After a lengthy acting career going back three decades, Sam Rockwell is finally experiencing his first major awards success. His role as racist police officer Jason Dixon in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has led to a win at the Golden Globes this weekend and nominations at the SAG Awards, Independent Spirits, and Critics’ Choice, among others. Previously, he was part of the cast nominations at the SAG Awards for “The Green Mile” (1999) and “Frost/Nixon” (2008). The big breakout role for Rockwell came in 2002 when George Clooney cast him to play game show king Chuck Barris.
Gold Derby recently hosted an exclusive webchat with Rockwell to talk about his current movie written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand. Watch the video above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Sam Rockwell, you’ve got “Three Billboards” opening very soon across the country and I just saw it this week. What is it about you and Martin McDonagh, you’ve worked together before. Why do you and he click together so well together?
Sam Rockwell: Well he’s very attractive and very smart and he’s got a very interesting mind. I really put him up there with David Mamet or Harold Pinter or Quentin Tarantino. I put him up there with some of the best, Sam Shepard, he’s just one of those great auteurs, I suppose is the word you might use.
GD: When you first got the script, what was that first moment where you went, “Oh wow, I can’t pass on this. I’ve gotta do this”?
SR: This particular movie? Or the first time?
GD: This time, “Three Billboards.”
SR: I think it was just a no-brainer. When you open one of Martin McDonagh’s scripts it’s like opening up a Christmas present on Christmas Day. You can’t help but turn each page and it’s this beautiful thing that happens and by the end of it you’re just blown way. It’s a real work of art, his writing.
GD: I told somebody when we left the theater, it feels like to me, and I mean this in the best compliment possible, it could have been a movie in the ‘70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s. It has that classic feel of a movie where you get invested in the characters, you get invested in this small town and you wanna see what happens next, and it’s constantly surprising you along the way.
SR: Absolutely. I feel the same way. And I think they intended for that to happen, him and the DP Ben [Davis], that’s what they wanted. Yeah.
GD: I wanted to tell anybody who’s watching this, if you haven’t seen the movie yet you might want to come back to this video another day ‘cause we are gonna talk about some of the plot points and so forth, but Officer Dixon. How would you describe him? He’s a little bit behind the pace, a little bit slower than maybe some of the other officers on the police force, would you say?
SR: Yeah, he’s immature. He hasn’t quite grown up yet, and in the course of the movie he grows up a little bit. He’s forced to kind of change through a series of events.
GD: Very much attached to his mother, and that actress is absolutely wonderful. Did you enjoy working with her?
SR: Sandy Martin, who was in “Napoleon Dynamite.” She was actually in “Seven Psychopaths” and Martin had to cut her out but she’s incredible. She’s now working with Tim Burton in London, Danny DeVito. She’s an amazing actress, from the actor’s studio and everything.
GD: We find out very early on because they refer back to a couple of incidents in your past, your character’s past, he’s very violent and we see that in the course of the movie. Why do you think that violence manifests itself so much in him? You said he’s immature but why particularly violence?
SR: I think that he has a lot of rage, a lot of anger in him and it’s really more about self-hatred and I think that gets directed outward towards other people.
GD: I thought it was a very critical moment in the movie right before the explosion when you’re reading the letter from Woody Harrelson and you’re hearing his voiceover, I thought it was so important to the audience that they find out that somebody as talented and as good as him, thought you could be a good person as well. Don’t you think that humanized him even more?
SR: Yes, the fact that Woody saw the goodness in him?
SR: Yeah, I think it did. I think those letters are very important in the film. It’s a great sentiment that Woody’s character Willoughby says about him. You don’t need guns, you don’t need to be a good detective, you need love, and I think that’s a great sentiment.
GD: It looked like all of you in the police scenes and the police force, those characters, those actors, were really having a good time in this movie. I’d especially love to hear about Woody Harrelson. What’s it like working with him?
SR: It’s great. He’s amazing. I really love that guy. I feel like I’m related to him. There’s some people you meet, there’s an actor named Brian Geraghty, Steve Zahn is somebody… I feel like I’m related to Woody a little bit, like he’s one of my relatives. Weird.
GD: I’m sure you and he must have had some good times off camera. Stories and chats and jokes and stuff.
SR: Absolutely. Woody’s a person who makes you feel very relaxed and that was good for our relationship in the movie. We had an adversarial relationship in “Seven Psychopaths” and in this one it’s the opposite, I look up to him. He’s like an older brother.
GD: One of the things I liked about your performance beyond the dialogue, and I’m sure you and Martin had to work on this but your physicality. You have a real weight to you, not in terms of pounds but the way you walk, the way you move. I really enjoyed that about the character.
SR: Thanks, man. People have mentioned the walk, which is interesting. I wasn’t aware when I was doing it, but we the costume designer is really good, Melissa, she had put padding in my pants. I think we stole that, Colin Farrell did that in “Pride and Glory,” because these cops are big guys. I went down to southern Missouri and did some ride-alongs, and there’s a cop, Josh McCullen, and these are big guys. I’m kind of a slight guy. So we had to create that illusion, and I think I gained a little weight but we just did it with wardrobe and makeup mostly.
GD: Speaking of physicality, I want to ask two questions along those lines. There’s the scene, we see a lot of it from your back, walking up the steps, you’re about to throw out the window the advertising guy, Red. Can you just talk a little bit about that scene? That’s such an important scene to the whole movie.
SR: Yeah, that’s what we call a oner. It was all done in one take and we rehearsed it. Doug Coleman is one of the great stunt choreographers, he choreographed the bear attack in “The Revenant” and did a lot of stuff in “Mad Max.” He’s been around forever. He set my arm on fire and I said, “Is this safe?” And he said, “Listen man, I set [Robert] De Niro on fire in ‘Cape Fear,’ you’re good.” And I said, “Alright, if it’s good enough for De Niro it’s good enough for me.” But he choreographed that fight and he made it really fun, and we had this amazing camera department doing handheld and because Martin and I are from the theater and I’ve done a lot of those oners in movies like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” and a movie called “Jerry and Tom,” I was accustomed to that, doing everything in one take and coming from the theater so it was really fun. It kind of goes back to those days of live TV, [John] Frankenheimer type stuff. So we rehearsed for half a day and then we did it in like five takes, less than five takes.
GD: When it is a long take shot like that, is it more pressure on you or more exciting?
SR: It’s both, it’s pressure and it’s exciting. It’s a little bit of both, but it’s like theater, and theater is exciting and terrifying but it’s kind of like jumping out of a plane. You’re scared but you gotta do it, so it’s fun.
GD: The other physical scene I wanted to ask about was the scene in the bar where you’re overhearing the conversation and by the way, your makeup department, the half-face that they put on you was amazing. Tell us about the bar scene and shooting that.
SR: Corey [Castellano] did that makeup. You said about the bar scene?
GD: Tell us more about shooting that scene because that’s another one that’s quite a showcase for you.
SR: When I get beat up?
GD: Uh huh.
SR: That’s a great scene. I was fortunate enough to meet a doctor who does skin grafts for burn victims, a friend of mine introduced me to him, really nice guy. He introduced me to some burn victims that were willing to talk to me and they shared some stories, so that informed a lot of me subtext in that scene and I worked with an acting coach and he suggested that I pretend to be drunk and I thought that was a clever idea, so my character sort of pretends to be a little wobbly, goes out to smoke a cigarette to get the license plate, and then we did a little bit with the cigarette because the burn victims had told me that they were a little squeamish around fire after they’d been burned and I thought that that was an interesting detail, I wanted to fit that in there. But it’s a great scene, it’s a very, dare I say, heroic scene for Dixon because he’s willing to get the crap beat out of him in order to get this DNA. I think it’s a great scene.
GD: And then I wanted to ask about Frances McDormand. There’s nobody working more at the top of her game than her. You had not worked together before, is that correct?
SR: We had not. We had met, but Frances is, do you know the expression “baller,” like that TV show, “Ballers”?
GD: Right, right.
SR: Frances is a baller, like Gene Hackman is a baller. My co-star Nina Arianda in “Fool for Love” or Hilary Swank, there’s certain actors, they’re just badasses. They go for it. That’s Frances all the way. But she’s also very warm and vulnerable. She has a lot of warmth to her. I find her to be very soulful and exude a lot of warmth. She’s also tough and opinionated and she’s all those things. She’s a very complicated woman and that’s why she’s such a great actress.
GD: From an acting standpoint when you’re on set with her, across the scene from her, what’s she doing that others aren’t?
SR: She’s doing what all really experienced, seasoned actors do, is she’s staying in it a little bit and she’s running her stuff in her head probably. I don’t know, I’d have to ask her, but I think there’s certain times where you can take a break and you can tell a joke and there’s certain times where you can’t. You have to stay in it. Some actors are able to switch that on and off more than others. The late great Phil[ip Seymour] Hoffman was like that. He’s a theater actor and he could switch it on and off. Some actors can’t do that. Joaquin Phoenix or Daniel Day-Lewis, they have to stay in it. And I respect that. I think Frances is more like Phil and Chris[topher] Walken in that way that they can turn it on and they’re in it, but I don’t know if they necessarily take it home with them. You’d have to ask Frances, but you do take it with you. You’re always thinking about the part, but at a certain point you have to tune out, at least I do. And I think Frances, she’s a workhorse. She comes from the theater and she loves to work. She wants to be onstage. She wants to be working and she loves the process. We’re all just theater nerds, you know?
GD: You are receiving the Hollywood Film Award on Sunday, Best Supporting Actor of the Year. What would it mean for you if this is the movie that finally gets you into a lot of awards conversations, maybe gets you in at the Oscars? What would that mean for you at this stage of your career?
SR: Essentially it’s very thrilling to hear that kind of stuff, but it’s also not just for me, Frances or Woody or any of the other cast members, for the film. The film is getting attention and that’s why. It’s not enough to just be good in the film. The film has to be good enough to get some attention and get some asses in seats, and I think that that’s something. You have to be a part of a good film in order for it to get seen. You can’t just be good (laughs). So the film is very thrilling is what I’m saying. It’s very exciting that the film is getting this attention.
GD: All of these definitely are great, on the front end but also on the back end if it does start getting lots of nominations and wins, that’s gonna bring even more people into the theater to see it.
SR: Yeah, that’s right. Ultimately that’s we want. We want people to see it because we’re really proud of it.
GD: As we wrap up I want to just ask you a quick question. The first time I really took note of you was “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” one of the great performances, I think, of this century. Chuck Barris passed away earlier this year. What’s a lasting memory for you? What’s something we don’t know about him that maybe you do?
SR: Well, I miss Chuck. I didn’t see a lot of him in the last 10 years but I remember filming, hanging out with him and the big moment I remember when I really… he put on some Les Paul. You know Les Paul, the blue steel guitar? He put on the best of Les Paul and he started dancing and doing an air guitar and that’s kind of when I was like, “Okay, I think I understand this guy now.” (Laughs.) So that’s kind of my lasting image of him.
GD: Well listen, one of my lasting images of you is this movie. I can’t get it out of my mind after seeing it this week. It’s one of the best I’ve seen all year and I’m hoping we do see you on a lot of red carpets coming up.
SR: Thanks, man. Thanks a lot.