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Sam Rockwell, 'The Way, Way Back' Star, On Fame, Selling Out And Crying During 'Galaxy Quest'

07/03/2013 09:51 am ET
Fox Searchlight

When I met Sam Rockwell, he struck me as simultaneously cordial and aloof. It's almost as if he was saying, "You're only going to get a fraction of who I really am, but I'm going to give that part to you with 100 percent conviction." Which seemed fair enough, considering (a) we were strangers and (b) promotional interviews are among the most awkward experiences in existence.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. Rockwell moved closer to me on the couch and the look on his face changed from "When can I leave this hotel and enjoy my life like a normal person?" to "I am now engaged in this conversation." I've interviewed Rockwell once before, but this is the conversation I've always wanted to have with him -- an actor I consider one of the most interesting and hardest-working in the business today.

His new film is the Sundance favorite "The Way, Way Back" (opening in limited release on July 5). Rockwell plays Owen, the care-free manager of a water park (a role loosely inspired by Bill Murray's role in "Meatballs") who mentors Duncan (Liam James), an awkward young teenager trying to break free from his loving mother (Toni Collette) and her prickish boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell, who is surprisingly good at playing a prick).

When I entered Rockwell's room in a SoHo hotel, he was cracking wise with co-star Allison Janney, who had just been accosted by a three-foot-tall statue of a penguin (you kind of had to be there). Here, Rockwell gives his opinions on everything from fame to selling out (something he's admitted to doing) to just how unbelievably serious he took his role in "Galaxy Quest."

That penguin situation was amusing.
That was a lot.

Do you know anyone like Owen?
Owen is probably like some guys I've known. But he's a magical character.

What do you mean by magical?
Well, I mean, they wrote this great character. He's almost like fairy tale-like. He's funny in a way and charming in a way that I can't be in real life. But I can in that character. He's so "on." I could never be that funny. I need somebody to write for me. Do you know what I mean?

I don't know. You seemed pretty "on" in that exchange with Allison Janney and the penguin.
I have a few zingers.

I feel that you would be fun to be around in real life.
I have my moments. I have my moments, for sure.

I've read that ["The Way Way Back" writer-directors] Nat Faxon and Jim Rash said Owen is inspired by Bill Murray's character from "Meatballs."
Well, I think there's an influence. I think it's hard to avoid that. I was influenced by Bill Murray as a kid. And Richard Pryor and Walter Matthau. And, later, you start to meet people.

Did you meet Matthau?
I never met Matthau. I've met Bill Murray. I hung out with him, he's cool.

How was that?
Amazing. He's just as funny in real life.

Would you want to do what he's doing now? No agent, just a phone number and some crashed kickball games. I feel you could go down that path if you wanted to.
I'd like to go in that path. I think it's a great way to go.

Do you get tired of the way the process works? Even this interview? Would you rather just show up and make your movie?
Yeah. I mean, it's all -- yeah, basically. I do. He's earned that.

You're getting to the point where you've earned that, too.
Yeah, yeah. You know, it's really just the power to say "no." And I've earned that to some degree.

What do you mean by that?
Somebody was asking me "How do you not play the same part?" Because people always want you do do your last trick. They don't really want you to change it up. They kind of want to categorize you, because it's easier for them. It's easier to categorize someone: "He's the weird guy," or "He's the bad guy." To change it up makes it harder for somebody to label you.

Which you've done.
In order to do that, you have to be willing to say "no." And I've said "no," sometimes for an entire year.

Do you ever worry your phone might stop ringing?
Sure. Yeah, all the time. But you've got to do it. I always joke that I'm going to sell out -- I suppose there's been a couple of instances where I tried to just go for the money.

What's an example?
I don't know, but, I mean, I think that it's never really the entire scenario. But it has to be one of the components -- it literally makes me physically ill to do something I don't want to do.

An example of a movie that you're in that confused me was "The Sitter." And I had a long talk with David Gordon Green about that movie recently...
What did he say about it?

He said that he spent so much effort on "Your Highness"...
I love "Your Highness."

But "The Sitter" was something less stressful that he could make in New York with his friends, and he said that was the appeal. And that the audience it was made for liked it.
Well, that's pretty good. I mean, there was some stuff that was cut.

He mentioned that, too.
It was a little more in the rated-R direction, that I miss from it.

So you're disappointed with the cut that was released?
No, I wouldn't say that. I think it was a good movie, but I think there were certain things where David and I might have gone a little more rated-R. You know, it was what it was.

Are you famous? I feel you're known to movie fans, but you could also walk down the street in New York and not be bothered.
No, I can. I can. I do have the best of both worlds. I get stopped, but not like somebody like Brad Pitt, obviously.

I bring this up because, like you said, you do all these different roles. I'm wondering if you almost disappear into Sam Rockwell when you're on the street in New York.
Well, I think people are more impressed with celebrity in L.A. than they are in New York. I think people leave you alone, for the most part, in New York. L.A., it's more like royalty out there -- that's what that place is all about.

When you did "Iron Man 2," did you worry about losing some of your privacy?
You know, it's good and bad. Because it gives you options as far as financing films that you want to do -- smaller movies. If you do big movies, you have what they call "good foreign." You know, good foreign sales. So, because I've done "G-Force" and "Iron Man 2" -- movies that have good foreign, you know, "Charlie's Angels," "The Green Mile" -- then you can do these smaller movies. And you can greenlight a movie like "Snow Angels." But, actually, doing "Iron Man 2" was a pretty creative process for me because of Jon Favreau and Justin Theroux [who wrote the script].

You did look like you were having fun. You got to dance.
I got to act in that film. I had speeches -- I didn't have to do any CGI shit. I had straight-through talk-and-listen scenes with Mickey Rourke. I had a great time doing that movie.

You were also in the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, it's just a coincidence. I got the call to audition for this movie and I had never heard of it. "Teenage what?" Yeah, I was 19 and went to North Carolina for three weeks. I met one of my best friends on that, Leif Tilden, who played Donatello. Then Josh Pais, who's a really good actor now, he's been in a lot of movies -- he was in "Touchy Feely" -- he was one of the turtles.

They're filming the new "Ninja Turtles" movie down the street. You should walk down to the new set and tell them that you want to reprise your role.
I think they're better off if they just CGI my performance.

I am a fan of Guy Fleegman from "Galaxy Quest."
You have to play that for real! I'm really crying in the spaceship when I'm freaking out.

Seriously?
Oh, yeah, I was doing a full emotional preparation for that. I had had four cups of coffee and I was doing it as if it was a drama for me. Knowing that the outcome is going to be a funny outcome, that people will be laughing at my tragedy. I was pacing, and I think Bill Paxton did the same thing in "Aliens" -- knowing he's the funny guy, but he's got to be freaked out. He has to be legitimately scared -- and that's what makes it funny. That's what great farce is: raising the stakes.

In a movie like "Airplane!" they play it straight.
I know what you're talking about. I think people think that with comedy, sometimes they think they can phone it in -- and you can't. It's quite the reverse.

Do you notice when someone is phoning it in?
I do. I think what makes great comedians like Will Ferrell or Zack Galifianakis or Steve Carell, who do a lot of farce, I think they fully commit. Will Ferrell and Chris Farley, they have real rage. Did you watch that Maxwell Coffee commercial? "We replaced your coffee." Remember that commercial?

On "SNL," yes. Then Farley goes into a rampage.
Yeah, he starts throwing stuff. He's channeling real anger there. It's not like "ha ha, funny funny." That guy's got rage. So did John Belushi.

Do you have rage?
Of course. Everybody does. And you channel that. Everybody has that side, it's whether they choose to express it or not.

Have you been in a movie in which you can tell somebody else is phoning it in?
I've been pretty lucky -- I can't think of anything offhand. I mean, we're always in danger as we get tired. You're doing 16-hour days. You know, I've been tempted to phone it in a couple of times -- and you have to kind of wake up and look back at your script and look at your notes and all of your preparations that you did. When it's four in the morning when you're doing a night shoot and you've got the giggles or whatever and have to do a dramatic scene ... it's hard. You are in danger of not giving a shit. And you have to wake up. And you have to go, "Oh, yeah, I'm here for a reason and I do give a shit."

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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