Are mainstream audiences finally about to recognize Sam Rockwell as a national treasure? It’d be about time: The prolific actor, whose versatile work has ranged from leads in moody indies like Snow Angels and Joshua, to scene-stealing supporting turns in Charlie’s Angels and The Green Mile, seems poised for a breakthrough — if that’s the right word — with his haunting performance in Duncan Jones’s sci-fi drama Moon. As the lone inhabitant of a corporate moon base, Rockwell’s got the screen pretty much to himself. Until, that is, he bumps into a guy that looks an awful lot like him and his performance becomes something else entirely. Oh, and he’ll also appear next year in a little movie called Iron Man 2, which he’s currently shooting. Vulture caught up with Rockwell to find out what it’s like acting opposite oneself. (Warning: He drops a few spoilers.)
Moon seems like it’d be an incredible challenge: Not only are you playing more than one part, you’re pretty much the only guy onscreen. So, basically, you’re the movie. Was that daunting?
Yeah, definitely. It can give you nightmares. And it became more daunting the more I worked on it, as I realized how hard it was going to be to pull off. I started preparing a few months in advance. Duncan [Jones] and I would work on it, and then I would work on it with my acting coach. Then I’d go back to Duncan and I’d express any concerns I might have. Then I’d work on it some more on my own. Duncan would come over to New York, and a friend of mine and I would read it together and ad-lib stuff. Duncan would film that and then go back home to London and incorporate some of the ad-libs into the script.
What kind of stuff would you talk to Duncan about?
I kept pressing him on the backstory. We’d start with these very archetypal characters. As we got closer to the shoot, we’d try to make the differences between the characters subtler. We worked this out: The original Sam had done this for a while, but at some point he had to leave. And the company said, “You’ve done such a good job, we’d like to clone you, and put your clone to work on the moon.” And maybe the guy was strapped for money, and just did it, not thinking about the moral ramifications. In fact, maybe he was even a bit of a selfish guy — maybe not necessarily the greatest guy. So we talked about that a bit more, becoming more and more specific.
It’s strange: You’re not really playing brothers or look-alikes or anything like that. They’re basically the same guy, but not quite.
Exactly. It wasn’t playing twins. It is different — ‘cause they are the same guy. The difference is that the three years one has spent on the moon has changed him a bit. That’s what we focused on — that Robinson Crusoe, castaway-ness of it all. It’ll change a person, being on the moon for three years by yourself. So we thought about how three years on the moon might affect you — like being in prison, or a concentration camp, or isolated in some other way. That was the basis of the difference between the two clones.
Was it strange being the only actor on set?
It was weird — a big festival of narcissism for me. I was also the only American there, since we were in London. And we were shooting at Shepperton Studios, which was a bit of a ghost town because of a writers strike. But it was good for the climate of the scenes, too. You can control the environment of a scene more. Still, you realize you really appreciate having other actors there. You realize how much you need their help. I welcome surprises from other actors, like Vera Farmiga, Steve Zahn, John Malkovich, Robert De Niro. You want to be challenged.
So, you’re doing Iron Man 2 now.
Yeah, I play this guy named Justin Hammer, and he’s a rival arms dealer to Tony Stark.
Has it been an adjustment to go from the more indie stuff you’ve been doing of late to a big-budget sequel?
There’s a lot of new stuff, but it’s also a bit of a return to what I was doing in Charlie’s Angels. The guy I play is like an interesting cousin of the character from that film. [Chuckles]
In the last few years, it seems like you’ve cornered the market on playing forlorn family men — with Moon, Joshua, Snow Angels, and The Winning Season, which played at Sundance earlier this year.
Yeah, there’s probably a theme there. I feel like I’m finally getting to play men. It was a while before I got to do that. The first time, I guess, was Welcome to Colinwood. Then maybe Joshua. I’d never related to the younger parts, really — when I was 10, I felt like I was 40. So maybe I’ve finally grown into the parts I was always meant to play.