Sam Rockwell On ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ And How George W. Bush Is Like Elvis

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.

That’s funny.

Martin McDonaugh said you traveled to Missouri to spend time with police officers…

I did.

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.

This seems to be an ongoing debate right now, if a character like him can be “redeemed,” even though that is probably the wrong word.

It’s a great part, man. I mean, Martin is a great writer and it’s a great role. It’s a fascinating part, truly like a great antihero. It’s complex, you know? All the characters are complex. It’s what makes it interesting.

Do you see it as redemption or something else?

I see it as, ultimately, it’s a story of love and redemption, I do. But I think in order for that to be earned, you have to have the fury and the violence in order to earn that. I think you have to have all the dark stuff in order to get to the light.

This movie is coming out at a very interesting time.

Absolutely. It’s very timely, a lot of the themes in the film. Racism and I think there’s a new kind of wound being reopened that we haven’t seen in a while, and I think this movie touches upon that. And misogyny. It’s very timely, the movie, after some of these shootings and Charlottesville.

Did you feel that way while filming?

We felt that way, but we didn’t know. You know, it’s a quirky movie, so we didn’t know. We knew we made a good movie, but we didn’t know for sure if people were going to see it, because it might freak people out. I don’t know. But we didn’t know it would hit on such a gut level the way it has been. But we knew that we liked it. We knew that we felt that it was a good movie.

I like what you and Martin did in Seven Psychopaths, but I think that’s a movie that freaked people out.

Me too. Well, I also think that’s kind of a movie for people like you and me who are like film nerds, you know what I mean? Like I’m a film nerd, so I like Seven Psychopaths.

You’re playing Bush in Adam McKay’s Backseat. That’s seems daunting. Everyone has their idea of what a Bush portrayal should look like between Will Ferrell and even Josh Brolin in W.

Well, I watched a few of those and they are hard acts to follow, for sure. I just thought that I could do something with it. And you’re absolutely right, those impressions are pretty amazing.

And I know that’s not what you’re going for, but they are in people’s heads.

Absolutely. I just got really into who he was at that particular point in his life when he was 53 or 54 years old. I’ve been watching him on the internet a lot and I’ve grown to really like him. He’s very charming. I found there’s this almost Elvis Presley charm to him. And I think there’s a little bit of an innocence to him when he’s running for office against Gore. In a lot of interviews I watch, there’s a lot of optimism and an innocence like the way Tim Robbins has in Bull Durham or something.

That’s a very interesting comparison.

And I’m interesting in that part of him. His charm and his vulnerability is what I’m interested in. And so we’re messing around with that a little bit. And the movie is really about Cheney…

Right, Christian Bale is playing Cheney…

Yeah, the movie is about his rise to power and that’s the story. So Bush is there to be a part of that story and kind of show you how, whatever – whether he was complicit or whatever. I think it’s there to support that story. Have you seen The Post, with Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep?

I have not.

I want to see it.

Are you sizing up your competition?

Oh, I just saw a trailer for it and I just really want to see it. I’m really curious about it and I want to see Phantom Thread, too. I love Tom Hanks. I have to do an interview with Tom Hanks and and I wanted to catch up on what’s going on. I’m going to talk to Gary Oldman, too. So I’m trying to catch up on a lot of the movies.

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