Mr. Rockwell

Sam Rockwell on ‘The Way, Way Back,’ His Troubled Youth & More

Sam Rockwell opens up to Marlow Stern about ‘The Way, Way Back,’ his impressive manhood (!), and more.

Claire Folger/Fox Searchlight

You’ve seen Sam Rockwell before. He’s the consummate character actor and, at 44, has made a career of blowing bigger-name actors off the screen in ensemble films like The Green Mile, Matchstick Men, and Seven Psychopaths. And on the rare occasion that Rockwell’s played the lead, as in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Choke, or the criminally underrated sci-fi drama Moon, he’s more than proved his acting mettle.

Rockwell’s latest film is The Way, Way Back. It’s directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriting team behind The Descendants, and caused a heated bidding war at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, eventually being snatched up by Fox Searchlight for $9.75 million—the priciest acquisition of the fest.

It’s the story of Duncan (Liam James), a 14-year-old boy who spends the summer with his mother, Pam (Toni Colette), and her asshole boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). The kid is absolutely miserable until he crosses paths with Owen (Rockwell), the gregarious manager of Water Wizz water park, who finds a kindred spirit in Duncan and takes him under his wing. Before long, Duncan comes out of his shell and even works up the courage to chat up the cute girl next door, Susanna, played by AnnaSophia Robb. Among the talented ensemble, which also includes Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, and Amanda Peet, Rockwell steals the show with a performance that deserves serious awards consideration.

The Way, Way Back is really a coming-of-age story about a child struggling to come to terms with his parents’ divorce. I understand your parents split up when you were very young. What were your adolescent years like?

Oh, you know … I had a more unconventional, bohemian kind of thing. I was around theater people and doing stage plays when I was 10, so I was around a lot of actors, and my time was split between New York and San Francisco. I understand that whole world [of divorce], and I think a lot of kids do these days.

How did you work your way through that as a youngster?

I did a little shoplifting, a little acting, a little drinking—all kinds of stuff. I was able to make friends pretty quick. I got into fights and stuff. I shoplifted stupid candy, booze, and salami … Mostly food and wine coolers, stuff like that.

You said you got into acting at 10. What was your earliest role?

I played Humphrey Bogart in a Casablanca sketch with my mother, and I played Flo Ziegfeld in a play. Playing Bogie is a tall order for a kid, but it was fun.

In The Way, Way Back, Liam’s character has his first love with AnnaSophia’s character. Do you remember your first love?

Sure, I had a couple of little teenyboppers that I had a crush on. I remember this girl named Susan, and then there was a girl named Rhonda. There were a couple of girls … I was pretty interested in girls pretty early on, like 10 or something.

Your character, Owen, is the manager of a water park, which is a pretty odd job. Did you have any odd jobs outside of acting?

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Shit … I worked in a deli, I washed dishes at McDonald’s, I delivered burritos on a bicycle when I was living in New York, and I was an intern for a private investigator. All kinds of stuff.

The summers here in New York are brutal—delivering burritos by bike must have sucked.

When it rained the brakes wouldn’t work, and then cab doors would open up and hit you. It was pretty dangerous. I didn’t have to go too far, though.

What about the private-eye gig? Any bizarre stories?

We tracked a woman having an affair once. We tried to film her coming out of a motel room … it was pretty sleazy.

Sounds like that show Cheaters.

Yeah. I think we caught her cheating, and then I got paid 50 bucks. But I mostly did research for him, and it was kind of boring, and then he wouldn’t pay me on time, so I quit.

And growing up with all the shoplifting and troublemaking, you ended up enrolling in an alternative high school, right?

Urban Pioneers, it was called. That’s when I was flunking out of school, and I had to figure out a way to pass high school, so I enrolled in this school that had a reputation for taking in flunkies like me. But when I went in, I actually learned a lot from the teacher, this guy Wayne MacDonald—big life lessons and taking the initiative in life. He was a bit of an Owen archetype and a big influence on me as a kid. He would have us solicit food for our hiking trips. He’d say, “You can’t get your parents to pay for the food and you can’t buy it yourself. If you want to eat on the trip, you have to solicit.” So we’d go to Pizza Hut or wherever and say, “We’re going on a hiking trip and need 10 cans of tomato paste.” And we’d need to get margarine, powdered eggs, and shit like that, so we’d have to go to places and solicit for food, and whoever solicited the best would eat the best on the trip. It was a lesson in taking the initiative, and the more hard work you put into something, the more returns you’ll get.

That lesson really seems to have carried over to your acting career. You weren’t an overnight sensation, and you really had to bust your ass to move up in the industry.

I made my bones, so to speak, in New York theater and independent film, and did some restaurant jobs, bussed tables, and did some TV commercials, and eventually had a career as a film actor. It took a while, yeah. You have to have no Plan B, I think. If you have a Plan B, it’s probably not going to happen.

One of those early roles was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We gotta talk about this because it’s a film I grew up with.

I was 19 and I was still a kid, so it was a big Hollywood movie for me. I didn’t even know what they were! When I first heard of the audition I was like, “Teenage Mutant what?” I didn’t know what the fuck it was. I met one of my best friends on that movie, Leif Tilden, who played one of the Turtles, and Josh Pais, who is a fantastic actor and was also one of the Turtles. Skeet Ulrich was in that movie, too, as my sidekick. He was a local guy from North Carolina and was asking me about how to get an agent. It was a fun summer job that lasted about three weeks down there, and then we came back.

You have managed to act in both big-budget Hollywood productions like Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens, and indie films. Is it tough to manage that balance?

You gotta shake it up a little bit … I think it’s probably time for me to shake it up a little more. You’re always getting asked to do the last trick, so I think you want to keep changing it up. In the business, people like to label you and want to put you in a category because it’s easier for them to get to central casting and be able to say, “I want this type.” But that’s not fun for the actor because you want to have diversity in your career; you have to fight against that. I’m looking to do something different. I’m ready to do an English accent or something.

I’m a huge fan of Moon and still think you deserved an Oscar nomination for it. Were you a bit disappointed by its critical and commercial reception?

Oh, thank you. I got a couple of trinkets. [Laughs] It’s funny because it’s the movie that most people mention when they talk to me, so it really did connect with a lot of people. I was just working with Keira Knightley, and she brought it up. I’m really happy with the outcome. That Oscar stuff is really a crapshoot. An indie movie has to have such huge mainstream appeal and hype in order to even be considered for Oscar mention. The Sessions or The Kids Are All Right—it’s a small miracle when a movie like that gets Oscar nods.

You’re usually cast as the eccentric. Do you consider yourself a bit of a weird dude?

Well, “weird” is maybe not the best word, but “eccentric” is a good word … “Unconventional” is probably the way that I would put it. Weird almost seems like … handicapped in some way.

Do you have any interesting quirks that people don’t know about?

I have a very large cock. [Laughs] I can’t think of any quirks. When you come from being a child actor, like Christopher Walken or Christian Bale, you have a different sense of normalcy, and that can sometimes come across as weirdness, danger, or otherworldliness, because you’re not shocked by things as easily; you’ve been around adults who treat you like an adult for so long. Ryan Gosling has a little bit of that, as a former child actor. There’s a jadedness that comes with growing up fast, and I think it changes your perspective a little bit.

Do you have any regrets?

Not really. I’m pretty happy with everything. I was up for some movies like Unforgiven and Dead Poets Society and stuff like that, but I’m fine. I have a nice life.