Interviews · Movies

Stealing From De Niro: Sam Rockwell on Watching Movies to Prepare for a Role

In 2013, we talked to Sam Rockwell while he was promoting ‘The Way, Way Back.’
Sam Rockwell The Way Way Back
Fox Searchlight Pictures
By  · Published on July 11th, 2013

With Frost/Nixon, Moon, The Green Mile, Matchstick Men, Seven Psychopaths, Snow Angels, Heist, and (deep breath) Galaxy Quest, there’s a likely chance Sam Rockwell has appeared in one of your favorite films from recent memory. With that array of performances, the actor has built up a filmography most actors would rightfully be jealous over.

He has a political drama, a Stephen King adaptation, a character study rooted in science-fiction, and a David Mamet crime yarn all under his belt, but now he can add another genre to his resume: a coming-of-age summer tale. With The Way, Way Back, Rockwell plays Owen, that cool uncle-esque character every kid would be so lucky to have. It’s a well-known archetype with plenty of templates for the actor to learn from.

Here is our conversation with Rockwell about his preparation for the film:

Whenever I interview Rob Corddry, he always says that you and Leslie Bibb are the masters at knowing which movies to watch to prepare for a role. For The Way, Way Back, which films did you revisit?

[Laughs] I watched Meatballs, Richard Pryor in Bustin’ Loose, Walter Matthau from Bad News Bears, and, of course, some real people I grew up with. There’s a little Vince Vaughn in there and, you know, I might’ve slipped in a little Rob Corddry from Hot Tub Time Machine. Who knows? I actually gave that to Liam [James] to watch. I said, “if you like Rob Corddry, you’ll love Hot Tub Time Machine.” He rules in that movie.

Have you always used films to prepare?

Yeah. I think I was a film geek. I grew up watching a lot of weird movies.

Do you study those performances thoroughly or try to get a tonal feel for what a movie might be?

It’s a little bit of both. You can learn from those great artists. I think the main thing you learn is relaxation, the deliveries, and the way they understate a delivery. Less is more, you know? There’s general things like that. You can do “action shopping,” where you’re searching for actions and intentions in any given scene. There may be a way to get something in a film or a play where you can use a certain intention to get your objective in the scene. You could watch a movie or a play and, in a sense, shop for intentions or actions. That’s how I see it.

Do you know a lot of other actors who do that?

I think some do, some don’t. Some people are more purist. They feel like it could hinder their originality, you know? They don’t want to do a carbon copy of a carbon copy, but I don’t feel that way so much. I feel like you can steal and make it your own. You can steal from Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro, without necessarily imitating them. There’s ways to steal from them. You can do it, but just don’t let them catch you stealing.

Has there ever been a project that you were stumped on, in terms of which performance to watch?

Well, not really. Everything’s been done before, you know? I think it’s arrogant to think you’re the first person to play this archetype or prototype of a character.

It’s interesting you mention trying to get across an intention in a scene, because when I spoke to [writers/directors] Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, they said they would often have those conversations on set. Was that your experience?

Yeah, they were really communicative because they’re actors. There’s an unspoken shorthand that goes on between an actor/director and an actor. They know what it’s like to be in front of the camera or on stage. They know you need to feel relaxed, because at any given moment, anything can throw you off and distract you. You can immediately become self-conscious, and that is not good for the work. They know the comfort zone needs to be relaxed. I think Nat and Jim provided a really easy going set, where you feel free to fall flat on your face.

Obviously there are some directors who try to make their actors uncomfortable or manipulate them to achieve what they want. Is that environment easy to adjust to or is it difficult?

I think it’s difficult, but I think you can…I’m not a big advocate of that, but I have heard exceptions that it can provide the right result. You know, it’s really about getting the result you want, so it’s not about whether your actor is comfortable. The actor has to get the right amount of foam in his cappuccino not to make them necessarily feel better, but to get the best results.

When you think about it, in a more practical and economical way, if you want to get a Meryl Streep kind of performance, you have to surround that person with the right elements of whatever makes them comfortable. Everybody has a different process. I mean, some people aren’t comfortable chatting between takes, some are, and some people like a bit of both; it depends on the scene you’re acting.

What makes you comfortable?

It depends on the scene. Sometimes it’s nice to chat between a take and have a little levity. Sometimes it’s better not to and just to conserve your energy. That can be confusing for the crew, because then they don’t know when you’re approachable and when you’re not. I know Allison Janney was talking about how exhausted she was after each take because that character is like an explosion of energy. I can sort of relate to that. I had some monologues where I just had to rattle shit off. I’ve done those kind of characters before, and it can be draining.

I imagine on The Green Mile you that could’ve been exhausting, having to play every take with that level of energy.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, there were days I lost my voice on that. I just had to go get a beer.

One thing I’ve seen you say that most actors don’t, is that you have an acting coach.

Yeah, that’s right, Terry Knickerbocker.

How long have you been working with him?

Oh God, like, 20 years since Box of Moonlight. He’s amazing.

What made you start seeing an acting coach?

It really came from where I studied. I met Terry at the William Esper Studio, which is also where Leslie Bibb and David Morse trained. It’s the Meisner technique, which a lot of great actors ‐ Robert Duvall and Jeff Goldblum ‐ have come through. Terry Knickerbocker, along with Maggie Flanigan, who started her own school, were teachers I met during that time.

My first year was 1991 and it’s a two year program. Terry was the younger guy there, so we became friends and he started helping me with auditions. I started working on callbacks and auditions with him. Eventually when I got the job, he’d help with the problem solving along the way. He helps me prep to this day.

There’s also this great acting coach Leigh Kilton-Smith in LA and Maggie Flanigan too, but Terry’s my guy. I worked with Larry Moss once or twice, and he’s great.

What advice did Knickerbocker give you for The Way, Way Back?

Terry’s really great with comedy. He worked with Leslie on Hell Baby and me on everything. I think the first thing I did when I went to him with this, I gave him a copy of Meatballs. I said, “You need to watch this before we start working on this.” I think he watched it by the second time we worked together. We did two movies previously, with A Single Shot and Better Living Through Chemistry, right before The Way, Way Back. It was a real marathon for us.

Since he helped you with auditioning, how do you feel about auditions?

You know, I’m out of practice. I don’t audition very often now, so it’s hard for me. I used to get off on it, in a competitive kind of way. It’s really a muscle you have to work, you know? It’s a strange thing that happens in that room [Laughs]. You really have to go in with the right attitude.

A strange energy?

Well, it’s very unnatural. You’re really exposed while you’re auditioning. It’s a very strange thing, because you’re going in there to get a job but you won’t get the job if you go in trying to get the job. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but you have to go in and do your version of that character. You have to have fun and say, “Fuck it. This is what I would do with this part. If this is what you want to buy, this is what I’m selling. If this isn’t what you want to by, that’s cool. Maybe we’ll work together next time.”

After an audition or a day on set, are you able to say, “I accomplished everything I hoped for today,” or are you someone who always sees what could’ve been done better or differently?

Usually I feel good about what I’ve done, but sometimes there are days where I think, “Ah fuck…” I don’t know the last time I auditioned. It might’ve been for No Country for Old Men.

Which part?

The Josh Brolin part. Twice. When I saw the film, I thought he was excellent. He was the right guy for the job.

Obviously there are some titles that fans probably praise you for when they see you in public , but is there maybe a film or two that you’re proud of that doesn’t get brought up often?

Snow Angels, Safe Men, The Winning Season, and I like Joshua a lot.

I think the way that movie was sold hurt it.

Yeah, I do too. I really like that movie, though. I like the work in it. There’s a couple, you know? I really love Snow Angels. That’s one of the best things ever, I think.

I recently rewatched that before interviewing David Gordon Green. It’s one of those great movie that just hits you every time.

I’m glad you saw it. Thanks for saying that. You know, David’s a guy who is an exception to that non-actor director. David Green and David Rosenthal have an innate understanding of the actor’s process. They’re compassionate people. David’s a really eccentric, fabulous guy. I think he loves actors, and that’s the key. There’s brilliant directors, like Hitchcock, who didn’t necessarily like actors, but that may not be the most fun process. David makes it fun. We do good work.

Is it important to have fun?

I think it’s nicer that way, but it’s not essential. I think you get better work out of people if they’re relaxed. “Fun” is such a strange word, but I do think you should be relaxed.

The Way, Way Back is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.