Sam Rockwell is an agile actor in virtually every sense, from the way he carries himself on screen to his increasingly flexible range (stand the lunar explorer from Moon next to the sex addict from Choke and you’ll see two drastically different men). Even in Rockwell’s voice, there’s a certain spry, throwaway looseness. To my greeting of “Hi, how are you?,” he offers, “Doin’ good, man, doin’ good,” with the kind of unbound cool you’d expect from a guy who’s made it his trademark. Rockwell, 44, is one of the great screen actors of his generation, having evolved from a go-to supporting oddball to a seasoned pro at equally hard-hitting comedy (Matchstick Men, Seven Psychopaths) and drama (Conviction). More often than not, Rockwell emerges as one of his movies’ best ingredients, and such is the case with The Way, Way Back, a film that, to be frank, benefits from every iota of its fine ensemble’s heavy lifting.
Also featuring standout work from Allison Janney and Toni Collette, the seaside coming-of-age tale, which marks the directorial debut of The Descendants scribes Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, focuses on 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James) and the summer he’s spending with his divorced mom (Collette) and her douchey boyfriend (Steve Carell), neither of whom understand Duncan’s isolating angst. Enter Owen (Rockwell), a motor-mouthed man-child who runs the local water park, and gives Duncan a job while slowly becoming his surrogate father figure. For all the off-putting tidbits that come and go in the unwittingly ornery screenplay, Rockwell brings substantial, affecting heart to his wave-pool-monitoring jester, and he fires off his breathless lines like a comic Gatling gun. In our interview, the actor frequently cites his background in theater, and how that’s aided his wicked way with challenging dialogue. Candidly, he also discusses a childhood not unlike what’s shown in the film, a career that’s rife with convincing smooth-talkers, and how working with an ace cast is like playing with the Harlem Globetrotters.
The Way, Way Back focuses on a kid torn between two parents, and I’m guessing it had some personal resonance for you, since I read that your parents separated when you were young, and that you even spent some summer vacations with your mom, like Duncan does. Was that particularly helpful in connecting to the story?
I could definitely relate to the kid, yeah. And I luckily had a lot of great uncle influences growing up who helped me with that period in my life.
And that’s the kind of help Duncan gets from your character, Owen. Did the influence of those uncles provide a good starting point for bringing Owen to life, and for forming a bond with Liam James on set?
Well, there were several adults in my life who were kind of unconventional, as far as how they dealt with kids. And I think that was a big influence on me. There was a guy named John who was a friend of my mom’s, and then a teacher that I had, and my dad’s friend Tom. Also, you know, I’ve worked with Christopher Walken, and we’ve talked about how we were both on stage and in the theater when we were kids. And it does something to you. It definitely changes your perspective on what’s normal and what’s not normal. So, the way someone like me might deal with kids is different, maybe, than some other adults would, because I was treated like I was an adult when I was 10 years old. And I would imagine some other kid actors, like, you know, Christian Bale—they would relate to that kind of oddity about being a child actor.
There’s a point in the film where Owen starts reciting lyrics from “Holding Out for a Hero,” from Footloose, and it made me think of an old New York Times article that, incidentally, described you as having had a “footloose upbringing,” fleeing the West Coast to do New York theater and doing as you pleased. Do you still feel footloose and carefree?
Well, it’s definitely harder now for me to leave town. I find that hard: to pack and unpack. It’s a bit of an emotional process to do that when you’ve come from that upbringing, and you’ve traveled a lot. Going places is tough, and always living out of a suitcase is tough. And yet, that’s the life I chose. So…it makes you think. There’s something attractive about it, and there’s something kind of lonely about it too. There’s a spontaneity to it, and an adventure, but you also always want a little bit of security and a home base. It’s a weird juxtaposition.
We’ve seen you bring a lot of energy to your characters on screen, and with Owen, the energy is primarily verbal. He talks so fast that it’s often tough to keep up with his one-liners. How challenging was it to nail all that rapid dialogue?
It was challenging, especially in the hot sun, you know? I started to get a little spacey. It was really hot sometimes. But, yeah, I really had to know that dialogue backward and forward. It’s very rapid stuff. But I come from the theater, and doing lots of monologues, and shit like that, so I’m used to having things memorized. But you gotta get those things way in advance. At least I do. Some people are better at getting it down with less prep time.