Sam Rockwell is already dominating award season, thanks to his role as the violent, racist, homophobic, and emotionally complex cop Jason Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He has already won a Golden Globe and a SAG award for best supporting actor. Now, Rockwell is up for an Oscar in the same category. Here, he talks about how he prepared for the role, the moment he knew he'd made it in Hollywood, and more.
What was your first job?I worked at a deli, slicing and cleaning the slicer, in the Fillmore District in San Francisco. I made Danny Glover a sandwich once, he was visiting his old neighborhood.
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor?
I was 10 years old, and I did a play with my mother. My parents were actors for a while. Then I went to a school of performing arts in San Francisco, but I didn't really take it seriously. When I was 18, I moved to New York, I was a busboy, a barback, and did some jobs.
I was doing a couple of TV commercials, and then I did a summer course at the William Esper Studio, and I was very taken by the Meisner technique, and he said, "Why don't you do the two-year program? It's twice a week." I said, "Well, you know, I'm very busy. I got a call back for a Colgate commercial, and I got a lot of stuff going on, Bill." So, I went and I did the two-year program. It was kinda bootcamp. Jedi training for actors. I don't want to get too lofty, but I felt there was a bigger responsibility in being an actor and I hadn't really thought about until I studied, and then it was a very, dare I say, noble profession, if it's done really well, so I took it very seriously from that point on, when I was about 24. But up until then, I was really kind of a dilettante with acting.
Did you do the Colgate commercial?
Yeah, I did several commercials for money, and I did very well. I would pay my rent for three months, and then I'd have to go get a restaurant job. Then, as you get more well-known, you stop doing commercials.
Of course, that's all changed. People do commercials now, and it's acceptable, and there's no stigma. Same with TV. There's no stigma on TV. It's really replaced independent film. When I was coming up, it was independent film, and now it's Netflix, which is cool.
Right now, you're in a great independent film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. How did that come to you?
It's an incredible part, and I came to it because I worked with Martin McDonagh on a play called A Behanding in Spokane, which he wrote. A couple years later, that led to Three Billboards, where Martin wrote this incredible role for me, and he wrote an incredible role for Frances McDormand. Then we got Woody Harrelson on board, and it was a go.
He wrote it for you?
Yes, he wrote it for me. I always joke that Jason Dixon, the character I play in Three Billboards, is Barney Fife meets Travis Bickle… but it's more complicated than that, you know. That's a simplistic description of the arc of this character. Jason Dixon's a very fascinating, complex character.
How did you prepare for the role?
I spent a lot of time trying to perfect his southern Missouri accent. I did ride-alongs with a cop down there—he had a great twang.
You not only had to do an accent, but you also had to be drunk for parts of the movie. Which is a hard thing to do.
Accents should be practiced as if you’re drunk, even a posh, British accent. Actors get a little tense when they have to do an accent. Drunkenness relaxes everything.
What was the moment you knew you made it in Hollywood?
You know, it's been very gradual for me. I've had great moments throughout my career, and I have memories of meeting Kathy Bates, who was very nice, and flying around the world with [George] Clooney, and then going back to my shitty apartment on 8th Street, you know? The juxtaposition of when you're, when you're first starting to make some money, and your old crappy apartment...that dichotomy was pretty, pretty extreme sometimes. So, it was gradual for me, but I think when Green Mile and Galaxy Quest came out the same day, or they were out in the theater at the same time, and the ads were in the paper together, that was cool.
What was your favorite film growing up?
King Kong, the original 1933 King Kong with Fay Wray.
What movie makes you cry?
Oh, every movie. I saw The Big Sick, and that made me cry. King Kong makes me cry. I love Jessica Lange.
Would you say Jessica Lange is your celebrity crush?
Yeah, I'd say that's pretty fair. And my beloved partner Leslie Bibb looks a lot like Jessica.
Do you have any secret skills?
Lassoing – I had to learn the Lindy Hop once. The Polka is an awful dance. I had to do that for Welcome to Collingwood. I've done a little fighting stuff in movies, which is always fun, 'cause it's kinda like dancing. It's always fun when you pick up skills. Had to research Watergate for Frost/Nixon, I had to learn a couple of moves for knife stuff for Mr. Right and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Also, I can still do the splits. I'm no Justin Timberlake, but I can do a little hoofing.
That's very impressive. How did you find out you could do the splits?
Practice. I watched Risky Business, and I watched James Brown, and just practiced yoga. You gotta stretch. You can't stretch deep stretches your body's cold. That's a bad idea.
Do you take out the splits at parties?
I have. I did take the splits out at my dad's wedding. I had retired it for a while, but it was a fun party. My dad's wedding was quite eventful.