roles, I get the sense he just wants to give something extra and really think through his response. And this is especially true when he’s talking about one of his upcoming roles, playing George W. Bush in Adam McKay’s Backseat. Rockwell ahead gives one of the most thoughtful answers I’ve heard about what he had to learn about Bush to portray him in a film.
But, first, Sam Rockwell is going to sing a little Rockwell…
A few minutes ago my editor asked what I had next and I said, “Speaking to Rockwell.” There was some confusion that I might be speaking to the recording artist, Rockwell…
[Starts singing.] I always feel like somebody’s watching meeeeeeeeee.
Oh, that’s pretty good. I suspect this is the first time you two have been compared before.
Martin McDonaugh said you traveled to Missouri to spend time with police officers…
Where did you go?
I went to southern Missouri. I went to Springfield, southern Missouri.
I used to live in Springfield.
Get out of here.
I went to junior high in Springfield.
Oh my God, that’s amazing. I did some ride-alongs with a guy named Josh McCullen, a cop down there. And I spent a couple days there and had Josh tape my lines. It was pretty wild, crystal meth addicts. It was pretty wild.
Your Missouri accent was very good.
Thanks, man. Yeah, well, that was a real Ozark cop, you know?
You were near Branson. You could have gone to Branson.
Yeah, that’s right. I think I might have driven through Branson.
What are you thinking when you’re reading Dixon on the page? This has to be a character that jumps out at you.
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, it’s a no-brainer. Yeah, you just go for it. And you know, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’ve got to talk yourself into something or somebody’s trying to talk you into something.
What’s an example of that?
Sometimes you have to get excited. I don’t want to denigrate a movie by telling you the title, but I mean there are some movies I’ve had to be talked into, and I tried to spruce it up, you know? I will tell you that Charlie’s Angels could have gone either way and I think it turned out really well. And it became a really good popcorn movie, you know?
It’s on cable all the time still.
Yeah, I think it’s a really good popcorn movie. But I think that it could have been really bad, because we had 17 writers and only one of them was a woman – and it’s a movie about women! Drew Barrymore and Nancy Juvonen, her partner, they’re the reasons that movie is so good. And Bill Murray, and then Bill Murray’s writer, Mitch Glazer, who kind of saved my day. So that was a big deal, you know?
With Dixon, are you conscious of a line that can’t be crossed with his actions, considering the audience is going to reevaluate how they feel about him by the end?
Well, yes, I think there is a line, but I don’t think I crossed it in this film. But I think there is a line.
But he gets close.
Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah, he’s just able to toe the line, you know? And he’s a fascinating character. I mean, it’s a really fun part. The tragedy of him is a really fun aspect to the character.