Sam Rockwell makes it look so easy. Whether he's portraying a nerdy computer guy/badass (Charlie's Angels), a woods-dwelling free spirit (Box of MoonLight), a paranoid game-show host (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), a child-murderer (The Green Mile), a sex addict con man (Choke) or a clueless concierge (A Behanding in Spokane, currently on Broadway), he melts into dark, deep and downright freaky characters so completely that he almost disappears. Maybe that (and his taste for smart, offbeat films like the underappreciated Moon) is why it took so long for Rockwell to burrow his way into mainstream consciousness. Fans might finally see a surge in his popularity with Iron Man 2, in which Rockwell plays Tony Stark's nemesis Justin Hammer—a bad guy whose most dangerous weapon seems to be his mouth.
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Your name was floated for Tony Stark when the studio wasn't sure about Robert Downey Jr. Were there any points while shooting Iron Man 2 that you thought, I could do that better?
No! God, no. Robert's amazing in that part. He's the only guy who could play it. I thought the first Iron Man was so good. I was just was thrilled to be a part of [the new film]. And my girlfriend [Leslie Bibb] was in the first one, so she was able to clue me in on how they worked together.
What do you mean?
In terms of an improv, actor-friendly atmosphere. I knew that Robert and [director Jon] Favreau like to ad-lib. So I knew that I wasn't going to try to do an accent or anything, I was just going to keep it pretty simple, so that I was facile, you know?
So that if they threw something at you, you wouldn't have to think?
Exactly; I kept it pretty close to Sam.
Do you remember an ad-libbed line that made it in?
So many. One of my favorites is [when] Favreau told me to say "I don't speak Russian" to Mickey Rourke. Because Mickey speaks Russian. I would ad-lib stuff all the time, too. I think I said, "I'm gonna get laid." I think that was mine.
What's the context?
Well, you'll have to see the movie, won't you?
Ouch. This isn't the first comic-book character you've played. You were Batman in the short film "Robin's Big Date"—
Yeah, we're doing a sequel to that. Leslie is Wonder Woman, Rosie Perez is Lois Lane, my friend Yul Vazquez is Two-Face, and Josh Hamilton is Superman.
Are you a big comic fan?
Yeah, I like comic books. I was more into the Hulk when I was a kid.
Were you the cool kid in high school?
I don't know if I was cool—I thought I was cool. I did a whole break-dancing thing. I went through a black phase. I am a pretty good hoofer, but I wouldn't say I'm a really great break-dancer. But I was into the whole thing of cross-cultural—you know, zippers on my jacket and baggy pants. I had a tail, like a ducktail.
Does that ever come in handy? Like if you have a disagreement on set, you could break-dance battle it out.
[Laughs] Well, no. I dance a little in Iron Man. I think it's just for, like, two seconds. I just did, like, goofball shit that I do. James Brown goofball shit.
You've got this amazing cast: RDJ, Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke. How was it to be on set with them?
I had a great time. Poor Don had to listen to me talk about guns for a whole—[Stops himself]
Why, are you particularly fascinated with guns?
[Hesitantly] Well, we have a scene with Don where I introduce him to all these guns. They're really complicated. It's like algebra. So Don was very patient. Mickey had to listen to me jibber-jabber a lot too, actually. I have a lot of talking in this movie—a lot of talky-talky. For an action movie, I happen to do a lot of yapping.
If you could play a superhero, what would he be like?
This Kick-Ass movie sounds pretty cool. My kind of a superhero would probably be more like that, like a vigilante kind of guy. Travis Bickle meets Batman or something. But I always liked the Hulk because he was angry and stuff. It's cathartic.
Does your Iron Man character have any superpowers?
[Slightly dejected] No, I don't. I'm in these movies like Charlie's Angels and Iron Man, and I don't get to kick anybody's ass. I just talk. I never get to kick anybody's ass.
Iron Man 2 opens May 7. A Behanding in Spokane runs through June 6.