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Sam Rockwell has been my favorite actor in Hollywood ever since I saw him in ‘The Way Way Back’ in 2012 as Owen, and I was introduced to the mentor that I wish I had in the coming of age story that I wish my life was. I quickly delved into his entire filmography and realized and, over the years, consistently reaffirmed, the notion that even though he remains a character actor who usually plays more minor roles, he has the capacity to make any form of content he is in, appreciably better. From hidden gems like ‘Mr. Right,’ ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ and ‘The Way Way Back,’ to blockbusters and Oscar-winners, namely ‘Iron Man 2,’ ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,’ and ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ Rockwell is unlike any other character actor in the game.
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Sam Rockwell – A Brief Biography
Born in 1968 just outside of San Francisco, in Daly City, California, Sam Rockwell carried on the lineage of actors from his mother and father, Penny Hess and Pete Rockwell. As he split his time between California and New York, Rockwell was always around stages and screens alike. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, he shared that one day his dad came to his primary school and told the principal that there was a family emergency with Sam’s grandmother, and they needed to leave. In the car, he asked what was wrong, and his dad told him that nothing was wrong, they were going to the movies. The priority and immersion of the cinematic and performing arts led to Rockwell’s induction into that world at a young age, starting at 10 years old when he made a small appearance in his mother’s improv comedy production in the East Village where he played Humphry Bogart.
When he was in high school and more disciplined and well known among his friends to be an aspiring actor, he got word that George Lucas, director of ‘Star Wars,’ needed an actor to play a Care Bear for his son’s birthday party, and, hoping to secure an acting role from the job, Rockwell took the part, although it did not directly lead to his inevitable film career.
He began his delve into the industry through the genre of horror in 1989, still living in San Francisco. Although, it wasn’t until he moved to New York and started in the world of television in the ‘90s where his career electrified. While he was acting in small roles in television and movies, he worked as a busboy and food delivery man to get by. His self-proclaimed turning point was after his role as the eccentric man-child in ‘Box of Moonlight’ in 1996, and this led to a path of independent movies for the next few years of his career, a wheelhouse that he still frequents now.
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In 2003, he played opposite Nicolas Cage in ‘Matchstick Men,’ and perhaps the most backhanded and demoralizing compliment towards an actor that I have ever read, Entertainment Weekly said that Rockwell is “destined by a kind of excessive interestingness to forever be a colorful sidekick.” Rockwell has since had an extensive film career, both in the independent realm and big-budget Hollywood world. In 2019, he re-entered the television scene with his role as Bob Fosse in the critically acclaimed series ‘Fosse/Verdon’ alongside Michelle Williams.
Putting the Support in Supporting Actor
Sam Rockwell has had leading roles in a handful of movies, but he is best known for and frequently shines most when the spotlight is not primarily on him. The amount of fun and passion he brings to his characters makes his on-screen appearance, one to celebrate. Usually playing a wacky, larger-than-life character who has the capacity for deep and grounded moments, his characters can easily and routinely be described as lovable. Even in content that may not have acclaim, Rockwell consistently brings a special ray of sunshine that can make anything that much better just by being himself. Perhaps the best case of his defibrillator-esque acting prowess can be seen in ‘Iron Man 2.’
The sequel to the paramount movie came out only two years later, rushed by the studio to write a script, shoot, and finish post-production in a very short amount of time. Because of this, the movie is known for a few well-done scenes, but as a collective, an un-fleshed-out storyline that feels disconnected. Although, many fans are passionate about a specific star of the film, Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. There are many blogs and videos dedicated to the notion that Justin Hammer was the best part of ‘Iron Man 2,’ and many wish for him to be brought back to the MCU. Some are even hypothesizing that he is in the prison known as The Raft, and will soon team up with Baron Zemo and John Walker from ‘The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.’
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What made Rockwell’s Hammer so special was the success of the difficult task to act opposite Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. As another tech genius who has the ego and callousness of Stark without the respect or praise, Hammer’s driving force is to one-up the Iron Man, going to any length, many of which are amoral and downright illegal, to get there. Rockwell brought all of his strengths to the table, from improv to dancing and from humor to cruelty; he really was on his A-game. Unfortunately, his performance was overcast by the true, yet underdeveloped, antagonist of the movie, Whiplash, played by Mickey Rourke. Marvel had the wisdom to hire Rockwell but failed to truly recognize just how indispensable he was.
His other shining supporting cast moments include ‘Jojo Rabbit’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths.’ In the latter, Rockwell played Captain Klenzendorf, a Nazi soldier who was blinded and rescinded from his duties in the war and sent to be a leader for the youth Nazi camp and ultimately became a mentor to the protagonist Jojo, sacrificing his life for the kid’s freedom. He brings an inordinate amount of laughs throughout this dark comedy. Yet, he also gives redemption to not only his character but the absurdity of the movie by giving one of the most grounded and deepest scenes, with nothing more than a few lines and an out-of-shot muzzle blast. In ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ Rockwell played psychopath number one and number seven, being the main antagonist of the story, a rarity for the charismatic actor. Yet, he wasn’t without admiration, it seems as though it’s impossible for him to play an unlikeable character in his chore filmography.
A Reverse Hitman, a Water Park Manager, and a Sheriff
In my opinion, Rockwell’s three most iconic performances are in ‘Mr. Right,’ ‘The Way Way Back,’ and ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.’ Three Billboards must be on the list because it brought Rockwell his first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the 2018 Oscars. Although, I would like to focus on the first two, and how they solidify who Rockwell is as a performer. In ‘Mr. Right,’ Rockwell plays a wacky reverse hitman referred to as the title’s name, who kills the people who hire him as part of a dissociated moral code, believing that killing is wrong. He falls in love with Anna Kendrick’s character and teachers her his way of life, making for an action-packed love story that is the perfect amount of corny and sweet.
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In ‘The Way Way Back,’ Rockwell plays Owen, a wacky water park manager who fails to take life or his job seriously until he meets the protagonist, Duncan, who Owen takes under his wing and becomes a mentor and a father figure in this coming-of-age dramedy. Rockwell has a charisma about him that translates so well on screen when he is given the range to be himself. Owen and Mr. Right, in their respective movies, are introduced as complete character foils from each other: the former as a misanthrope who finds doses of fun in moments at a time, and the latter as an ignorantly cheerful killer who sees the joy and beauty in literally anything. Although on paper, they seem so different, Rockwell is able to use his abilities to make them both so likable and unique. These two hidden gems of movies are carried by the way he so graciously and seamlessly connects his talent and charm with the complexities of the characters.
Sam Rockwell is a metaphorical gluestick of a movie star. Like a gluestick, not only is he is fun and youthful, but you can stick him in anything, and he will hold it together and make it stronger. He has never been too hung up about being the star of the show, rather he is ever focused on contributing the maximum amount he is allotted, and maybe even more. Rockwell proves that you don’t always need to have your name in lights to make a difference and produce fantastic content. Sadly, he is not a household name, but he should be. It is virtually impossible for a movie fan to have never seen him before, given his extensive filmography, and once you start to look out for him, your movie-viewing world may be forever changed for the better, just like mine was.
You can see, or rather hear, Sam Rockwell in the upcoming animated movie ‘The Bad Guys,’ coming out in 2022, where he will be starring alongside Awkwafina, Craig Robinson, and Marc Maron.
By Samuel James Parven
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Samuel James Parven is an avid fan of all things entertainment and pop culture, who shines in reviewing the hidden gems of Hollywood. Samuel is fascinated by the direct correlation between media and culture. If art imitates life and vice versa, Samuel focuses on highlighting the ways that the entertainment industry and their consumers alike can improve our interpersonal world through the content with which we engage. With the aligned values of Hollywood Insider to focus on positivity and growth, Samuel is a passionate writer hoping to pen his takes on how to add more substance and inclusivity to the industry we love so much.