Moon Man

samopenerLast week, one of my favorite actors, Sam Rockwell, appeared on campus at Ringling College of Art and Design as part the Studio Lab Series. The Lab Series, in association with the digital filmmaking program, brings guests from the entertainment industry to campus so that students can interact directly with working actors, directors, and cinematographers, among others.  Rockwell’s visit kicked off the fourth year of the Ringling Lab Series, which included a screening of one of the actor’s best films, Moon, and a Q&A afterward.

I became a Sam Rockwell fan after I saw him in several films in a short period of time. I first noticed him in the underrated comedy Galaxy Quest. Shortly after, I caught him in a movie on cable titled Box of Moonlight, followed by The Green Mile. I was impressed with the diversity of his characters in three different genres and the fact that he was at home in quirky indie movies as well as polished studio features. I can honestly say that I have enjoyed Rockwell’s performance in every film I have seen him in, even when I did not think much of the film itself. Last week, I didn’t know what to expect from Rockwell as he greeted the audience after Moon. Given his penchant for offbeat psycho characters, such as his recent turn in Seven Psychopaths, it briefly crossed my mind that he might be a flake. Instead, he came across as an actor who is passionate about his work and who approaches every role like an artist.

THE SPACESUIT IN MOON WAS AN HOMAGE TO THE SUIT WORN BY BRUCE DERN IN 'SILENT RUNNING.'

THE SPACESUIT IN MOON WAS AN HOMAGE TO  BRUCE DERN AND ‘SILENT RUNNING.’

Rockwell studied the acting techniques of legendary teacher Sanford Meisner, who described acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” A variation on method acting, the Meisner technique nonetheless differs from Lee Strasberg’s approach in that it is less about using complex, personal psychoanalysis to uncover a character and more about finding the truth of the character’s actions. Through exercises, actors learn to access their emotional life to add the richness of personal response to a role.  Meisner urged actors to find a purpose for every action and to focus attention on the others in the scene, which theoretically forces an actor into the moment, rendering their performance truthful. A well-known Meisner axiom was “an ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words.” In speaking about the Meisner technique, Rockwell also stressed the importance of paraphrasing the text, meaning understanding the script in everyday language. For example, when doing Shakespeare—whom he could quote—it was important to rephrase the lines to understand the emotional truth beneath them.

THE LIGHTING WITH HALF THE FACE IN SHADOW IS A VISUAL CLUE THAT SAM HAS  A DOUBLE--A DOPPELGANGER.

THE FACE IN HALF SHADOW IS A VISUAL CLUE THAT SAM HAS A DOUBLE–OR, A DOPPELGANGER.

Rockwell referenced the Meisner technique directly and indirectly as he answered questions during the Q&A after the film. He talked a great deal about the importance of rehearsal to find the physicality of a role, which involves where and how a character will move in a scene. Ideally, this stage of the process is a collaboration between the actor and the director, and Rockwell’s favorite directors are those that make the actors feel they are contributing to the process.

This was obviously the case with Rockwell and director Duncan Jones during the production of Moon. Rockwell was the only actor on the set during the making of the film because the story revolves around a lone employee—named Sam—manning an energy facility on the dark side of the moon. Sam is finishing the last few weeks of a three-year work rotation, and he is eager to return home to his wife and child. His departure is complicated by the discovery of his exact double wandering around the space station—meaning Rockwell’s only costar in this moody science fiction drama is himself. While Sam does interact with a robot voiced by Kevin Spacey, Spacey did not come onboard the project till post-production. In a tour de force of physical acting, Sam plays ping pong with his doppelganger. To pull this off, Rockwell watched the master shot of the second Sam playing ping-pong to get an understanding of his movements while he was in make-up to play the first Sam. When shooting the second master shot as the alternate Sam, he listened to the sound of the previous take with an ear bud to help him react and respond as the second Sam. The result was impressive, not only because it looked believable but also because Rockwell so effectively creates two Sams. Each seems to have a distinct physicality and presence, which is important in a film about identity and corporate dehumanization.

THE PING PONG SCENE WAS A CHALLENGE TO SHOOT.

NOTE THE DIFFERENCES IN DRESS, POSTURE, AND PHYSICALITY BETWEEN THE TWO SAMS.

To prepare for the role, Rockwell watched Dead Ringers, the David Cronenberg film starring Jeremy Irons as twin doctors, and a variety of buddy movies. Oddly enough, Midnight Cowboy proved a valuable influence on Moon. Though quite different in genre and tone, both films tell a story of two opposites who find a common ground and a personal connection. Touched by a scene in Midnight Cowboy in which Joe Buck awkwardly embraces Ratso Rizzo, Rockwell requested that the two Sams hug in Moon—a scene that the special effects men did not want to undertake. But, once they realized that Jones and Rockwell were serious about the scene, they figured out how to make it happen.

AS WILD BILL IN 'THE GREEN MILE'

AS WILD BILL IN ‘THE GREEN MILE’

Rockwell, who plays neurotics and psychos almost as often as Christopher Walken, is often cast as part of an ensemble. Directors use the energy and spontaneity he brings to these characters to infuse their films with a shot of adrenaline or a jolt of electricity. As Wild Bill in The Green Mile, he tears around his prison cell with a manic lunacy; as Frank Mercer in Matchstick Men, his energy is barely contained as he jumps down steps in a single bound or jerks off his tie in frustration; as the Kid in Box of Moonlight, his off-kilter character is defined by ticks and mannerisms. All of the characters seem to embody Sanford Meisner’s axiom about behavior vs. words. But, in his few starring roles, Rockwell’s broad range as an actor is more apparent. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind he plays game-show mastermind Chuck Barris, a character who is in turn mentally unstable, repressed, calculating, and tender. However, in contrast to the psychos and neurotics, his character(s) in Moon is more of an everyman just hoping to get home.

AS CHUCK BARRIS IN 'CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND,' MY FAVORITE ROCKWELL ROLE

AS CHUCK BARRIS IN ‘CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND,’ MY FAVORITE ROCKWELL ROLE

Over the years, I have attended many appearances and presentations by guest artists, not only at Ringling but also at film festivals. Inevitably, someone in the audience asks the guest during the Q&A about his favorite films, directors, and actors. Rarely does someone mention a film from the last 20 years, though current directors such as David Fincher and the Coen Brothers are often named. Rockwell was no exception. He favored the Film School Generation for its films and its actors, listing The Deer Hunter, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Exorcist, and Midnight Cowboy as well as later films such as Stripes, Animal House, and Alien. Actors he found inspiring included other method-style performers like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Sissy Spacek, and Brando and Dean. He also included Daniel Day Lewis and Meryl Streep. It was refreshing to hear him praise actresses.

I am always heartened by film-industry professionals who understand the impact of the past on the present in film, something that is not easy to get students to comprehend. In an article for Sarasota magazine, Rockwell also discussed influences and favorites but in the context of lineage. He noted the impact of Brando, Dean, and Clift on Pacino, De Niro, and Hoffman, and he offered an insightful comment regarding the influence of Walter Hill on Quentin Tarantino.

Sam Rockwell is a dedicated actor who searches for the truth and humanity in the most immoral of his characters, so I was not surprised at his final remark to the students: “Don’t go with CGI (computer generated imagery).”

38 Responses Moon Man
Posted By Qalice : February 25, 2013 7:33 pm

Thanks for attention give to an underrated film and its underrated star! Rockwell is always good, but his work in “Moon” is some of the best acting I’ve seen in years. I appreciate that the business keeps him working, but I don’t know why he isn’t a bigger phenomenon. I’ll watch him in anything.

Posted By Qalice : February 25, 2013 7:33 pm

Thanks for attention give to an underrated film and its underrated star! Rockwell is always good, but his work in “Moon” is some of the best acting I’ve seen in years. I appreciate that the business keeps him working, but I don’t know why he isn’t a bigger phenomenon. I’ll watch him in anything.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 25, 2013 8:08 pm

Qalice: He deserves to be a bigger phenomenon. He has a terrific range and intensity.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 25, 2013 8:08 pm

Qalice: He deserves to be a bigger phenomenon. He has a terrific range and intensity.

Posted By Doug : February 25, 2013 8:48 pm

Even when playing a villain in “Iron Man 2″ he added textures and levels to the Tony Stark wannabe which gave us even more reasons to hate his character. A lesser actor in such a role might be tempted to ‘sweeten’ him, as insecure actors need to be
liked. Not Rockwell-the producers got their moneys worth when they hired him.

Posted By Doug : February 25, 2013 8:48 pm

Even when playing a villain in “Iron Man 2″ he added textures and levels to the Tony Stark wannabe which gave us even more reasons to hate his character. A lesser actor in such a role might be tempted to ‘sweeten’ him, as insecure actors need to be
liked. Not Rockwell-the producers got their moneys worth when they hired him.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 25, 2013 10:50 pm

I love MOON and his performance in it. It’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of the 21st century and it really should have gotten him a lot more recognition than it did.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 25, 2013 10:50 pm

I love MOON and his performance in it. It’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of the 21st century and it really should have gotten him a lot more recognition than it did.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 26, 2013 12:31 am

It was great to see MOON a large screen, though the screen is not that large in the Ringling auditorium. Still, it intensified the lonely mood. In the Q&A, you could tell that Rockwell contributed a lot to the development of the character.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 26, 2013 12:31 am

It was great to see MOON a large screen, though the screen is not that large in the Ringling auditorium. Still, it intensified the lonely mood. In the Q&A, you could tell that Rockwell contributed a lot to the development of the character.

Posted By CitizenKing : February 26, 2013 3:30 pm

Thanks for the great post, when I saw MOON I have to say I didn’t even notice the acting, which is a testament to how good Rockwell was. At the time I was dazzled by the mind bending story, while acknowledging how well Rockwell carried the movie. Now that I think about it, I am even more impressed on considering what a difficult acting job this was, and how effortless Rockwell’s acting seemed.

I recently re-viewed SILENT RUNNING, with Bruce Dern. There are several similarities to my mind. Each movie showed a character who made difficult choices when he realized that his faceless employer was evil. Each movie left the lead character alone on screen for long stretches of time. But I would say MOON was a superior movie and Rockwell gave the better performance.

Posted By CitizenKing : February 26, 2013 3:30 pm

Thanks for the great post, when I saw MOON I have to say I didn’t even notice the acting, which is a testament to how good Rockwell was. At the time I was dazzled by the mind bending story, while acknowledging how well Rockwell carried the movie. Now that I think about it, I am even more impressed on considering what a difficult acting job this was, and how effortless Rockwell’s acting seemed.

I recently re-viewed SILENT RUNNING, with Bruce Dern. There are several similarities to my mind. Each movie showed a character who made difficult choices when he realized that his faceless employer was evil. Each movie left the lead character alone on screen for long stretches of time. But I would say MOON was a superior movie and Rockwell gave the better performance.

Posted By robbushblog : February 26, 2013 3:46 pm

Rockwell is always a standout for me, since at least Galaxy Quest. He was great in Moon and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and should have gotten more notice for both parts. And his Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 might have been the best thing about the sequel, aside from the race scene in Monte Carlo. He elevates everything he’s in just by being in it.

Posted By robbushblog : February 26, 2013 3:46 pm

Rockwell is always a standout for me, since at least Galaxy Quest. He was great in Moon and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and should have gotten more notice for both parts. And his Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2 might have been the best thing about the sequel, aside from the race scene in Monte Carlo. He elevates everything he’s in just by being in it.

Posted By robbushblog : February 26, 2013 3:46 pm

And look, Suzi! He’s a cat guy!

Posted By robbushblog : February 26, 2013 3:46 pm

And look, Suzi! He’s a cat guy!

Posted By Susan Doll : February 26, 2013 4:24 pm

Yes, a great actor and a cat guy—give him an Oscar now!

Posted By Susan Doll : February 26, 2013 4:24 pm

Yes, a great actor and a cat guy—give him an Oscar now!

Posted By swac44 : February 27, 2013 9:10 am

I believe I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I recommend seeking out Rockwell’s performance in the David Gordon Green drama Snow Angels, which was shot here in my hometown of Halifax. It’s the director’s last “serious” film before embarking on an odd left turn doing stoner comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness (I can’t really think of another director that’s made such a radical shift in his career, although it sounds like he’s coming back around with the upcoming Prince Avalanche and Joe, the latter of which–which is not a remake of the Peter Boyle film–also gives Nicholas Cage another shot at redemption.)

I have a few friends who worked on Snow Angels, and they’ve said that Rockwell was intense on the set, as you can well imagine, playing a disturbed man trying to get his life back to the way it was, but they could see how it was all in service of his craft, and I can see how it comes across on the screen.

Posted By swac44 : February 27, 2013 9:10 am

I believe I mentioned this in an earlier post, but I recommend seeking out Rockwell’s performance in the David Gordon Green drama Snow Angels, which was shot here in my hometown of Halifax. It’s the director’s last “serious” film before embarking on an odd left turn doing stoner comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness (I can’t really think of another director that’s made such a radical shift in his career, although it sounds like he’s coming back around with the upcoming Prince Avalanche and Joe, the latter of which–which is not a remake of the Peter Boyle film–also gives Nicholas Cage another shot at redemption.)

I have a few friends who worked on Snow Angels, and they’ve said that Rockwell was intense on the set, as you can well imagine, playing a disturbed man trying to get his life back to the way it was, but they could see how it was all in service of his craft, and I can see how it comes across on the screen.

Posted By Medusa : February 27, 2013 9:00 pm

So many things to like about Sam Rockwell, clearly! I also like him in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — ultra-crazy characterization!

I will have to seek out his movies that I haven’t seen, or haven’t seen recently.

Glad that you got the chance to interact with him, and I love his parting bit of advice.

Great post!!

Posted By Medusa : February 27, 2013 9:00 pm

So many things to like about Sam Rockwell, clearly! I also like him in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — ultra-crazy characterization!

I will have to seek out his movies that I haven’t seen, or haven’t seen recently.

Glad that you got the chance to interact with him, and I love his parting bit of advice.

Great post!!

Posted By smallerdemon : February 27, 2013 11:05 pm

Glad Medusa mentioned HHGTTG and Rockwell’s wonderful rendition as Zaphod.

But Confessions is my favorite role of his. He’s mesmerizing.

Posted By smallerdemon : February 27, 2013 11:05 pm

Glad Medusa mentioned HHGTTG and Rockwell’s wonderful rendition as Zaphod.

But Confessions is my favorite role of his. He’s mesmerizing.

Posted By kevinwrotethis : March 1, 2013 5:16 pm

Sam Rockwell is one of our absolutely wonderful and underrated acting gems, enlivening every film he appears in and being critically denied by Oscar year after year. His performance in Seven Psychopaths was Best Supporting Actor worthy.

Thanks for a wonderful article on a great actor and I hope more people catch on to his talent. I agree that I’ve always enjoyed him, even in films I don’t like, like Iron Man 2.

Posted By kevinwrotethis : March 1, 2013 5:16 pm

Sam Rockwell is one of our absolutely wonderful and underrated acting gems, enlivening every film he appears in and being critically denied by Oscar year after year. His performance in Seven Psychopaths was Best Supporting Actor worthy.

Thanks for a wonderful article on a great actor and I hope more people catch on to his talent. I agree that I’ve always enjoyed him, even in films I don’t like, like Iron Man 2.

Posted By kevinwrotethis : March 1, 2013 5:17 pm

Reblogged this on Chekhov's Gunman and commented:
Great article about one of our critically underrated acting gems, Sam Rockwell.

Posted By kevinwrotethis : March 1, 2013 5:17 pm

Reblogged this on Chekhov's Gunman and commented:
Great article about one of our critically underrated acting gems, Sam Rockwell.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 1, 2013 7:49 pm

My 17 year old son has raved to me how great the movie Moon is. Now I plan on seeing it. I liked Rockwell a lot in that comedy film that tweaks Star Trek, Galaxy Quest. My son recognizes Rockwell’s talent and now knows if he is in a movie, it will probably be a good one to see. Thanks for your post!

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 1, 2013 7:49 pm

My 17 year old son has raved to me how great the movie Moon is. Now I plan on seeing it. I liked Rockwell a lot in that comedy film that tweaks Star Trek, Galaxy Quest. My son recognizes Rockwell’s talent and now knows if he is in a movie, it will probably be a good one to see. Thanks for your post!

Posted By Stacia : March 2, 2013 6:30 am

Thank you for this. I am an enormous Sam Rockwell fan; as I have said before, my long-standing policy of watching every movie he has ever been in has served me very well.

I had always wondered what Auto Focus would have been like with him in the lead — I’m an unabashed Greg Kinnear fan as well and thought he did fine as Bob Crane, but someone on Usenet back in the day floated the rumor that Rockwell was in the running for the role (no idea if it was even true) and the thought has always stuck with me.

Posted By Stacia : March 2, 2013 6:30 am

Thank you for this. I am an enormous Sam Rockwell fan; as I have said before, my long-standing policy of watching every movie he has ever been in has served me very well.

I had always wondered what Auto Focus would have been like with him in the lead — I’m an unabashed Greg Kinnear fan as well and thought he did fine as Bob Crane, but someone on Usenet back in the day floated the rumor that Rockwell was in the running for the role (no idea if it was even true) and the thought has always stuck with me.

Posted By robbushblog : March 2, 2013 11:52 am

I don’t know if Sam was right for that part. Greg Kinnear hits the same kind of smarmy, handsome note that Bob Crane hit. He was perfect for that part.

Posted By robbushblog : March 2, 2013 11:52 am

I don’t know if Sam was right for that part. Greg Kinnear hits the same kind of smarmy, handsome note that Bob Crane hit. He was perfect for that part.

Posted By Stacia : March 3, 2013 6:02 am

I thought Kinnear slightly overplayed Crane’s occasional (and perplexing) naivete, but I know I’m picking the proverbial nits. I have no quibble with Kinnear, just playing a little of the Sam Rockwell What-If Game, which runs 24/7 in the background of my brain.

Posted By Stacia : March 3, 2013 6:02 am

I thought Kinnear slightly overplayed Crane’s occasional (and perplexing) naivete, but I know I’m picking the proverbial nits. I have no quibble with Kinnear, just playing a little of the Sam Rockwell What-If Game, which runs 24/7 in the background of my brain.

Posted By Sam Rockwell tribute | Louise Spiteri : March 7, 2013 7:47 am

[...] Doll’s post pays tribute to one of my favourite contemporary actors, Sam Rockwell.  Doll expresses so well why [...]

Posted By Sam Rockwell tribute | Louise Spiteri : March 7, 2013 7:47 am

[...] Doll’s post pays tribute to one of my favourite contemporary actors, Sam Rockwell.  Doll expresses so well why [...]

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