Actor Sam Rockwell

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Versatile actor explains why he finds it daunting to play a real person as opposed to a fictional character.

Sam Rockwell is a versatile actor who's earned notice for his work in both indies and mainstream fare. He's turned in memorable supporting performances in such films as The Green Mile and Frost/Nixon and has star credits in Moon, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Iron Man 2. Rockwell made his acting debut at age 10 and got his first big break while still in high school. He trained at the acclaimed William Esper studio and was able to focus on his acting career after landing a commercial. He's also a member of the LAByrinth Theater Company.


Tavis: Sam Rockwell is a talented actor whose screen credits include “Frost/Nixon” and “Iron Man II.” In his new project he stars opposite Hilary Swank in the film, “Conviction.” The movie opens in select cities on October 15th. Here now a scene from “Conviction.”
Tavis: All these things, I suspect, Sam, take liberties here and there, but this movie, based on a true story.
Sam Rockwell: Yeah.
Tavis: That, as an actor, excites you or challenges you in what ways?
Rockwell: Well, you’d be surprised how much of the stuff is true in “Conviction,” actually. But it challenges you – it’s daunting to play a real person, but you’re able to just try to capture the essence by maybe you get an accent or something and you do the best you can. You do the homework and then see how it goes.
Tavis: I’ll let you set this up, since it is based on a true story. So the storyline is?
Rockwell: So it’s about Betty Anne Waters and her brother, Kenny Waters, and Kenny was convicted of a murder and sent to prison, and she becomes a lawyer to – she gets her GED and goes to law school for, like – I think it took her almost 12 years – to get her brother, her only client, out of prison.
Tavis: That’s pretty amazing.
Rockwell: Yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
Tavis: That’s a lot of love, number one.
Rockwell: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: But it’s a lot of dedication.
Rockwell: Yeah.
Tavis: You really have to believe in this person to get your – she had to get a GED to begin with.
Rockwell: Yeah, well, she actually already had her GED. That’s one thing where they took a little poetic license, but still, it’s not easy to pass the bar.
Tavis: Exactly. You go to law school, pass the bar, just so you can have one client that you want to free.
Rockwell: That’s right. And from the background she came from, it was tough. It was tough going.
Tavis: Tell me about the relationship between the brother and the sister. You, of course, play the brother; Hilary Swank plays the sister. Tell me about the relationship.
Rockwell: The relationship is very tight. It almost seems like a romantic relationship, they’re so tight in the movie. I liken it to soldiers at war who fought for each other and they come back home, and it’s that kind of a bond that they have, because of all the foster homes and reform schools that they went to as kids.
They were separated and then brought together, so a lot of hardships. I think that’s why as adults they couldn’t imagine being separated, and that’s why she would go to all this great extent to get him out.
Tavis: You spent some time with his sister?
Rockwell: I spent some time with Betty Anne, yeah. She’s great.
Tavis: What’s she like?
Rockwell: She’s awesome. She can drink you under a table, that’s the first thing, (laughter) and she’s really very sweet. You might underestimate her when you meet her because she’s so nice, and you realize she’s got this steel spine behind all that. Obviously convicted, you know?
Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of someone – I’m still fascinated by this; it’s an interesting film. What do you make of the fact, though, that someone, when you met her, when you’re looking at somebody who dedicated their life, again, to investing all of their energy and effort into getting this degree so they could represent their brother?
Rockwell: It’s intense. I don’t think I’m made of that stuff. I don’t know if I could do that. It’s really – it’s incredible. When I think about trying to do something like that, it makes you think about calling your loved ones after the film, and who would do this? Go to Iraq and get somebody who’s missing in action. It’s a lot. It’s a lot to ask of somebody.
Tavis: Besides spending time with her, I’m always curious about actors’ processes. What’s your process for bringing Kenny to life? How do you research that and get that right?
Rockwell: I had a couple of friends of mine who were in prison. I talked to them. When I did “The Green Mile” I researched it a little bit. I talked to a prison guard, I read a bunch of interviews from death row; there’s a book called “Slow Coming Dark” that I read. Documentaries. When I was doing this movie I was reading “In the Belly of the Beast” by Norman Mailer, and that was very helpful. I talked to an exoneree.
But there’s so much research to do it can be a little daunting, and so you do the best you can and then you work on the accent and then you throw it away and you just try to use your imagination.
Tavis: When you invest this much energy into a project like this, that puts, really, on trial our system of jurisprudence, you learn things about this system, you change your viewpoints about the system? Tell me about that.
Rockwell: Yeah, I think I was a little naïve. I think that I thought maybe if people are in prison they belong there, they did something wrong to be there. I think that that’s not true, really. It’s just not true. The system is flawed and there’s a lot of innocent people in prison right now for things they didn’t do, on death row.
I think we put a lot of trust in the system and it’s not necessarily founded, which is – I think I was not that way until after this film.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated by this conversation because more than any other country in the world we incarcerate people, and if you do that in the way that we do it, there obviously are going to be a lot of people who are in there for reasons they shouldn’t be in there.
Rockwell: Yeah, that’s right.
Tavis: But it’s a fascinating conversation that we seem to have these fits and starts about having a real conversation about our penal system.
Rockwell: And it’s horrible in there – it can be. It depends on the prison. But guys come out and they’re hunched over, still, when they eat for months after. They ask permission to go to the bathroom. They get allergic to real oxygen, real air, because they’ve been in fake air conditioning for 20 years sometimes, and there’s just so many different adjustments.
They can’t get a job. It’s intense. They get abused, obviously, sometimes in prison.
Tavis: To your point about the chronology, how long was he incarcerated?
Rockwell: He was in for 18 years.
Tavis: And she was on the case the whole time?
Rockwell: And she was on the case the whole time. He spent a lot of time as a kid also in some reform schools, which is why he was a suspect, because he did get in trouble. He wasn’t an angel, but he wasn’t a killer. He just sometimes would get into trouble if somebody approached him.
Tavis: Without giving the film away, where does his sister focus her efforts in terms of the evidence to get him –
Rockwell: It’s the DNA.
Tavis: The DNA.
Rockwell: Yeah. She goes to Barry Scheck finally and he helps out.
Tavis: Barry Scheck’s a real – he’s a nice guy.
Rockwell: He’s a great guy.
Tavis: He’s a nice guy, a real guy. His life has been dedicated to this.
Rockwell: He’s a real guy, worked in the South Bronx. Yeah, he’s pretty awesome.
Tavis: The Innocent Project, I think.
Rockwell: Yes, and he started The Innocence Project.
Tavis: Exactly. The other thing about this film that I absolutely love as an African American male is that this is based on a true story and they’re White Americans.
Rockwell: Yeah.
Tavis: Which challenges all of us, I think, to rethink the way we see the criminal justice system, rethink the color-coded conversation that we have about it, and to look at the fact that all kinds of Americans get caught up in this system. It doesn’t just happen to people that we think don’t look like us.
Rockwell: Sure, sure. There was a White cop who got wrongly accused and he was in for six and a half years. But it happens to all kinds of – that’s the thing. You think it can only happen to certain types of people, criminals or whatever, but it can happen to anybody. I mean, it happened to a cop. That’s pretty intense.
Tavis: How do you go about – as an actor, let me move off the movie for a second here – how do you go about picking the things – and we were talking before we came on the air here about the work you’ve done from “Frost/Nixon” is as different from “Iron Man II” as “Iron Man II” is from this project, which is a good thing. You’re –
Rockwell: Shaking it up a little bit, yeah, yeah.
Tavis: You’re shaking it up a little bit. Is that your process?
Rockwell: Yeah, absolutely. You try not to get typecast. You try to do whatever you can to do different kinds of roles. I get very lucky, I get good scripts that come to me and “Frost/Nixon” and “Iron Man II” are definitely among those.
Tavis: Is your next project always the antithesis of what you’ve just done, or does it not always work out that way?
Rockwell: It doesn’t always work out that way, but you try. You try to make it different. You try to shake it up and have some diversity. But sometimes you’re a hired gun and sometimes you developed a project. It depends. So you throw on some sideburns or glasses or a mustache or whatever, research Richard Nixon or prison.
Tavis: Did you have a choice in this matter? When I say did you have a choice, I mean your parents are both actors.
Rockwell: Yeah, that’s right.
Tavis: So you’ve been exposed to it your entire life. Was there ever another option?
Rockwell: Yeah, no. I didn’t have a plan B. I didn’t really know how to do anything else. I don’t have any skills except acting (laughing) and I’m not really formally educated. I barely got through high school, so it’s just the plays I’ve read and the books I’ve read about acting. So I’m just a big acting nerd, really, at the end of the day.
Tavis: Your parents have to know how the business works because they’ve been in it for a long time. How did they – did they never try to talk you out of this?
Rockwell: Actually, my mother quit acting a while ago and she became a painter, and my father became a union organizer and a printer, so they dropped out early on, years ago.
But my dad’s actually recently got back into acting a little bit, but they were very encouraging. I acted with my mother when I was a kid on stage and I sort of learned the ropes from them. But they certainly weren’t discouraging.
Tavis: Finally, back to the film here, is this just good entertainment or is there a message in this movie?
Rockwell: I hope it’s both. I hope people enjoy it just as a film and as a drama, but I think there are some things to learn and hopefully it sends a good message about the people you love in your life.
Tavis: It’s called “Conviction,” starring Sam Rockwell alongside of Hilary Swank. Good project. Sam, good to have you on. Thanks for coming to see us.
Rockwell: Hey, thanks a lot, thanks a lot.
Tavis: No, it’s my pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm