“It’s kind of like a detective movie but it’s set in the Appalachians,” is the way Sam Rockwell encapsulates his latest film, A Single Shot. Rockwell plays John, a true anti-hero who gets in way over his head after a hunting accident and finding a good deal of cash. What follows that opening is a dirty film noir, where you rarely know who to trust, despite having a positive attitude to all the familiar faces Rockwell is surrounded by in the film: Jeffrey Wright, William H. Macy, Joe Anderson, and Jason Isaacs.
It’s an impressive ensemble that Rockwell relished working with. This adaptation was another opportunity for the acclaimed actor to transform himself in subtle ways, which, as Rockwell puts it, is always a bonus.
Here’s what else Sam Rockwell had to say about A Single Shot, performing adaptations, and having to take risks:
Which movies or characters did you watch for preparation?
We referenced Terrence Malick and Michael Cimino. You know, the Deer Hunter and stuff like that for visual references and the tone of the film. As far as character stuff, I was watching everything from documentaries, to No Country for Old Men, to Coal Miner’s Daughter, Tender Mercies, Lonesome Dove, all kinds of stuff.
Are those movies that you and [director] David Rosenthal talked about quite a bit?
Well, I did that more for the dialect and the clipped aspect, the clipped quality of that dialect. It’s a very interesting dialect and I worked on it with a coach. And I had a guy tape my lines with a tape recorder. It’s an interesting accent.
There’s almost a musical quality to it.
Yeah, that’s right, absolutely. There’s a very musical quality to it. I’ve done a few southern accents, but this one was really fun to do. It was just really like out of the side of my mouth kind of thing.
When you are trying to find that voice, how much time do you spend? Do you just walk around your apartment talking to a recorder for a few hours a day?
A little bit of that. You practice. It’s always in your ear and trying to read other things in that dialect. You really try to span it as much as you can, but you can’t span it all the time. But definitely right before a take you might want to brush up your memory on the dialect.
With that voice and the way these characters all handle themselves, it’s really a movie about transformations. Do you always look for that?
It’s a bonus but it’s fun to do if you can do it. It’s always good to do that, to find that in a character because it helps you get lost in it a little bit. And the dialect helps, if there is dialect. All that stuff is so fun to work out. It’s so specific. Me and David were always fucking around with that—the chewing tobacco, the dip, the whole thing, the hat, the way they wear hats. You know, the way he’s dressed and everything, the way he holds the gun. It’s all great details.
How did the book inform your performance?
The book is really helpful. You go look at it and see what the character is thinking. It just tells you the subjects right away. Books are great; great for movies.
Did you do the same for The Green Mile?
Oh, The Green Mile, that’s a great part. That has very vivid descriptions of the character of Wild Bill. There was this thing in The Green Mile I’ll never forget where it says, “He just doesn’t care.” And that was really key to the character. He really didn’t give a shit. Because, you know, he was damaged goods that character. He was fearless because he’s so angry.
Was there anything like that for John that you picked up on in the book?
Well, there was a lot of stuff. But it was mainly stuff about him being isolated, and off the grid, and lonely missing his family. So that kind of stuff.
When you were reading The Green Mile or A Single Shot, did you go through them a bunch of times?
I go through it a lot. I’ll go through the book and I’ll highlight certain things. During Choke I had it on an audio cassette where I had the writer, Chuck Palahniuk, reading it into an audiotape. So I literally got his rhythms into my unconscious a little.
I imagine one thing that really informs you here is those shooting locations. Before shooting do you really try to soak up that environment?
I think it’s great if you can. It’s rare that you are in a place that the movie takes place. We shot this in Vancouver and it takes place in West Virginia. We shot Conviction in Ann Arbor, Michigan. So we’re not surrounded by the real deal sometimes, so it’s tough. You’ve got to sort of invent it for yourself.
A part of the film’s payoff is seeing you and Jason Isaacs together at the end. He really bites into those scenes. What do you usually want out of a scene partner? What brings the best out of you?
I think you want someone who is going to play ball and throw the ball back. You want generosity in the other actor. You need generosity and spirit from another actor. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a tennis match and you are passing the ball—talk and listen, talk and listen.
To build that chemistry, do you think it is beneficial to get to know another actor personally before filming?
Not necessarily. Sometimes you have an instant chemistry with somebody and you don’t really need to talk about it very much. I had an instant thing with Hilary Swank or Steve Zahn. Recently I had another experience like that working with Jeffrey Wright. There was just an understanding right away. Chemistry is a very strange thing where often you don’t need to know the person.
Or you can just be put together in editing.
Yeah, there you go. But the camera don’t lie, man. The camera doesn’t lie.
People responded positively to the chemistry in The Way, Way Back, which ended up doing really well. I’m curious how you define a project’s success.
Well, a lot of my career has been like an afterlife—movies like Galaxy Quest, Moon, movies that have an afterlife. I think Seven Psychopaths will have an afterlife. I think these movies resurface. So it’s a long career. You kinda just ride it out. Sometimes you get lucky with stuff like The Way, Way Back.
How about for the immediate response? Are you able to look at your performance and look at it objectively, or do you need a few years to really gauge the work you did?
A little bit of both. I feel good about certain things. I can be pretty objective, surprisingly.
Are you also informed by what people think of a film as well or is it always about whether you like it or not?
Yeah. I mean you can’t please everybody. Some people are not going to go for certain things. Everybody has different tastes. I think the one thing that is unfortunate people in America judge a movie by its financial success, and I think that’s a big mistake.
You know, this country is about winners, so it’s a tricky thing because if you don’t allow room for failure, then you are not going to be willing to take risks because everyone is too afraid to fail.
A Single Shot is now in limited release and on VOD.