Billboards Awards – an interview with Sam Rockwell

8 January 2018 Stephen Applebaum

Billboards Awards – an interview with Sam Rockwell

Sam Rockwell’s powerful performance as a racist cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is generating Oscars buzz. Stephen Applebaum talks to the actor of the moment. 

If there is any justice, Sam Rockwell will be on the Best Supporting Actor shortlist for every major award this season for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He is simply riveting as James Dixon, a violent police officer with a low IQ who starts the film as a poster boy for everything that the Black Lives Matter movement stands against, and ends up somewhere else entirely.

“I think there’s a goodness in him,” says Rockwell of his character, when we sit down for a chat following Three Billboard’s wildly praised premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it was met with a 10-minute standing ovation. “He’s initially a bit of a tool. He’s a fool. And then he goes through a transformation.”

Ebbing, a fictional Midwest town, is where Dixon, who has a reputation for abusing black suspects in custody, lives with his bullying, alcoholic mother (Sandy Martin).

Dixon emerges as part of a gallery of anti-heroes in writer-director Martin McDonagh’s smart, contemporary take on the western. They are headed by Mildred Hayes (a powerful performance by Frances McDormand), a mother who takes on Dixon and the local police force over its failure to uncover who raped and murdered her teenage daughter. To the chagrin of Woody Harrelson’s sympathetic local sheriff Chief Willoughby (whose wife is played by Australian Abbie Cornish), Hayes takes the unusual step of renting three billboards that line the Ebbing road: “Raped while dying”, “And still no arrests”, “How come, Chief Willoughby?”

In McDormand’s hands, Hayes is a fury with a heart, as compassionate as she is occasionally shockingly violent. “She can be lethal,” says Rockwell, praising the Fargo (1996) Oscar winner. “She’s formidable. But she’s also a sweetheart. That’s why she’s such a good actress; she can be soft and she can be tough.”

Perhaps it is a sign of the times, but Dixon is not the only racist on Rockwell’s CV. “I’ve been playing a lot of them recently,” he says. Not long before his appearance at Venice, he filmed The Best of Enemies, in which he portrays the real-life reformed Ku Klux Klan leader Claiborne Paul Ellis.

“Racism is going on all over the world,” says Rockwell, “but it’s been punctuated in the US, I think, because it’s being enabled in a weird way right now. It’s a scary time.” 

Certainly, his Missouri cop reflects the systemic police brutality that has sparked riots in America, while his Klansman nods toward the country’s growing white nationalist problem.

His way into the mindset was helped by meeting a former white supremacist who explained racism to him in terms of self-hatred. “That put it in a way I could understand and act. I can’t relate to racism, I didn’t grow up that way, but we can all relate to self-loathing… I think that vulnerability translates into anger towards other people. Racism is an elaboration of that.” 

Although Rockwell says he didn’t meet any racist cops while researching Dixon in Missouri, he did see “a lot of assertiveness from them”, he says, sounding almost euphemistic. In one of his standout scenes in Three Billboards, Dixon “asserts” himself by throwing someone out of a first-floor window in an astonishing sequence that was shot in one take. 

To get himself fired up, Rockwell says he has sometimes smashed up a chair before a take or beat a dustbin with an umbrella. Other times he’s just sat in a corner, headphones on. “It’s not always easy to get revved up, so sometimes you have to do weird things. People think you’re nuts, but you have to do what you have to do to get there,” he laughs. “No wonder actors seem crazy.”

The aim is authenticity, a connection with real emotions. Rockwell, who turns 50 next year, didn’t start to make a living as an actor until he was 30, starring in movies like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) and Moon (2009). “It took a while,” he sighs.

Oscars could now beckon – not only for Rockwell, but also for McDormand, and for McDonagh (In Bruges, 2008), whose script should be unbeatable. 

Meanwhile, Rockwell is preparing to play George W Bush in Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic, Backseat. He picks up his mobile and plays a bit of a Bush speech he is using to get his voice right.

“He’s amazing,” he exclaims. “He’s very charming.” This remark is surprising, particularly given the antagonism between Bush and Hollywood, but we’re living in strange times. “Even when he fucked up, he’s likeable,” continues Rockwell. “It’s interesting, I judge him less harshly now. Maybe because of Trump.” 

Stephen Applebaum – @grubstreetsteve

This interview originally appeared in issue #551 of The Big Issue (December 2017).