One of the cool parts of being a movie star is that the silly things you wished for in childhood suddenly start happening — like, say, candy seeming to just literally fall from the sky, landing in dishes and anticipating your arrival.
When Sam Rockwell is finally ushered into a second-floor room in Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel, he’s greeted by M&Ms, Skittles, gummy worms, and a litany of wrapped chocolates neatly lined up on a table, a sugary spread with his name on it. Minutes before, publicists for Fox Searchlight brought in a huge tray of the treats, not because Rockwell, who is the scene-stealer in the studio’s upcoming movie The Way, Way Back, demanded them, but really just in case he might be in the mood for some sweets.
Their hunch was a good one; Rockwell digs in right away, taking a handful of Skittles, throwing back a few and declaring, “I needed this right now.” Graciously, he offers some to me, as well.
Rockwell, now 44, isn’t too caught up in celebrity, candy dishes not withstanding. He never got involved in the industry for the fame; it just sort of happened during childhood summers in New York, staying and playing with his mom and her bohemian artist and actor friends. He’s now lived in Manhattan’s East Village for a good bulk of his adulthood too. Keep your head up and eyes peeled, and you’ll probably spot him walking solo down the street, reading the paper behind a pair of sunglasses.
“I spend time in L.A., but mainly New York,” he explains. “This is kind of where I made my bones. The experiences in L.A. when I was younger were not so great. During pilot season, that was back before GPS when we had to deal with the Thomas Guide [maps]. It was some lean times in L.A. I preferred to New York, as far as the whole struggling artist thing.”
It was while in New York that Rockwell enrolled in the two-year program at the famed William Esper Studio, where suddenly his future became clear.
“That’s what opened my eyes to the fact that I had a responsibility to take it seriously and it wasn’t just a way to meet girls, it wasn’t just a lark,” he says, laughing at decades old exploits. “It was a calling, and it was something to have respect for, and that training was kind of like Jedi training for me.”
Two decades later, he’s got some lines and creases in his face — “it finally matches my innards” — and his frenetic energy is as high as ever. It makes for the perfect combination in The Way, Way Back, in which he plays a waterpark manager who befriends the lonely, neglected kid (Liam James) who finds himself summering in a sleepy Massachusetts beach town. Rockwell is part best friend, part mentor, standing in for absentee parents as he helps the kid come out of his shell.
With Steve Carell acting uncharacteristically sour and Toni Collette almost relegated to a victim, Rockwell and Allison Janney, who plays the kid’s boozing neighbor, really own the movie, with turns both hilarious and heartbreaking.
He’s not all that worried about the box office prospects for the movie, because over the course of his career, he’s never made choices based on ticket sale potential.
“It’s more fun to do things like this that are contained,” he says. “It’s just always funner, the part. The smaller movies, the parts tend to be more interesting for me.”
Starting in the late ’90s, when Rockwell broke out with electric, scene-stealing roles in The Green Mile and then Confessions of Dangerous Mind, he became an indie stalwart. A decade later, he was the best part of Seven Psychopaths. Maybe most impressive was his dual role in Duncan Jones’ 2009 astronaut character study, Moon.
“I think mainstream success can kind of eclipse the idea of what success is,” Rockwell adds. “I think success is whatever fulfills you. I think a lot of that work has been seen, and it’s good… You know, people say things like, ‘I wish more people saw Moon,’ but I have tons of people saying that. So the point is that actually a lot of people did see it, more people than I think people realize.”
Rockwell struggled with his urge to play older and darker than he actually is, unusual in an industry that hangs on to its youth as long as possible (and then a little bit longer). Maybe it’s because of his upbringing, those New York summers with the bohemian stage actors, and it probably has something to do with the fact that he’s stuck to the city as his primary residence, keeping Hollywood 3,000 miles away.
Even his big roles have had an air of off-kilter intent. Yes, Rockwell was one of the finalists to play Tony Stark in Iron Man, but even then, he was intrigued by the darker sides of the character: “He was an alcoholic and had a heart problem, and I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds really interesting,’” Rockwell remembers. And when he played Justin Hammer, the villainous rival arms dealer in the Iron Man sequel, it was to hold a mirror up to the character that he lost to Robert Downey Jr. “It was kind my version of Tony Stark as Justin Hammer in a way, sort of a great antagonist, to do a sleazier version of Tony Stark and Lex Luthor,” he says.
It’s all made for a pretty interesting and eccentric career.
“People are always trying to get you to do your last trick, and I think it’s up to you to kind of change it up so that you don’t get bored,” Rockwell says. “And in order to do that, you’ve got to say no to a lot of stuff. And that takes a little bit of courage; you don’t know where your next job is going to come from. I’ve said no for an entire year and waited and waited and waited for the right thing. You have to trust that the right thing is going to be there. It’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s much easier to say yes. But to say no is tough sometimes.”