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Character actor Sam Rockwell has built his career on wild man roles that just get better with age. Last year he played a psycho-killer/aspiring screenwriter in Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths, and this summer he follows it up with as a goofball manager of a family waterpark in the coming-of-age dramedy called The Way, Way Back.
The film that made waves at this year's Sundance Film Festival marks the directorial debut of screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for The Descendants. Liam James from TV's The Killing stars as 14-year-old Duncan, a teen who escapes vacation obligations with his well-meaning mother (Toni Collette) and her bullying boyfriend (Steve Carell) to a water park where he finds a fun-loving friend in manchild Owen (Rockwell). While James plays the pic's protagonist, Rcokwell's is one of the performances that has earned the most buzz for its playful swagger and outrageous one-liners.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Rockwell. And after offering me my pick of candies (Skittles, M&Ms, mini candy bars, and gummy bears), he shared with me his thoughts on what made this screenplay a standout, how the production was a bit of a jolt to his improvisational methods, and how he regards the legacy of his life's work.
In The Way Way Back, you play sort of the savior of Duncan's summer, the adult he doesn't feel like a freak or failure around. Was there someone who inspired in you in your portrayal of Owen?
Sam Rockwell: Well, the obvious one is Bill Murray in Meatballs but there were many other real people, like people in my life, friends of my mother and father, this guy named John Gyler, and Tom Edwards. There was a teacher I had named Wayne McDonald. And the obvious sort of prototypes, for like Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears, Richard Pryor in a movie called Bustin' Loose, and other movies I grew up watching. But Bill Murray of course is a big (influence). It's pretty obvious that the relationship between Duncan and Owen is very similar to that relationship (in Meatballs). So that's hard to avoid that. You know what I mean? You have to sort of embrace that it's been done already. Most things have been, and just how can you change it or get a different perspective on it?
I think to ignore the fact that it was done well is kind is a little pompous and ignorant. It's kind of like if you're going to play Hamlet, you know some people don't like to watch all the Hamlets. I like to watch all the Hamlets, and steal little bits and pieces from Nicol Williamson and Campbell Scott and Laurence Olivier and whoever. So that's just the way I work, but some people don't work that way. They want to tune that stuff out and they want to start fresh. And I understand that 'cause you don't want to do like carbon copy of a carbon copy. But it's important to draw from real life and documentaries and stuff.
I hear you guys shot on an water park that was open while you shot.
Yeah! Yeah it was. It was indeed.
What was that like?
Well, some people would look in the lens and we'd have to tell them not to. But it was kind of cool. We had instant extras and they were real. Central casting! We didn't have to put costumes on these people; these were the real deal! That was sort of cool. It must have been a nightmare for sound, although I don't remember looping very much. So, they pulled it off, but I guess we just used all that ambience.
There was a funny moment, I have to say. I don't usually have anecdotes, but I do have an anecdote on this one. There's a scene where I was talking into the microphone and embarrassing Duncan's character about talking to the girl. Me and Nat (Faxon) are standing there, busting his chops. So, I tend to get a little more rated-R with my adlibs. And so I went a little too far and Nat and Jim would always pull me back and make sure I was in the right movie. But I went a little too far, and one of the heads of the real staff of the water park, a woman, came by and kind of scolded me and the rest of the people in charge, and said, "You can't talk like that!"
That's too blue for our water park?
Yeah, I forgot that this speaker was—people were—
You're actually being projected all over the water park?
Yeah! And I was saying like "herpes" and this and that, you know. (I laugh.) And she was saying, "There's families here! You can't do that. There's kids here." And I felt bad; I apologized. So that was kind of interesting.
It sounds like guerilla theater almost.
A little bit! Like, "Oh wow, we don't have a lock up on this park. We got to kind of (watch ourselves.)" So that was funny. That was interesting.
So I heard Nat and Jim wanted to have a phone meeting with you about the film to convince you to sign on but you basically said yes instantly. What about the script made you decide before you met them that you were just onboard?
I just felt that it was a no-brainer. It was just a great script and a great part and it was just like, "Okay. Yeah. Why wouldn't I do this?" You know what I mean? It was just one of those things.
Often you'll attach your name to something and then—I'm still attached to like four things right now that I don't even know if they'll ever get made. So you kind of like say, "Yeah, I'll do it." And then four years later…So Allison Janney and I were attached. I think we were the first ones attached. And then we didn't hear shit for a while. And then I Nat and Jim went and got the Oscar? And then all of a sudden Steve Carell and Toni Collette are doing the movie, and it's like, "Oh! Oh, it's on! We're doing it. It's happening. And this is real. It's a real movie." So when that happened it was really exciting. And they said, we got to do it in this timeframe and I said I couldn't do it then. I was doing two other movies and they had to work out the (scheduling.) And so I did three in a row, and that was the last one. I got a 10-day break.
What were the first two?
I did a movie called A Single Shot, and I had about a week break, not even. And then I flew to New Orleans to see my girlfriend and then I went to Annapolis and did a movie called Better Living Through Chemistry, and then pretty much had like then days in between that and this.
I heard a lot of the actors on this film rented house on the same block for its production. Were you amongst that?
No, I went to a hotel because I needed a gym that was within walking distance. I'm not big with the cars. I just stayed in this little motel. (Playfully) I like to be isolated.
I don't want to know anyone I'm working with.
(Smiling) I don't want to know anyone else, yeah. Besides those guys were having way too much fun.
You've earned a reputation for being a real risk-taker when it comes to projects, whether its playing villains or doing something really heady like Duncan Jones'Moon, which turned out to be amazing. But I was wondering is there a movie of yours that felt deserved a better reception—either from critics or audiences—than it got?
That's funny I was just saying that my whole career is after life. You know, my whole career has been after life. All my movies have great—not all of them—but a lot of them have had great life. Moon actually did very well when it was out, better than I think a lot of people think. In fact, that's the joke is that people come up to me and they're like, "I love Moon; I wish more people had seen it." But a lot of people come up to me and say that, and a lot of smart people.
It's actually the number one movie that people approach me with. So it actually was seen by a lot of people, but maybe not immediately. It had an afterlife. The same thing happened with Galaxy Quest and even The Green Mile. We thought it was going to be Best Picture and all this stuff, and then came along a movie called American Beauty and knocked us out of the ball park.
That your co-star (Allison Janney) was in!
Yeah. (Playfully scowling) Yeah that's right! So, Seven Psychopaths is having an after life. Now people are seeing it. So, my whole career has been that way. I've had a couple of hit movies, like Charlie's Angels, and I think Iron Man 2 did pretty well you know like opening weekend. But that doesn't really mean too much to me because you know a lot o great movies (don't do well at the box office)—like Big Lebowski flopped. And now it's got this cult following. Safe Men has a kind of a cult following.
So for you it's more about how they kind of grow, their legacy?
Yeah, yeah exactly. I don't think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid got any awards. Like there's a lot of instances like that. Raging Bull flopped when it first came out, so…
That's interesting. You don't hear a lot of actors talking about the long view of these films.
Yeah, I think that’s the main thing. Assassination of Jesse James did not do great but now people consider it a great western, one of the great westerns. So, yeah.
The Way, Way Back opens July 5th.