On stage and screen, Sam Rockwell is a shape shifter. In person, he’s got an everyman handsomeness and a conversational style that’s more casual than most guys his age (41). Movie directors have looked at him and seen villains (The Green Mile, Charlie’s Angels), oddballs (Choke, Box of Moonlight), comic relief (Galaxy Quest, the upcoming Iron Man 2), sidekicks (Matchstick Men, The Assassination of Jesse James) and leads (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon). In the theater, Rockwell is a strong and vibrant presence, and he’s currently winning big laughs as a ne’er-do-well hotel clerk named Mervyn in Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane. Although this son of two actors has performed on stage since he was a kid, Rockwell is only now making his Broadway debut—and he’s obviously having a great time sparring with one-handed man Christopher Walken and bumbling con artists Anthony Mackie and Zoe Kazan.
Why did this play appeal to you?
It’s just really funny and poignant. I think it goes deeper than people realize—it’s a play about lost souls trying to find each other. Chris and I are certainly lost souls, and so are Anthony and Zoe’s characters, you know? Martin [McDonagh] is such a genius to me; he writes such lush, three-dimensional characters.
Is it fun to play a character who’s so unfiltered? Mervyn says whatever he pleases, even things that seem designed to incite Christopher Walken.
It’s a lot of fun. He’s a very interesting character, Mervyn. He’s got some kind of arrested development.
You have a wild monologue that touches on everything from loving monkeys in the zoo to Mervyn’s secret desire to observe a school shooting. Does that speech make sense to you?
From the audience’s point of view, it might seem random and stream-of-consciousness, but to me it makes sense. Basically, Mervyn is talking about his vendetta with this con artist [Mackie] and the fact that the one-handed man [Walken] is lying. So he’s coming out to tell the audience that nobody is going to pull the wool over his eyes. In the process, he has to go back and talk about how he got to the hotel, which has to do with being on probation after the con artist got him in trouble. Before that, he got suicidally depressed and started taking speed. He goes all the way back to the beginning, and the speech starts, “I wish I had a monkey sometimes.”
Some reviewers loved the acting but questioned whether the play is one of McDonagh’s best. Do you think that’s unfair?
Yes, a bit, because I think with a second viewing, you might see that there’s a lot going on under all the giggles. For me, again, it’s very poignant. And people love it. We’re floored by the reaction.
What’s Martin McDonagh like? He has a reputation as a wild man.
He’s a very sweet man and a very talented writer. I found his energy to be really nurturing in the rehearsal room. It was almost like he was he was part of the wall—he didn’t interfere with the director [John Crowley] at all.
Have you and McDonagh done any partying?
I wouldn’t say “partying.” I’d say we’ve had a drink. I can’t really party right now, you know. I’m doing this play, so I’m like an athlete. I can have a couple of drinks, but I can’t trip the light fantastic [laughs].
Were you intimidated to share the stage with Christopher Walken?
Initially, sure, but Chris is such a generous, giving actor that it’s not an issue at all.
Personally, is he nice? People think of him a bit of an oddball.
He’s nothing like that. He’s very lucid and very professional. He shows up early; he knows his lines. He’s a little eccentric. I’m a little eccentric.
This has been your year for working with the stars of The Deer Hunter. [Rockwell played Robert De Niro’s son in the recent feature film Everybody’s Fine.]
That’s right. [The Deer Hunter] is probably my favorite movie ever. It’s very testosterone-driven, but it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
When did you realize you had a gift for stage acting?
Well, I’ve been doing this since I was 10 years old. This is my first time on Broadway, but my mom and dad were actors, so I’ve been in plays since I was a kid. Chris Walken was a child stage actor, too—a song and dance kid. Doing this play has been good for me. I chickened out of a couple of Broadway opportunities because I didn’t feel ready, but I finally stepped up to the plate. I should have done it a long time ago.
What do you enjoy about acting in a play?
When it’s good, it’s electric. You’re up there for an hour and a half, and it’s like a fast-paced tennis match or something. It’s circuit training for actors. In film, you might do five minutes of acting in a 12-hour shooting day, with a lot of waiting around. This is an hour and a half of concentrated acting.
How did your career veer in the direction of off-center parts? You’re a handsome guy.
You’re the first person to say that—that’s very nice of you. I’ve played non-traditional leading men in independent films like Joshua and Choke and Moon; I have a movie coming out with Hilary Swank called Betty Anne Waters where I play a leading man type. But it’s a different world now than in the ’70s when a lot of the leading men I admired were a little off-center, like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Chris Walken. Gene Hackman would be a character actor now, which would be a shame because nobody would see him in The French Connection. I try to get my opportunities to play leads in independent films and then do character roles in bigger movies. Things may be moving back, though, with people like Phil Hoffman and Ben Stiller and Jeremy Renner [in leading roles]. I don’t mind being the quirky guy in this play because Mervyn is such a great role.
Which of your movies do people mention most?
Galaxy Quest is certainly a big one. The Green Mile, Charlie’s Angels, Matchstick Men—those are the ones that come up the most. You’d be surprised how many people saw Moon [with Rockwell as an astronaut stranded in space]. I’m very pleased with how many people come up to me about that movie.
You’ve got Iron Man 2 coming out soon. What’s your role, Justin Hammer, like?
He’s sort of a bad guy/comic relief. It’s a character part, for sure. It’s a bit like the Lex Luthor part in Superman.
Did you meet your girlfriend [actress Leslie Bibb] on the set?
She also did the first Iron Man, but we met before Iron Man 2. We met in Los Angeles when I was doing Frost/Nixon, and we’ve been going out since then. She’s from Virginia—she’s a great girl.
I love the You Tube clip of you dancing in a screen test for the role of Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.
That’s fun, isn’t it? I was warming up for the Gong Show stuff, and [director] George Clooney filmed it to convince [producer] Harvey Weinstein that I was the right guy for the movie. George wanted me, and [executive producer] Steven Soderbergh backed him on it. They went to bat for me, and the screen test finally convinced Harvey that I could do the part.
How did you learn to leap down into the splits?
I used to watch Tom Cruise in Risky Business, actually. And James Brown. I’m 41 years old, but I can still do the splits because I stretch every day when I go to the gym. Tell the kids at home not to do that unless they’re warmed up.
Was turning 40 a big deal for you?
It’s long overdue for me to get on Broadway, that’s for sure. I’ve been acting for more than 20 years, and I’m glad I finally got on the big boards.
See Sam Rockwell in A Behanding in Spokane at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.