Posted by Susan Doll on February 25, 2013
Last 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).”
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