Sam Rockwell: Acting at full clip

September 17, 2013

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He haunts the mountains like a phantom, a veteran poacher with deer in his sights and the law on his trail.

Indeed, in “A Single Shot,” opening in limited release Friday and available on VOD, actor Sam Rockwell looks as though he’s right at home as a veteran outdoorsman who keeps meat on the table with his rifle. Nothing, Rockwell says, could be further from the truth.

“I was a city kid,” he says in a telephone interview. “I did a little outdoors stuff in high school with a group called Urban Pioneers. But I was mainly a concrete guy. So yeah, that was just acting.”

Not that he didn’t prepare for it – or enjoy it: “There was a lot of moving around in the woods, so I got into good shape because the role was very physical,” he says. “The workout regimen was intense. There were a lot of twisted ankles in the crew in the forest. We had to hike in an hour each way. The crew had to take all that equipment into the woods.”

Rockwell did his own share of carrying. In the film, he plays a poacher named John Moon who accidentally shoots a woman – and finds a huge box of cash next to her body. He takes the money, which puts him squarely in the sights of the people who lost it. For one scene, Rockwell had to carry the body up a hill. While he had a wire to assist him, he also did some takes where he shouldered the whole weight himself, just to get a feel for it.

“I asked to do it without the wire a couple of times,” he says. “It was pretty heavy. I’m strong for a little guy but that was pretty hard. I had some aches and pains after that. But it was a fun character to get into and tell a story. He’s very quiet.

“In some ways, he’s similar to the character I played in ‘Moon.’ Or ‘Lawn Dogs’ – guys who are off the grid, isolated, from the wrong side of the tracks. There are different versions of that archetype, whether it’s Martin Sheen in ‘Badlands’ or Isabelle Huppert in ‘The Piano Teacher’ – the archetype of the outcast. I kept coming back to ‘Tender Mercies.’ It was a chance for me to do tonally something along the lines of that character, who was kind of perfect.”

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“A Single Shot,” in which his inarticulate character must cope with increasing, encroaching danger after taking that box of money, is 180 degrees from Rockwell’s other highly visible role in films so far this year: as the fast-talking Owen in “The Way Way Back,” a coming-of-age comedy hit out of Sundance during the past summer.

“Yeah, ‘Way Way Back’ was very dialogue-driven,” he says. “I thought of that character as having a Bill Murray aspect, or a Walter Matthau quality. I was actually attached to that script before (writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) won the Oscar (for writing ‘The Descendants’). It was me and Allison Janney. That was before Steve Carell and Toni Collette signed on. At one time, Michael Cera was going to play the kid and my part was going to be John Krasinski or Owen Wilson.”

But that’s how things go, says Rockwell, one of the hardest-working actors in film and theater. While he inevitably ends up in supporting parts in studio films, he’s an offbeat leading man in independent features. They’ve earned him a reputation as an actor with the range to play everything from multiple copies of the same character in “Moon” to Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s version of “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” to a psychotic killer in “The Green Mile.”

He’s at his best as the slightly manic, slightly sensitive characters he assays in the independent world, in films like “Box of Moonlight,” “Choke” and “Conviction.”

“The studio world is tricky and I’ve had a lot of fun doing supporting roles,” he says. “For a long time, the really good roles came from independent films. But I’m going to do a lead in a studio film (in a remake of “Poltergeist”) coming up. I just go where the good parts are. I just want to be surrounded by good people. Sometimes that means taking a chance on a first-time director, like I did with ‘Moon’ and ‘Way Way Back.’

“It ebbs and flows,” Rockwell says matter-of-factly. “The business is so fickle. Look at Matthew McConaughey – you didn’t see him for a while and all of a sudden he’s hot and working with Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. I’ve seen so many actors fall by the wayside. At the end of the day, I just want to go to work and do a good job.”

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