Most of the world still thinks of Sam Rockwell as a King of Independent Film. He somehow simultaneously exists as a massive superstar to some and as a minor player to the mainstream. That will most likely come to a crashing halt at midnight tonight as the world lays witness to Iron Man 2.
Rockwell plays Justin Hammer – a lollipop enthusiast who happens to be a major rival to Tony Stark and Stark Industries in the gun-dealing trade. In the comic books, he’s an older gentlemen, but in the movie, Rockwell has created a younger, more vibrant brand of probably-insane-person to rival the most-definitely-insane-person that is Robert Downey Jr’s Stark.
I had the pleasure of interrupting Rockwell during his morning coffee to talk about his role, its connection to a 1984 Milos Forman classic, and where to find inspiration.
Hint: it’s inside Lex Luthor.
Can you describe the difference in your process when taking on a character with a rich history versus a completely original one?
Yeah. Could you give me an example of two characters you might be thinking of?
Sure. Chuck Barris from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is certainly a character who has a lot of history versus Sam Bell from Moon.
Yeah, yeah. You have to create an imaginary history for someone like Sam Bell, and Chuck Barris obviously – he has a real life and is a real person that I got to talk to and hang out with and research. I guess you just use your imagination. Anything that inspires you. With a real person, there’s a responsibility. I played a real person in Frost/Nixon too, and that feels like a big responsibility to hang out with them and talk to them.
Did you feel that same responsibility when playing Justin Hammer?
Yeah. That was a different kind of challenge. You’re a part of this bigger picture, and there’s a kind of archetype that you’re playing, but you want to make him original so you draw from different things.
What were some of those things? I know you mentioned Salieri at one point.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Well, I watched Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor; Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor; I watched George C. Scott in The Hustler; Vince Vaughn; Bill Murray in Kingpin; Peter Sellers in Lolita. A lot of those kinds of characters. I watched Amadeus. I watched F. Murray Abraham a little bit, and then real people like Bernie Madoff. Things like that.
What was the common bond you saw in those characters?
I think that there’s a kind of back-stabbing, Iago underpinning. That they’re willing to do anything to get what they need. Very competitive. Ambitious. Jealous. Envious.
Did you see a challenge or have any trepidation going toe-to-toe with Robert Downey Jr since he’s already so sunken into the role?
Well, I met Robert, and I really liked him. We got along. I’ve worked with a lot of great actors, and I prefer to work with actors that will throw stuff at you. I’m working with Chris Walken right now, and worked with Gene Hackman, Mickey Rourke, Don Cheadle – I prefer to be up to bat with all the Babe Ruths, you know?
Why do you think that is?
You get more when you’re working with Hillary Swank or Robert De Niro. You’re working with the best, and that makes you a better actor.
Did you develop a love affair with firearms when you were researching for Iron Man 2?
I’ve shot guns in movies before, and I’ve always loved guns. This is really technical stuff – I had to learn a lot of terminology. Had to learn how these guns work. Then they gave me some extra guns on the day, and it was quite …[Laughs]…it was quite a day for me.
You felt intimidated?
Well, yeah. Poor Don Cheadle had to listen to me. It took me a while to get used to the new guns. It was really technical. I needed some help that day.
You said in an interview during Confessions of a Dangerous Mind that there was a double edged sword of confidence boosting and stress when headlining a film. Did you feel something similar when joining a huge tent pole film like this?
I did. I did feel intimidated, but at the end of the day, I was very relaxed because everybody made me feel so comfortable.
Well thanks a lot for getting up early to hang out with us. Definitely appreciate it.
Hey, thanks a lot, man. Have a good one.
Iron Man 2 is in theaters tomorrow, May 7th.