In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sam Rockwell plays a slow-witted, racist police officer prone to hot-tempered abuses of power — in other words, the guy in the headlines that everyone hates. But neither Rockwell nor writer-director Martin McDonagh are willing to let Officer Dixon be a straightforward villain. The drama, which often spins into black-comedy territory, tells the story of Mildred (Frances McDormand), a single mother who calls out her small-town police department (via the three billboards of the title) for leaving her teenage daughter’s murder unsolved. Woody Harrelson plays the police chief, arguably the best cop Ebbing has to offer; Rockwell plays the worst. And yet, through a series of hairpin plot turns (we won’t spoil them here), Dixon and Mildred see themselves reflected in one another’s grief and rage.
A critical favorite for his off-kilter characters, Rockwell has yet to be nominated for an Oscar — but his knockout performance in Three Billboards, at once infuriating, hilarious, and touching, is likely to catch the Academy’s eye. The film itself, Rockwell’s third collaboration with McDonagh (after Seven Psychopaths and the Broadway play A Behanding in Spokane), is remarkably timely, a parable about seeking grace amid the anger and hopelessness of modern-day America. Rockwell spoke thoughtfully with Yahoo Entertainment about tapping into his dark side for Three Billboards, the freedom of playing “unhinged” characters, and how his early Robert De Niro obsession has shaped his entire career.
Yahoo Entertainment: I understand the character of Dixon was written for you. What did you know about the role in advance and what was your reaction to first reading it?
Sam Rockwell: When you read a Martin McDonagh script, it’s kind of like opening up a present on Christmas Day because every page you turn, there’s something really thrilling that happens. There’s all these twists and turns. So it’s what we call a no-brainer. Sometimes you have to talk yourself into doing something a little bit, or you get talked into doing something. And with a Martin McDonagh script, that’s not the case.
You’ve said before that all of your Martin McDonagh roles are like Travis Bickle, the Robert De Niro character in Taxi Driver.
Martin and I, we’re theater and film nerds, especially the Scorsese movies of the 1970s. a lot of our vocabulary comes from either theater references or Scorsese references. [We talked about] Mean Streets. Bang the Drum Slowly is a De Niro movie we talked about — we actually sing a song in the beginning of the film from Bang the Drum Slowly. There’s Travis Bickle. I think there’s elements of King of Comedy in the fact that Dixon lives with his mother. But I think that all the [McDonagh] characters, including Mervyn in A Behanding in Spokane, the play that we did on Broadway with Christopher Walken, come from that world. And Billy in Seven Psychopaths, too. They all share in common that the text demands a sort of comedic goofiness, and yet you can’t go too goofy because Martin also demands from you a certain kind of danger and emotional unpredictability. So you have to ride that line from goofy to dangerous. And I think that’s what’s interesting about some of his anti-heroes.
You get to some very angry places in this film. Is it frightening to go there as an actor?
You know, I was watching this Gary Oldman documentary, and he was talking to these acting students and he used an analogy that I thought was kind of brilliant. He said, it’s kind of like you’re taking a snow globe — you being the vessel, the snow globe — and you’re shaking up all this stuff that’s inside you from your past, and you have to kind of explore that again. So I thought that was a great analogy.
One reaction a lot of people are having to your performance is admiration that you’ve made a character like Dixon into someone “sympathetic.” That seems oversimplified to me, but what does that idea of a sympathetic character mean to you?
Maybe I’m being too humble, but I think that Martin’s script really provides all the clues for that. And I guess as an actor, I have to find the humanity in a guy who might be considered a monster. I just see it like it’s my job.
It seems like an important job right now. The times we’re living in, people have trouble sympathizing with people who aren’t like them.
That’s interesting. Can you elaborate on that?
Well, the political and cultural divisions seem so extreme; there’s an instinct to label anyone who doesn’t agree with you as a villain. I think people are really struggling with the idea of wanting some moral clarity they can’t find, which is a lot of what this movie is about, in a way.
Yes. There’s a childlike point of view right now, maybe in the world, that things are black and white. And I think these characters live in the gray.
As an actor, you may be in an interesting position to see that. For example, if I see a headline about a racist police officer beating someone, I might think, “I am nothing like that guy,” because I don’t want to identify with him. But as an actor in this film, you have to understand that guy on a deeply personal level, and find some humanity in that guy. So how do you get there?
Well, you know, I think it’s hilarious that I get all these rednecks and cowboys — they’re always trying to throw me on a horse. I’m a city kid. I went to an interracial school, and I used to break dance and stuff. That’s just not where I come from. I don’t relate to racism. But what I can relate to is — I just played a Ku Klux Klan member in a movie with Taraji Henson. It’s a true story called The Best of Enemies. And I was able to locate an ex-white supremacist who now pulls people out of hate groups. I had a brief conversation with him. He was very helpful. And he said, it’s not so much that you hate brown or black people; it’s that you hate yourself. That was a key component that helped me a lot. Because that’s universal. Everybody’s had a bad day. So if you’ve had a bad day, you’re going to relate to that. And Dixon has several bad days in this movie.
So I think the best way I can put it is that, if you’re able to tap into the loneliness and maybe the self-loathing that some people experience on any given day – and that’s not saying that I sit around feeling bad about myself all the time, I’m just saying that I know how to tap into that stuff and I don’t mind delving into it. For me, it’s sometimes even cathartic. So I think if you just sort of redirect that into rage, that equates as hatred, danger, racism. That’s kind of how I approach it.
In a couple of earliest film credits — specifically Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Basquiat — your character was just called “thug.”
[laughs] Yes. I think early in my career, I was watching too many Robert De Niro movies.
But Dixon is probably the most evolved and interesting version of that character type.
Totally. I mean, Dixon’s a redneck. But it’s funny. Early on in my twenties, I wanted to be like Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro. I wanted to be a New York Italian guy, so I tried to perfect that. And now I do all these country folk, so I think that’s from watching Coal Miner’s Daughter and Tender Mercies too many times. It’s all derivative, you know?
You actually did spend some time with police officers in Missouri, right? What did you learn from them?
I did a ride-along with a cop in Los Angeles, and an officer Josh McCullen — I think that’s his last name – in southern Missouri. He told me a lot of great stories. I had Josh take my lines and he came up with some alternative ad-libs and stuff. And Martin actually liked some of it and he put it in the movie.
Was there anything that surprised you about their job or their attitudes?
You know, they’re really nice guys. They were nice to me, probably, because I’m an actor. But when I saw them interrogate people, they were all business. They also, I thought, related to people in a more human way, maybe because it was a small town. But of course, my character’s not like that.
When Frances McDormand has talked about making this film, she described getting into arguments with Martin McDonagh over particular lines. Has that been your experience as well?
No, I think Martin knows what he wants. I think because I play characters who are a little, shall we say, unhinged — whether it’s this movie or Seven Psychopaths or The Green Mile, where [director] Frank Darabont gave me a lot of rope, so to speak. You can’t say, “Well, let’s keep it in the lines!” You have to draw outside the lines a little. So someone like McDonagh or Frank Darabont might not let the prison guards do as much ad-libbing, but he’d let Wild Bill do a little bit because Wild Bill is unhinged. So I get a little more leeway because I’m playing a crazy guy.
You’ve had such an eclectic range of roles. What movie do people most often want to talk to you about?
It’s five or six movies, I’d say, that come up a lot: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon, The Way Way Back, Charlie’s Angels, Galaxy Quest, and actually, people talk about Seven Psychopaths more than you’d think. A lot of dudes like The Green Mile and Seven Psychopaths. I think Seven Psychos is kind of a movie-nerd-dude movie. I notice a lot of young kids, of all nationalities, love my character in The Green Mile because he’s an outlaw. And I’m very pleased that Moon gets so much attention, because it’s a little movie, you know?
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens in limited release Nov. 10 and nationwide Nov. 22.
Watch: Woody Harrelson on what makes ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ so powerful:
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