Sam Rockwell is an actor who’s both comfortable propping up bigger stars–he was a supporting player alongside Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford–and, as he did playing the delusional game show host Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, carrying scenes through a blend of empathy, humor and manic energy. But never before has he had to bear a load like he does in Moon, a heavily conceptual sci-fi drama that opens this Friday. In the second feature from director Duncan Jones (David Bowie’s son), Rockwell, 40, performs admirably in what often feels like a one-man theater production. Accompanied on a moon station by only a chatty but deceptive computer named Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey and modeled on Hal from Kubrick’s 2001), Rockwell’s Sam Bell is an employee of an American corporation that’s figured out how to harvest lunar energy. Aside from his brief conversations with Gerty and some Earth-bound crewmates, Rockwell’s character is alone in virtually every scene–that is, until his clone shows up, calling into question everything from Bell’s occupation to his identity.
Speaking by phone recently from outside Los Angeles, Rockwell talked about the challenges of performing opposite inanimate objects, the influence of a World War II drama starring the elder Bowie, and facing off against Mickey Rourke in his current project, Iron Man 2.
So I hear you’ve got a fairly extensive day tomorrow?
I’ve got a scene with Mickey Rourke.
Do you get to punch Mickey Rourke, or does he hit you? Because there must be some kind of violence.
We don’t punch each other physically, but we do punch each other in other ways–it’s emotional.
So, Moon. When the script came to you I bet it looked like something that might be tough to pull off.
Well, yeah definitely. It was a daunting acting challenge; it was a very, very intimidating idea. So it took a while to get my head around it.
Why was that? Because you’re pretty much the whole show? If it’s bad it’s all on you, if it’s great it’s all on you, too.
That’s exactly right. But we’ve got Kevin Spacey, and we’ve got some wonderful actors doing transmissions back to Earth.
I had worked on the script with the director, Duncan Jones, and we did some improvisations and we put them on videotape. I had a body double, and he was a young actor who I would work with sometimes. And sometimes I would work with a tennis ball, and I would act with myself. It was pretty complicated.
What is that like, acting by yourself–did you learn something about yourself as an actor?
My sense of timing came in handy. Whether that be comic timing, or like dance or something. Timing was very instrumental in making it work.
Were you able to ad-lib because you were alone, or did you stick to the script?
The first [take] that you’d shoot you’d have more room for improvisation. The second one you’d have to get it within the window of time–you had a space of time for your line. I could change the ad-libs as long as they fit the same amounts of beats. You could ad-lib but you had to be very clever about it, otherwise it wouldn’t work. I watched Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers quite a bit. I watched a few other buddy movies–Midnight Cowboy was definitely something I watched quite a bit.
The parallel is pretty obvious with Gerty. Did you ever feel like you were talking to Hal from 2001?
The character is definitely very much based on the Hal character. It’s very much an homage to the ’70s sci-fi films. The film stock is from the ’70s.
You mentioned Duncan Jones before–did you ever say to yourself, “You’re not just the director of this film, you’re also David Bowie’s son?”
I think Duncan is setting out on his own way. I don’t think I barely talked about it. The thing that I remember more about his father is as an actor; there’s a movie called Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence that his father did that had a big impact on me when I was a kid. And there’s something about that character where there’s maybe a little bit of that in Moon. But I don’t think Duncan would ever say that.
The Chuck Barris role you played that a lot of people liked a few years back–we’re never quite sure who Barris is, or who he thinks he is. I think there are some similarities to Moon, because we’re never quite certain who’s the “real” Sam Bell. Are the roles where identity is up in the air interesting to play?
I don’t know if that’s what attracts me. I think the thing they have in common is the loneliness to those characters that I like to explore sometimes. There’s a movie called Snow Angels [Rockwell starred opposite Kate Beckinsale] that had that element to it. I’ve always found that attractive as an actor, and it was in a lot of the anti-heroes that I grew up watching, like Five Easy Pieces and Badlands and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There were a lot of issues about manhood, what it is to be a man and loneliness in those movies–movies like Taxi Driver–that I’ve always been interested in.
In general, are enough risks taken in the industry?
I don’t think so. I do think that the business doesn’t encourage you to take risks because they don’t reward failure. If something fails financially it’s a [total] failure–and artistically, I think it takes longer for people to appreciate things. Like The Assassination of Jesse James, I think, is a really fantastic movie. It didn’t really make a splash when it came out, but I think that people are really appreciating it now.
So it must feel good to be working on a movie franchise [the Iron Man series] that proves you can make a huge, profitable blockbuster and that it can still be good.
I think that that’s a good example of mixing the two, but they’re few and far between.