Close up with Sam Rockwell

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Time Out chats to the industrious character actor

Now 41 and just as unpredictable as ever, Sam Rockwell, whose latest film, ‘Conviction’, opens on January 14, is one of the most enjoyable and committed performers Hollywood has to offer. From his signature wild-eyed charmers in the likes of ‘Lawn Dogs’ and ‘Iron Man 2’ to more sober appearances in ‘Frost/Nixon’ and ‘Moon’, Rockwell has a winning tendency to throw himself into whatever part he plays. His role in real-life courtroom drama ‘Conviction’ is no exception: he plays fast-living small-town chancer Kenny Waters, whose incarceration for murder drove sister Betty Anne, played by Hilary Swank, to study law in an attempt to free her brother. A convincing, old-school Hollywood melodrama, the film may sugar coat its subject a little, but it never descends into outright schmaltz.

There was a risk ‘Conviction’ could have become overly melodramatic. How did you counter that?
‘Tony Goldwyn, the director, said something very important. He told us, “Whatever happens, you’re not feeling sorry for yourself.” It’s an emotional story, but the characters are very resilient, they’re always trying to help each other. Even in the prison scenes, they’re in pain but they’re trying to take care of the other person, they’re not just worried about themselves. I think that’s key to the film working as well as it does. My character is no boy scout; he’s self absorbed to some extent, but he loves his sister – there’s an undying devotion to her.’

Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself, appearing in the likes of ‘Nixon’ and ‘Law and Order’. How did that affect your working relationship?
‘It was invaluable. He knows what you’re going through, what the process is like, how emotionally naked you are, how vulnerable. He’s very collaborative, very open to ideas, but he’s also spent a lot of time with the material so he knows what he wants.

Did you find playing a real person at all limiting?
‘Well, because Kenny’s not around any more I had a little more liberty than, say, Hilary did. But even though Kenny’s sister Betty Anne was on the set she never interfered with the process, she was always really encouraging. We could defer to her but she was never intrusive. But of course, we both felt a big responsibility.’

Kenny Waters died shortly after his release from prison, but the film keeps quiet about that information. Why?
‘Tony struggled with that quite a bit. Originally they put it in the end scroll, and Tony was even thinking of shooting a scene. But the studio did test screenings and the audience loved the movie, then when they saw that Kenny died it was almost like they’d been punched in the gut. It erased the positive experience of the film. And that’s not what the film is about. It’s about this relationship, this love story between a brother and sister.’

Conviction.jpg

You had quite an unconventional upbringing, travelling the US with your parents and acting at a young age. Does that help when playing outsider characters like this?
‘Hilary and I both had a few hardships in our childhood, and I think that informs characters like this. We can identify with them. I’m drawn to these sorts of people; there has to be something personal about it or it’s not going to work.’

What can you tell me about ‘Cowboys and Aliens’, which you’ve just finished shooting with Jon Favreau?
‘It’s a John Ford western with aliens. “Unforgiven” meets “Close Encounters”. It’s played straight. Harrison Ford is John Wayne, Daniel Craig is Steve McQueen in “The Magnificent Seven” and I’m Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. I think that’s the best way to describe it.’

Which do you prefer, Hollywood luxury or indie freedom?
‘I like a movie like “Conviction” or “Snow Angels” [a 2007 film by David Gordon Green] where we have a medium amount of time. A movie like “Cowboys and Aliens” is perhaps too much time, a 30-day shoot like ‘Moon’ is too little. I’m happiest in the middle.’



Read our review of 'Conviction'

Author: Interview: Tom Huddleston



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