Sam Rockwell Steps Into the Limelight

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Jacket by A.P.C. Shirt by Truth Alone. Pants by Missoni.Michael Schwartz for Men’s Journal

The atrium of the Bowery Hotel in Lower Manhattan is extremely dim, aside from a few spots, including the glowing iPhone Sam Rockwell holds in his palm. It’s a Friday evening, and he’s giving me a rodeo demonstration of a sort, showing me a slow-motion video of some downtime on the set of the Nazi farce Jojo Rabbit. Rockwell plays a closeted gay officer in the film, disillusioned with the regime; in the video on his phone, the actor appears in half costume, standing in jodhpurs on a windy hilltop outside Prague, rope in hand, churning a lariat in an even circle.

“You have to make your hand like a cobra—keep your palm down, see?” the actor tells me. “This is a head rope, here— I’m not sure I could do a heel rope.” Seconds later, the video shows Rockwell flinging the loop, landing it cleanly around the torso of Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo’s toothy, tousled 12-year-old lead, costumed in his character’s Hitler Youth getup. Davis, hands at his sides, giggles as he’s caught.

“There you go. Roping Nazis,” Rockwell says, setting down the phone.

The scene is surreal and suitably Rockwellian: There’s no lassoing in Jojo Rabbit. Between takes, the actor was just brushing up on some of the myriad of strange skills he has picked up over the course of 70-plus films, in which he has portrayed spacemen, politicians, psychopaths, dirty cops, and of course, cowboys, most of whom dwell in the dusk between good and evil.

In early 2018, Rockwell hosted Saturday Night Live, and in his opening monologue joked that he was “that guy from that movie—not the main guy, but the other guy.” Since then, things have been different: He won an Oscar, for one, and a hot streak of high-profile projects has followed. Everybody seems to know Sam Rockwell now. And he’s still getting used to it.

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THIS EVENING, ROCKWELL looks relieved. The weekend is here, and he’s lounging on a wicker settee, allowing himself a break from memorizing lines for American Buffalo, the 1975 David Mamet play, which opens on Broadway in a few weeks. Rockwell will play Teach, a small-time crook, a character previously portrayed by Al Pacino and Robert Duvall—actors against which this 1970s cinephile has surely benchmarked himself.

Rockwell co-stars with Scarlett Johansson in "Jojo Rabbit."
Rockwell co-stars with Scarlett Johansson in “Jojo Rabbit.” L Horricks/20thCenturyFox/Kobal / Shutterstock

“It’s definitely a big piece of meat to chew on. Real talky,” says Rockwell, pulling the thick photocopied script out of a ballistic-nylon backpack. He thumbs through it, and the margins are littered with handwritten notes.

When he speaks, Rockwell intonates animatedly, as if in every sentence, he’s saying “wowie wow” while his brows, somewhat hidden, rise above the ridge over his eyes. The actor is wearing duck boots, dark jeans, and a striped short-sleeved nylon shirt; his glasses are tossed on the sofa at his side. He orders a Ferrari—half Campari, half Fernet-Branca, rock, twist—and sips water as he explains his return to Broadway after five years.

Performing onstage, he tells me, is like going to the gym. “It’s a tuneup,” he says. “It scares the shit out of you because there’s nowhere to hide.”

Fear, as it happens, comes up several times in our conversation: It’s part of what attracts him to a role, be it on stage or screen. “You get motivated and freaked out,” he says. “Then you either rise to the occasion or you’re drowned.”

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Take Rockwell’s hilariously pitch-perfect and surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of George W. Bush as a man out of his league in Adam McKay’s 2018 film, Vice. It’s one thing to attempt to play a real-life person; it’s another thing to play one of the most familiar figures on the planet. The performance landed Rockwell an Oscar nomination. “When I met Adam McKay,” he says, “I said to him very plainly, ‘I’m really arrogant—and terrified at the same time to tell you that I think I could play George Bush.’ Then he laughed, and agreed.”

I cannot resist asking: Would he be able to take on the challenge of portraying our current president? “Sure, I could play Trump, why not?” Rockwell says. “I don’t know if I’d want to. I bet you I probably could figure it out though. Might be fun.”

With Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
With Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” M Morton/20th Century Fox/Kobal / Shutterstock

Fear also played a role in Rockwell’s most recent triumphs: a SAG award and an Emmy nomination for his performance in the 2019 FX limited series Fosse/Verdon. As with Bush, this was another real-life character: Bob Fosse, the famous choreographer and dancer, opposite Michelle Williams, who plays the dancer Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s collaborator and lover. “Michelle and I were just, ‘What the hell did we just say yes to?’ ” says Rockwell. “These people were at the Gene Kelly, Michael Jackson level of dance—Olympic-level athleticism. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on film.”

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Though Rockwell has a reputation for shaking a leg onscreen—his ankle-wagging, smoking, Coke-sipping boogie in Charlie’s Angels in 2000 set the stage for many subsequent onscreen dances to come—Fosse/ Verdon presented a more formidable physical challenge. Aside from working to master Fosse’s moves, Rockwell boxed, lifted weights, and did circuit training, Soul Cycle, and hot yoga to get pliable.

“I knew enough about Bob Fosse to say, ‘Oh, I think I could do that,’ ” he says. “I thought I could dance. But the whole thing was a transformation.”

You get motivated and freaked out. Then you either rise to the occasion or you’re drowned.

AS THE CLAMOR OF FRIDAY NIGHT grows around us, Rockwell explains why he’s no stranger to outlandish characters: He grew up around them. In his youth, he says, he was surrounded by “kooky, kooky people.”

“I saw a lot of weird shit,” he says. “I wasn’t policed like a lot of kids were.” Rockwell’s father, Pete, was an actor and later a union organizer; now he’s head of the Democratic Party in Culver City, California. His mother, Penny, was an actress; now she’s a painter. The two split when Sam was 5, and he was raised mostly by his father in San Francisco. As they bounced between neighborhoods, Rockwell was forced to make new friends, over and over. “I was definitely a weirdo,” he says. “I got fucked with because I was a theater kid; I had to fight. Sometimes I got my ass kicked, sometimes I won. Sometimes I was the class clown.”

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Jacket by Dior. Shirt by Sandro. Pants by Missoni. Shoes by Louboutin. Michael Schwartz for Men’s Journal

During the summer, he’d stay in New York City, where his mother was in an improv troupe. Sam was performing on stage with them by the time he was 10. As a result of that slightly less-than-traditional upbringing, Rockwell says, what he thinks might be funny or appropriate might be different than most people. “I’m not easily shocked, you know what I mean?” he says. “There’s something a little off about me, Chris Walken, Christian Bale. We were all child actors. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but we’re…carnival kids.”

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WHILE ROCKWELL DREW ACCLAIM from performances in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Moon (2009), and Seven Psychopaths (2012), it was his role as a racist cop who takes a turn toward vigilante justice in 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri that changed everything for the actor. Rockwell won an Oscar for the performance and found a new level of fame.

“I’ve always been a workhorse,” he says. “I started professionally at 18 and did 10 years of hand-to-mouth. It’s weird because I’ve always been an underdog…. Then you get legitimized and start to think, ‘Oh, now I’m part of the club? What does that mean?’ ”

In part, it means new opportunities, such as a lead role in last year’s Clint Eastwood–directed biographical drama, Richard Jewell. “I don’t think Eastwood would’ve come around unless [the Oscar] had happened,” says Rockwell. “It’s all weird, because I’ve been working for such a long time.” Some time after the shoot, Rockwell found himself having a beer with Eastwood in a Burbank dive bar. This is something that happens now.

On a red carpet or at an awards ceremony, you don’t have to look hard to find Rockwell’s fiercest supporter—actress and longtime girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who in interviews has said that the recognition is “so long in coming” for Sam—and who was captured on television violently pounding Rockwell’s chest when his name was called for the SAG award.

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“She loves to hit me at those things; it’s her way of showing love,” Rockwell says. Bibb, he tells me, is currently at home, a few blocks away, with their 13-year-old German shepherd, Sadie. Bibb is making dinner, so he’s gotta cut out.

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Jacket by Levi’s Made & Crafted. T-Shirt by Truth Alone. Pants by Missoni. Boots by Louboutin. Michael Schwartz for Men’s Journal

Before he leaves, I tell Rockwell that I was curious about his high school improv troupe, called Batwing Lubricant, which he was in with future comedian/actresses Margaret Cho and Aisha Tyler at the San Francisco School of the Arts. On YouTube, I found some VHS footage from 1986, with a few thousand views: There’s a funny bit between a teenage Rockwell and Cho onstage, pretending to be former lovers reconnecting on a cruise ship.

“You got an ethnic change, didn’t ya,” says Rockwell to Cho. Seconds later, the footage cuts and finds Rockwell alone on stage. A voice offscreen asks, “Sam, what do you want to be?”

The teenager shifts and thinks for a second. “I want to go out and…I dunno, seek adventure,” he finally says.

Thirty-four years later, present-day Rockwell laughs. “Oh God, yeah, I’ve seen that. Well, I found an adventure. It’s exceeded my expectations, I guess. Such a weird path.”

The actor zips up a blue “Welcome to Ebbing” hoodie, acquired during the Three Billboards shoot, presumably. As he rises to leave, a group of three women sitting next to us pounce; they’ve been biding their time. “I’m sorry, but…” one starts in. And just like that, the actor known for disappearing has been spotted. Happens a lot these days.

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