“You probably know me as ‘that guy from that movie,’” the actor Sam Rockwell said during his opening monologue on “Saturday Night Live” last month, taking a sly jab at his place in the cultural firmament: a familiar face attached to a not quite as familiar name.
Mr. Rockwell, 49, has a gift for playing droll, loopy characters most at home on society’s margins, in films like “The Green Mile,” “Moon” and “The Way Way Back.” Now he’s been thrust to the fore with his award-winning performance as a racist police officer, Jason Dixon, in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”
The movie has drawn criticism for its use of racial slurs and depictions of consequence-free violence, but Mr. Rockwell, who is favored to win the Oscar for best supporting actor at next Sunday’s ceremony, said that complex stories are bound to “stir up a lot of feelings.”
He chatted with me by phone last week, shortly after winning a Bafta (the British equivalent of the Oscars), about life as a character actor, his proud and protective father, and how being a middle schooler in San Francisco helped make him such a swell dancer, albeit one with less rhythm than Usher.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In your opening monologue for “Saturday Night Live,” you made light of your work asa longstanding character actor. Does it bother you, that designation?
We were making fun of my persona. I’m not a household name like Brad Pitt. People like to have labels for actors, and the truth is, every actor is a character actor. When I say actor, I mean actresses as well. Toni Collette is a good example of someone who can do both leading lady and transformational characters, where you’re barely recognizing them. I think Billy Crudup, Chris Walken, Robert De Niro, they’re all great examples of that.
People often use the word “quirky” to describe your characters. Do they all have to be iterations of you?
I think in every character you’re finding a version of yourself. I don’t relate to racism, because I wasn’t brought up that way. I can relate to self-loathing. The reason a person lashes out the way Dixon does is because he hates himself, so anybody can relate to that. I’m drawn to complex characters; they’re all filled with so many different feelings, and that’s what makes them interesting. The first “Iron Man,” Tony Stark, was an interesting character. He drinks too much, he’s a womanizer, and then he has this epiphany. That’s what’s interesting.
What do you think it was about this role, and this film, that led to so many awards?
It’s the transformational aspect of it, the fact that he was really many different roles wrapped up in one role. He’s a doofus, he’s a racist, he’s violent, he’s a mama’s boy. There’s a few heroic things at certain points. But he’s very flawed, and it’s a boy-to-man journey.
There’s been criticism that your character got away scot-free for his racist behavior and for throwing a guy out the window, and never being brought to justice.
It’s a small town and, who knows, in real life maybe he would have gotten thrown in prison. It’s a sort of dark fairy tale in certain ways — it’s not necessarily meant to be completely realistic. And if it is meant to be realistic, in real life, things aren’t tied up in a bow. People who deserve to get punished don’t necessarily get punished.
Did it surprise you that there was criticism of the movie along these lines?
No, whenever a movie is popular and it is a complex dramatic story, I think it’s going to stir up a lot of feelings. A lot of good stuff come out of it — the billboards that have been popping up [activists recreated versions of the billboards in Miami and London]. That’s kind of incredible, when a movie can effect social change, that’s kind of astounding. I think Mildred [the film’s mother, played by Frances McDormand, who is seeking justice in the murder of her daughter] is a really beautiful working-class wonder woman in some ways. It’s a kind of antihero slash protagonist thing that I think women really need right now. Mildred and [the directors] Greta Gerwig and Patty Jenkins. It’s been an incredibly vibrant year.
You’re a really good dancer — you can really bust a move. You did the splits on “Saturday Night Live.” How did that come about? Is it self-taught?
It’s a long story, but I hung out with a certain crowd, and it was a way to meet girls.
What kind of certain crowd?
San Francisco is not all cable cars and Rice-A-Roni. There were some tough kids there. When I was in middle school, there was a more white supremacist kind of group I didn’t get along with. I got in a lot of fights with them and didn’t win a lot of those fights. I didn’t get along with the rich kids, people we called WPODs: white punks on dope. My school was interracial, and I met a cool group of friends who introduced me to some other friends. I used to do really bad break dancing, when “Thriller” and “Purple Rain” came out. I was into Run-DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Doug E. Fresh, Eric B. & Rakim. Probably my biggest inspiration was James Brown, and watching Tom Cruise in “Risky Business.” I remember practicing that, and watching James Brown do the splits. I [recently] did SoulCycle, I’m not proud to say, and Usher was next to me. I thought I had rhythm until I was on a bicycle next to Usher. This is what happens when you go to spinning class in Hollywood.
Were you intimidated working with Frances McDormand?
I think it’s the biggest compliment to Frances that people are asking, “Were you intimidated by her?” Not really, but I was nervous to get in the ring with a great actor. I’ve worked with a lot of great actors. She’s really a force. I think what’s great about her is her integrity. Her sense of truth is like an iron bar. All these people — Woody [Harrelson, a co-star], Martin [McDonagh, the film’s writer-director], Frances — are true anarchists, they really are. I think it comes through in their work. I’m not exactly conventional either.
Yes that was my father. I didn’t read the article, but they read that quote to me on the Jimmy Kimmel show. That was my dad being a supportive father. He was just looking out for the kid.
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