While Sam Rockwell may very well be a nice guy in real life, it's nearly impossible to speak with him and not think of "Wild Bill" Wharton, his wickedly evil character from "The Green Mile" (1999), or perhaps his amoral weapons dealer Justin Hammer from "Iron Man 2" (2010). Either way, it's equally nerve-racking.
But because we're professionals, we took our chances and sat down with Rockwell to discuss his latest film, "The Way, Way Back," a sun-soaked comedy/drama from the Oscar winning writers of "The Descendants," Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, in their directorial debut. (They also wrote the screenplay and play supporting parts.)
In a bit of a departure from his usual suspects, Rockwell plays Owen, the wild and whacky manager of Water Wizz, a water park that serves as a much-needed getaway for young Duncan (Liam James), an awkward teenager whose single mother (Toni Collete) forces him to spend the summer at a beach house with her skeevy boyfriend (Steve Carell).
As we sat overlooking the ocean in Santa Monica, Rockwell spoke candidly about his oddball inspirations for the role, why he's such a go-to bad guy, and even about his refreshingly simple philosophy on life. By the end of the conversation, Rockwell impressed us as being a lot more like Owen than Wild Bill. But we stayed on edge, just in case.
"The Way, Way Back" is in limited release now.
Is that Richard Pryor on your flip phone there?
Sam Rockwell: It’s Richard Pryor, yeah.
Is that your man?
SR: That’s right, yeah, I love Richard Pryor.
Yeah, is he your favorite comedian?
SR: He’s one of my favorite. He’s one of my favorites, yeah.
You ever do stand-up?
SR: No, never done stand-up.
Those guys are gluttons for punishment, man.
SR: Yeah, right. They are, man. They’re tough suckers.
Well, you gotta be a tough sucker to do what you do.
SR: Yeah, sure, sure. It takes a little back bone. Just last long. Just survive.
How do you do that? What's your theory?
SR: Change it up. Change it up. Change the roles up, I think.
Yeah. Well, you’ve definitely done that over the years. And where does “The Way, Way Back” fall into the pantheon?
SR: I’m really proud of it. I really like it. I got really lucky with this one. This is a good role, and a good movie.
See Sam Rockwell in a clip from 'The Way, Way Back':
The part of Owen that you play, it harkens back a bit to Bill Murray in “Meatballs.”
SR: Yes. Yeah, absolutely.
Did you watch that?
SR: Yeah, yeah, incessantly. Yeah, sure.
SR: Yeah, sure. A lot of it. Yeah, absolutely. I tried to make it my own but I did steal some vibe from him for sure.
What vibe were you looking for?
SR: I think that and Walter Matthau in "Bad News Bears," and Richard Pryor in "Bustin’ Loose," and Billy Bob Thornton in "Bad Santa." There’s a lot of good archetypes. I feel like a lot of great actors have done a character like this, you know, George C. Scott. There are versions of this guy. Vince Vaughn, you know. But Bill Murray is the original of this type of guy.
I talked to Ivan Reitman about that movie. It was an eye-opening experience.
SR: I bet, yeah. They really pieced that together, right?
Yeah. And they didn’t even know if Bill Murray was going to show up. Did you try to pull that? Did you try to keep them guessing?
SR: No, no. This one was very smooth sailing, this job.
Could you ride the water park rides?
SR: Yeah, we rode the rides a bit, but you know, we were working and it was hot. We did a little bit of that.
Where did you guys film?
SR: It was called Water Wizz, it's a real water park in Massachusetts. It’s great. It’s a great spot.
Did you have a Water Wizz, like a place that you could just go and be?
SR: I did. I did not have a Water Wizz, but I was a city kid. I didn’t really go summer camps per se, but I was part of a program called Urban Pioneers in high school. We took hiking trips, and camped and s***.
Why was that a valuable experience?
SR: Well, the guy, Wayne McDonald who was the teacher, he had a big affect on me. He taught me about responsibility, but he never took himself too seriously. He wasn’t like one of these adults that was like wagging his finger.
We had to go on these trips and we needed food for the trip, so we would have to solicit food from Pizza Hut or whatever. We’d say, like, "Give us 10 cans of tomato paste because we’re going on a trip, would you donate 10 cans of tomato paste?" Or whatever. So we'd have to go around and solicit food for our trip and that was a good lesson for us because he was like, "you don’t have to solicit food, but then you’re not going to have any food on the trip."
I think this film does a good job of portraying how difficult it is to be a teenager? Why is it so hard to be a teenager?
SR: Teenagers are very judgmental. It’s a very judgmental culture. They’re also angry. They have all these weird hormones and emotions going through them. They don’t know who they are and it’s just such a strange time.
How were you as a teen?
SR: I was just a goofball. It’s just like you’re like this un-morphed creature. You’re not quite who you are yet. You haven’t really found yourself. It’s a very strange time, but I had some fun, got into some trouble. It was good for me. I mean I had some good times too.
Best teenage memory?
SR: There were some high school pranks, throwing eggs on our head or something in Physiology class. One time we tried to outrun the cops, but that wasn’t very smart. We got arrested. Just stupid things like that. Nothing too crazy.
It’s just part of life.
SR: Part of the life, yeah. Just pranky type stuff.
How was it working with the teens on set?
SR: It was great, man. They’re just great people. And Liam is a great kid. He’s awesome. He’s awesome.
You were a mentor on camera. What kind of mentoring did you give him off camera?
SR: I would talk to him and his mother about acting and stuff a little bit. About doing theater and stuff like that, going to class. But nothing to – I always tried to let him do his thing.
Do you consider yourself a role model?
SR: No. God no, man. Forget it.
SR: I’m still finding myself. I know about acting a little bit. I’m still figuring that out, but you just kind of learn as you go.
See Sam Rockwell in the theatrical trailer for 'The Way, Way Back':
Would you say that you have a theory that helps you along as you go? Like a world view?
SR: I think curiosity and low expectations are good things to have. I think that’s the way to go. And then I think if you follow those two rules, I think you might be all right.
I’m a big fan of curiosity, a little expected. You’re rarely disappointed.
SR: Yeah, that’s it. That’s kind of it.
Steve Carell's character in this movie… he’s a total jerk. I was so surprised.
SR: That’s great. Yeah, it’s great. It’s great. It’s really cool.
Did you speak to him about taking such a part?
SR: Yeah. I mean usually I play those parts, so it was a switcheroo. It’s really great that he did it. And I was able to do this. It was a nice red herring in the film for the audience. I think it’s interesting.
You said switching it up is how you stay fresh. What do you find is the difference in playing the jerk role versus the hero role, like you play in this one?
SR: I mean, I like just doing new stuff so it’s fun to be more sort of an anti-hero than a villain. I’ve done the villain. I’ve done a lot of villains. It’s good for me to do this.
Why do you think you’re particularly apt at playing a villain?
SR: I suppose a kind of reckless, breaking the rules kind of anarchy kind of thing, I suppose. That seems to be it. I’m a mischievous person. It’s part of my nature. It’s just like class clown. I think that’s what playing bad guys is all about. It’s all about being unconventional. If people say black, you say white, it’s kind of that thing.
SR: Well being the outlaw, it’s fun to be the outlaw. It’s fun. Chaos is fun. If you enjoy chaos, if you enjoy that then you will have fun playing a bad guy, I think.
What do you enjoy about chaos?
SR: Well, I guess anarchy and all that stuff, it’s what, like Jack Nicholson is really good at. It's kind of like that sort of f*** it attitude. It’s fun. It’s cathartic, I suppose. By breaking rules, it’s a cathartic thing.
By breaking rules in general or onscreen?
SR: Onscreen. Onscreen. As the character. Obviously in real life I can’t do a lot of things my characters do. I can’t be a weapon’s dealer, put weapons on War Machine, that’s out of my league. As a character, I can do whatever I want with that guy. It’s really fun. It's a release. It’s really good.
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