Know the face but don’t know the name? That’s the peril (or benefit) of being an actor renowned for your skill rather than your star power. However, the balance may soon tip for Sam Rockwell who, having bubbled away for years, pulling the limelight rug from under his co-stars’ feet, is shaping up to have quite a year. This week sees the release of Conviction, with Rockwell playing Kenny Waters, wrongly imprisoned for murder in 1983 until his exoneration in 2001, while later this summer, the much-lauded Cowboys And Aliens will dominate the multiplexes.
The eclectic CV and ambition to remain a “working actor” may stem from his unorthodox background. Brought up in San Francisco with his father (“He was an actor but he quit and became a printer. He had to get a real job to raise me”), Rockwell spent the summers with his actor mother in New York, living a bohemian existence.
“I knew it was odd, and yet it was a great education for me. It forever made me a little more old, like an alien — I knew stuff that other kids didn’t know.” Loner, non-conformist and damn fine actor — say hello to one of ShortList’s heroes…
In Conviction you play Kenny Waters over 20 years. When you have the full make-up on is looking in the mirror like looking into the future?
I think Kenny looks really cool — I hope I look that cool. I think he looks pretty badass, but I’ll probably be fat.
Have you ever been arrested yourself?
Yeah, I have been, but only for small-time sh*t. I shoplifted candy, bought beer with fake ID, sh*t like that. Nothing serious. I’ve never killed anyone, but I’m willing to learn.
Did you draw on being locked up for your performance?
I used my imagination more, read books and watched documentaries, and I talked to a prison guard. I visited a friend of mine who was in the county jail once. He was similar to Kenny. He was a wild guy, the life of the party. And I did have other friends in prison.
What did you learn?
There was one acquaintance who had not done well in prison; he was in there for two years, and he got beat up quite a bit, and wasn’t able to defend himself. When I was doing The Green Mile I asked him what it was like, and he said, “I’ll tell you this — I didn’t have a solid bowel movement for the first year.” I asked why – because of the food? He said, “No.” That kind of said everything, that little detail – the fear. Think about that for a second – that’s intense. The stress, you know what I mean?
Hilary Swank plays your sister, Betty Anne Waters, who put herself through law school to exonerate her brother. How did you recreate that bond on screen?
We just got lucky. We really liked each other and we hit it off, you know? It’s not always that way. We were able to capture lightning in a bottle, the two of us.
You’re not at a bad stage in your career, with Moon and Iron Man 2. Fifteen years ago, did you expect this?
There are a lot of good phases, and then there are dry spells in any career. It’s just the way it is — if you look at somebody like Alec Baldwin, he went through some ebbs and flows, and now his career’s on fire. Look at Robert Downey Jnr. I’ve been consistently simmering. I just like to work — I’m just a working actor.
You started out in a beer commercial.
Yeah, I did about 15 or 17 commercials, I did Miller beer, American Express, Dr Pepper, Burger King — at a certain point you can’t do those any more. And I worked in a lot of restaurants.
You worked as an intern for a private detective as well. What was that like?
It was actually pretty boring, except one time we tracked somebody who was having an affair, and I got paid 50 bucks. The guy stopped paying me, and I just quit. He was a lovely guy though, played the bagpipes. I would have to go to libraries, research stuff, but it was stuff I wasn’t interested in. You’d have to go look at a house, see if a house was still there, and go back and report on that. It was weird.
So now you’re in Cowboys And Aliens — how’s that looking?
Let me tell you, this is going to be a fun movie. I think we pulled it off; it’s a mix of genres. I think because of the title people think it’s a comedy, and it’s not — it’s like Unforgiven meets Close Encounters.
Oh that old cliché…
Yeah, that old cliché. I don’t think it’s really been done before, the only thing I liken it to is a movie like From Dusk Till Dawn — it seems all very ‘cops and robbers’ and all of a sudden there’s vampires. It’s like that, in that you have a very formulaic western and then all of a sudden there are monsters. It’s played very real.
How was it working with Harrison Ford on it?
He’s amazing. He flew us in his helicopter. Han Solo flying us around. He’s a great pilot — those air traffic control guys know exactly who they’re talking to. He’s as cool as a cucumber.
What’s it like when Indiana Jones takes you up in a helicopter?
It’s cool, man. We almost went up in a storm, but we decided not to. I was arguing against it — I was like [my character] Guy Fleegman in Galaxy Quest, “I don’t think we should go, I don’t think we should go, let’s wait until the storm goes away...” Harrison just looked up wisely and said, “Let’s drive.”
Conviction is released nationwide on 14 January
(Image: TM & copyright 20th Century Fox)