Another film, another whack-job character role for Sam Rockwell. In “Snow Angels,” the gifted, 39-year-old character actor plays a suicidal, born-again Christian trying to reconnect with his estranged wife. So what else is new? Rockwell has made a career of indelible, often bizarre screen portrayals, from game show host/CIA hit man Chuck Barris in “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” to two-headed galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
It’s not that Rockwell hasn’t done “normal” stuff. He was a straitlaced dad in “Joshua,” a smug villain in “Charlie’s Angels.” And he’ll be playing newsman James Reston Jr. in the upcoming film version of “Frost/ Nixon.” It’s just that he likes the oddballs and freaks who have helped make him a cult favorite.
Lewis Beale caught up with the goofy and fun actor by phone from London, where Rockwell is filming “Moon,” in which he plays an astronaut stranded on a space station with his clone and a robot.
Your character in “Snow Angels” isn’t the most sympathetic guy around. How do you make an audience care about him?
He was immediately sympathetic to me. I grew up watching different movies than people watch now, the cinema of the `70s, and I identified with all the anti-heroes. Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” “Five Easy Pieces” and “Badlands.” This character kind of reminded me of John Savage in “The Onion Field.” Bickle and Paul Snyder in “Star 80” are the more obvious, as far as being plagued with loneliness and isolation. I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.
So what is it with you and offbeat roles, anyway?
I love tragedy. I’ve done a lot of comedy, and people think of me as quirky, but I’m more attracted to parts like Hamlet or Othello. I love heartbreak; it’s so dramatic. So anytime you can showcase that part of yourself, it’s a golden opportunity. You can’t go wrong with a part like that.
Have these kinds of parts stereotyped you as far as what kinds of roles you’re offered?
I risk getting boxed in and labeled, but I’d prefer being labeled as a character actor as anything else. I’d love to play Batman, but at the end of the day, “Snow Angels” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” are two of the most satisfying parts I’ve ever had. That’s all you can really ask for, is to play these great parts. Sometimes, you want to get paid more, but what are you gonna do?
Your parents separated when you were only 5, and you spent summers with your mom, a struggling actress. How did that influence you?
I saw Chris Walken on “Inside the Actors Studio” once, and he said he was a child of the theater, because he grew up onstage, and I did the same thing. I acted with my mother when I was 10. I was backstage. You see things most kids don’t see at that age. You feel a little like an alien, a little different than anyone else. You’re backstage with naked women; I smoked pot when I was a little kid, hung out with adults. You grow up quick.
Any particular advice your mom gave you about the business?
The one thing my mother said was “always go where the good part is.” It is obvious, but some people want to just be a part of something, and that’s fine, but more and more, I want to be part of a great movie - but I also want to go for the part. Like I wanted to work with Ron Howard, (director of “Frost/Nixon”) but I’m not Richard Nixon, and I just wanted to be part of that movie.
Some folks say your breakthrough, after years in the business, was 2002’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” Was it?
It was a breakthrough part for me. It helped me in many ways. The movie didn’t make a lot of money, but it upped my (asking price), it brought people’s attention to me in a whole new way. Things happen slowly. They come in waves; look at Javier Bardem, who just won an Oscar. That guy has been around awhile. Tilda Swinton, there’s another one. It comes in waves. I get good opportunities, I’m happy with the way things are going. I’d like to make more money, but I get to work with amazing people - Gene Hackman, David Mamet, George Clooney, Alan Rickman, Drew Barrymore.
You played a nervous crew member in 1999’s “Galaxy Quest,” a wonderful comic spoof of TV’s “Star Trek” that seems to have a real rabid following. What’s up with that?
People love “Galaxy Quest.” It’s a unique movie. I remember going to the premiere, and I was blown away; I thought it was going to be like “Ghostbusters.” We thought it would be record-breaking. (It grossed a healthy $71 million). Really smart people love that movie, so there you go. The first time I met George Clooney (director of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”), he said, “I love `Galaxy Quest.’”
And Zaphod Beeblebrox? How do you prepare for a part as a two-headed man?
I love that character. That’s one of my favorite characters. That was a lot of fun to do. It was like playing Elvis Presley, it was my fantasy of playing Elvis in a weird way. I was imitating Clinton and Bush in a weird way. There’s also a little Freddie Mercury and Vince Vaughn; it’s an amalgam of all this flashy Americana.