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.
Gal Gadot, Emma Stone, Margot Robbie, and More Are the Best Performances of the Year
“This year on Halloween, my daughter and I went trick-or-treating, and I had on this huge mask so I could see everyone but they couldn’t see me. Whenever I saw a Wonder Woman costume on a girl or a boy, it was so exciting. My daughter, who was dressed as a unicorn zombie, would run up to me and say, “Did you see that Wonder Woman?” They were everywhere!”
Gal Gadot wears Moschino Couture dress; Fabergé ring; Off-White c/o Jimmy Choo shoes.
“[Jennifer Lawrence] came to see Cabaret and both of my contacts popped out of my eyes at the same time and my prescription is -900, which, if you know what that means, is like…I cannot see. So, they had to drag me off the stage in the dark and she came backstage afterwards and I was like, ‘I couldn’t see anything! It was garbage! It was a disaster!’ And she was like, ‘Enough, enough. I’m your dance mom. You need to calm down.’”
Emma Stone wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Cartier earrings.
“I am Vietnamese, and we don’t celebrate birthdays. My parents don’t actually know their birth dates—they just go by their signs. When somebody asks you how old you are, you say, ‘I’m born this month in the Year of the…’ I was born in the Year of the Sheep. Sheep don’t like to be the center of attention, and they don’t like being told what to do. That pretty much sums me up.”
Hong Chau wears an Etro dress; Chanel Fine Jewelry earrings; Tiffany & Co. ring.
“I’ve had a flirtation with Winston Churchill for years; there’s been a book of famous Churchill quotes on my bookshelf since childhood. To me, he was the man who won the war. And yet, when I was first asked to play the part, I thought, Don’t be ridiculous, and turned it down. But they came back, and it felt right. My wife said, ‘Look, you get to stand in Parliament and say these great words. What have you got to lose?’”
Gary Oldman wears a Canali suit; Boss shirt and tie.
“I always joke that Jason Dixon, the character I play in Three Billboards, is Barney Fife meets Travis Bickle. 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. Accents should be practiced as if you’re drunk. Actors get a little tense when they have to do an accent. Drunkenness relaxes everything.”
Sam Rockwell wears a Marni trench; Editions M.R shirt; Simon Miller T-shirt; Huntsman pants; Rolex watch; Church’s shoes.
“My character in The Meyerowitz Stories is a sweet family girl, but when she sends films she makes in school to her family, you see her wild side. I’m naked in most of those films. I sat next to my dad at the premiere, and that was probably the most uncomfortable thing in my life. To see myself 75 feet tall and naked was not easy. I sank into my chair and heard my dad kind of laugh nervously. We pretended those scenes never happened.”
Grace Van Patten wears an Alberta Ferretti dress; her own jewelry.
“Being an actress, for me, is about my own transition. It’s about looking for answers. It’s about trying to survive in my life and also for the lives of others who face similar challenges. Life is scary, but art is not scary.”
Daniela Vega wears a Max Mara dress; David Webb earrings; Piaget necklace; Chanel Fine Jewelry ring (right hand); Tiffany & Co. bracelet and ring (left hand); Gianvito Rossi shoes.
“My husband is an artist, but he still has a hard time watching me sometimes. During The Killing of a Sacred Deer at the Cannes Film Festival, he was both hypnotized and shattered. When he hears me scream or cry from a certain place in my soul, it’s almost like it goes straight into him. His brain and heart don’t discern between acting and real life.”
Nicole Kidman wears a Prada top and skirt; Chanel Fine Jewelry ring; Jimmy Choo pumps.
Where was your first kiss? This is going to sound like a murder story, but it was in the woods, outside of a baseball park. I had lost my turtle. Curtis, the guy I kissed, found it.
Was that your first pet? No, it was a schnauzer named Ozzie. He hated us so much. He never wanted to be in the same room with us.
So what’s your porno name—first pet plus first street name? Ozzie Ormond.
What was your favorite Halloween costume? A picnic table. My mom wouldn’t let me be a witch or a ghost or anything demonic, so I cut a hole in a plastic cloth and went as a picnic table. The problem was I had a crush on this guy named John, and I was so pumped for Halloween because it was our chance to interact. And then I put my face in the tablecloth and was like, “Hi, John. Are you my boyfriend?”
Jennifer Lawrence wears a Dior dress; Dior Fine Jewelry earrings and ring.
“When I first read the script for Get Out, I thought, Are you allowed to do this? Are they really going to let this black guy kill all these white people? I think the most fascinating art pieces come at a price to the person making them. And this movie took a risk. On opening night, I went to see it in a theater in the hood in Atlanta. The crowd clapped, they cheered, they yelled, ‘Get out, man! Yo—get out!’ It was all the stuff that we hoped the audience would say.”
Daniel Kaluuya wears a Gosha Rubchinskiy x Adidas Football sweatshirt and sweatpants; ’47 hat; Gucci socks; Kaluuya’s own sneakers.
“I booked The Florida Project when I was 6. I’m 7 now. It was really fun because during shooting I got to eat ice cream! I want to start my own YouTube channel, and the name of it will be I Am Crazy for Ice Cream because I am crazy for ice cream. I’m also so into fashion. I wear shorts in the movie, and they were so short. It was a struggle getting them on. Now, I’m like, ‘Mom! Where are my skirts? No more shorts!’”
Brooklynn Prince wears a Baby Dior dress; La Coqueta shoes.
“I’m naked quite a lot in Beach Rats, and it’s a little strange to act when you’re naked. When the boom operator is standing over you, and you’re not wearing anything, it’s awkward. But, in the end, I didn’t find it difficult. I’m pretty comfortable with my body. Not in an ‘I’m happy to flaunt it for £5’ kind of way, but it does go deep into the psychology of someone trying to figure out their own sexuality, and their identity.”
Harris Dickinson wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC shirt, pants, and boots.
“As an actor, people put you in categories. It’s ‘Oh, she has an accent,’ or ‘She doesn’t have an accent,’ or ‘She can do this accent,’ or ‘No, she can’t.’ They’ll say, ‘She’s a pretty blonde, so I don’t know if we can see her in a comedy.’ So I know that for Fatih Akin to pick me was a big risk because he’s very well known in Germany as a director who casts unknowns or people he discovers who are not actors at all. In the beginning, he got a lot of backlash for it. And, in truth, I don’t think I could have played this character five years ago. Now I’m ready to shed any beauty look. I want to be stripped of any pretense, of any glamour.”
Diane Kruger wears a Rosamosario romper; Christian Louboutin shoes.
“When I was 14, I auditioned for an Off Broadway play. The scene was about a bris, the Jewish tradition of a child having the tip of his penis snipped off. Being the nice Jewish kid that I was, I did not know what a bris was, and I decided to pronounce it brie. Bris as brie. So I did the monologue, and, at the end, the director said, ‘Thank you very much, and it’s pronounced bris.’ I did not get the part.”
Ben Stiller wears a Gucci coat; Olatz pajamas.
“When I was 6, my favorite film was Robin Hood: Men in Tights. It’s got a lot of adult jokes, and it was really inappropriate for a child to see. In school, they asked us, ‘If you were to make a potion, what would you put in it?’ Even then, I could recall lines of movies, and I said, ‘The testicles of a newt!’ I got called up to the front of the class and was asked why I put testicles in my potion. I had no idea what testicles were—I just loved the film.”
Margot Robbie wears a Dolce & Gabbana top, shorts, and shoes.
“I was late to the game on The Room, which is considered by many to be the worst movie of all time. For years, I would see this billboard in L.A. that Tommy Wiseau, the actor and star of the movie, had paid to have up on Highland Avenue. It was a picture of him, sort of glaring down at you, with the words THE ROOM and a phone number. I was like, ‘What is this? Do you call the number and this crazy, weird, vampirelike guy can be in your movie?’ But then I started reading The Disaster Artist, which was written by one of the other actors in the movie, and before I was halfway through, I just knew it was such an incredible, bizarre story, unlike any other in Hollywood, about outsider artists trying to achieve their dreams. I was instantly drawn to Tommy. It’s almost like we were made for each other.”
James Franco wears a Balenciaga shirt; his own pants.
“To play Molly Bloom, I thought about what women have to become in order to find power in a society where men are making all of the rules. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh—the Kardashians are an incredible example of women who have their own sense of entrepreneurial power.’ And in real life, Molly looked a lot like them. For research, I actually watched Kim’s tutorial on face shading and contouring. As the movie goes on, Molly transforms into this idea of what a woman has to be in order to be heard: The heels get higher, the necklines are lower, the hair is longer. It was quite a departure for me, physically. And the strange thing is, I don’t look like myself at all in this film, and so many people have said to me that I’ve never looked better.”
Jessica Chastain wears an Oscar de la Renta dress; Sophie Buhai earrings.
“Until I read the script for Lady Bird, I had never encountered a female heroine who very much sees herself as a female heroine. In films, you rarely see young girls who love themselves. Lady Bird takes the self-confidence thing to a new level. She knows she’s going to be someone. And she has something to say, even if she doesn’t quite know what it is yet.”
Saoirse Ronan wears a Chanel dress.
Did you have an audition outfit back when you were starting out? I had multiple outfits. Much like a costume box. I would change between auditions. I remember changing in the car on the freeway. I’m still a fast changer. And discreet. I have a talent for taking my clothes off quickly.
What was your first favorite film? The Sound of Music. It was very influential. And I got to meet Captain von Trapp while filming All the Money in the World [Christopher Plummer replaced Kevin Spacey after Spacey was pulled from the project]. We were about to be in this movie together, and I thought, How soon is too soon to ask Christopher Plummer to sing “Edelweiss” into my phone for my daughter?
Michelle Williams wears a Louis Vuitton dress.
“I play real people a lot. And it is a huge responsibility. Anytime you are playing somebody who was alive, for good or for bad, that performance becomes a version of an official record of what happened: what motivated them, what obstacles they faced, and how they got through their particular struggle. There’s a degree of leeway that you can allow yourself as long as you’re not turning good guys into bad guys, or knowledge into ignorance. Having said that, it’s a little easier playing someone who’s no longer living. Because then you don’t have to meet them.”
Tom Hanks wears a Tom Ford suit, vest, and shoes; Boss shirt; Rolex watch.
“I had a successful soap opera career in Mexico, but I left my fame and my comfort and I moved to Los Angeles because I wanted to make films. I was very, very famous in Mexico, and in the States I was working as an extra. People thought maybe I was running from the police. Why else would I leave everything I had to play a maid? I told them, ‘This industry is going to change. We are too strong of an economic force to be ignored forever.’”
Salma Hayek wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress; Cartier earrings.
“I was loosely attached to Call Me by Your Name for four years. It never seemed like it was coming together, and then it did. Now I’ve spent nearly two years promoting it. So, in many ways, it will be the project of my youth. When I’m older, I’ll look at this film and remember what it was like to not be jaded, old, and washed up. I’ll look back and say, ‘Oh, when I was young…’”
Timothée Chalamet wears a Sandro jacket and pants; Schiesser tank top; Sermoneta Gloves gloves; Calvin Klein 205W39NYC boots.
“My first kiss was at a party, when I was 12 or 13, during my first term at a coed school, so, you know, hormones were raging. A girl named Dora had this party when her parents were out of town, and it was literally a bacchanalia for 13-year-olds. No one was having sex, but it was just like, ‘Oh, we all get to kiss each other.’ And there were around 200 people there. It was about five hours of everyone going, ‘Have we made out yet? No? Let’s go!’ To this day, my friends and I will be in a pub or at dinner and say, ‘Remember Dora’s party?’ and sigh. It was an awakening.”
Andrew Garfield wears a Shrimps coat; Michael Kors sweater; Sunspel sweatpants.