Taking the Lead

Christopher Walken walks by fellow guest Sam Rockwell, slumped in a couch in the rear corner of the hotel lobby at Chateau Marmont, a Hollywood haunt of the hip and famous. Walken doesn't notice Rockwell, who has long been one of the best-kept secrets in cinema.

Just the day before at a post-screening interview for his latest film, the dark comedy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Rockwell was asked to name his favorite actor. "Christopher Walken," said Rockwell, proceeding to delight the audience with a hilarious, dead-on impression of his hero.

That bravura is nowhere to be found when met with the reality of Walken in the flesh.

"I want to ask Walken a question, actually. I want to do this play with him, but I don't have the balls to go up and ask him," admits the now sheepish Rockwell, who consistently returns to East Coast stages between film jobs, most recently at the Williamstown Theatre Festival before landing his job on Confessions. "He doesn't even know who I am."

Chances are that Walken not only knows who Rockwell is, he's a fan. As George Clooney, who directed Rockwell in Confessions, noted, "Sam's an actor that all actors I know really love to watch. No matter what he does—if he's spitting on Tom Hanks in The Green Mile or playing the coward in Galaxy Quest—he steals every movie."

Conceiving Confessions

Rockwell doesn't so much steal Confessions as carry it. The film marks his first leading role in a studio film, and it will likely open new doors to the 34-year-old actor, who's been pursuing his profession for 14 years, mainly as a character lead in independent movies, including Tom and Jerry, Box of Moonlight, Lawn Dogs, and Safe Men, and more recently in supporting parts in such big pictures as Charlie's Angels.

Clooney first worked with Rockwell on the set of the film Welcome to Collinwood, released last year and co-produced by Clooney, who also acted in it. At the time, Clooney was also trying to attach himself as director of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Charlie Kaufman's screen adaptation of the entertaining "unauthorized autobiography" of Chuck Barris, whose book makes the highly questionable claim that he was both the well-known TV producer of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show—and a moonlighting C.I.A. assassin.

"I said to Sam, 'I'm going to call you in a couple of weeks if I get this thing worked out,' and I called him," recalled Clooney, who thought Rockwell would be perfect in the part of Barris.

Indeed, Clooney's muscle is not only what got Rockwell the part, it's what got the film made. In love with Kaufman's script and attracted to the supporting role of C.I.A. agent Jim Byrd, Clooney watched the project fall apart numerous times, with different actors (Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Mike Myers) and directors (Bryan Singer, Sam Mendes, Curtis Hanson) attached. Close to $5 million in pre-production costs accumulated, "which was making it cost-prohibitive, so that no one was going to make the film," according to Clooney, who appealed to Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax Films. Clooney offered to work for scale on the film and to direct it himself.

There was one catch: Clooney insisted on Rockwell for the lead. Weinstein wanted a box-office star. To seal the deal, Clooney promised to make another movie for Weinstein and do a cameo in the next Spy Kids sequel—obligations that reportedly lapsed when Clooney was able to rope in the box-office insurance of Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore to join Rockwell in Confessions.

Rockwell was on board. Now came the hard part: preparing for the role of his career thus far.

Prep Work

"It was never-ending homework," explained Rockwell of preparing for the part of Barris. "I was pretty nervous. It was a big opportunity, and it is a huge responsibility to play a real person."

Thankfully he had an agreeable subject willing to help him.

Said the actor, "I spent two or three months with Chuck and I had him tape all my lines from the script into a tape recorder, and I watched The Gong Show and all these rehearsal tapes of The Gong Show that were really beneficial and that really got what he was like as a director/producer/tycoon. And just hanging out with him [helped]. He's a great guy. He's very shy and reclusive, but he's very smart and charming."

Rockwell claims to never have asked Barris if the stories of his C.I.A. exploits were true. Neither did Clooney. As Clooney put it, "I didn't want the answer. I wanted to leave it open to interpretation. I felt as if it was a really interesting story if he did [kill people] and it was a really interesting story if he made it up."

Rockwell worked with two coaches for his role in Confessions: dialect coach Stephen Gabis (to master Barris' lisped Philly accent) and acting coach Terry Knickerbocker, who's worked with Rockwell on nearly every screen role since 1996's Box of Moonlight, in which Rockwell shines as a free-spirited backwoodsman. Knickerbocker is a protégé of William Esper, who taught Rockwell in a two-year Meisner-based acting program at Esper's New York studio.

"It changed my life. It changed my whole perspective on acting," said Rockwell of his work with Esper, beginning when he was 22 years old. "Bill is harder on you than the outside world is going to be, in a way. So you're prepared for the outside world. His standards are higher than your typical casting director's."

That foundation has served Rockwell well. To this day, Rockwell is a practitioner of certain Meisner-based tools, including the use of repetitive exercises.

Another Rockwell secret: Know the script backwards and forwards before you ever step on the set. He explained, "I tape my lines into a tape recorder in a monotone inflection so that I don't memorize any inflections. I'll say it like a robot. Then you read the other [characters'] lines however you want, and you leave an empty space for your line. And you tape all the stage directions. With a movie it's mostly stage direction. With Confessions, it was like 10 60-minute tapes [in addition to the recording Barris made of the script]. It's very tedious. It takes forever. But at the end of the day when you get it all done, if you don't want to sit down with the script—if you just want to wash dishes or clean your apartment and listen to the tape—eventually it gets in your head. So I'd listen to the tapes all the time."

Rockwell also credited Clooney with guiding his knockout performance in Confessions.

"I couldn't have done this without George," he said. "He was really hands-on. I mean, he really got in there with each moment. I did all my homework, but then he simplified it. George took it down and just focused my energy, so that it wasn't about some impersonation or about little actor prop ideas I had. It was about just playing the scene simply and paying attention to the actors—telling that story.

"It was also about not shooting for the comedy, because on paper when you read the script, it's kind of 'ha-ha' funny. The character of Chuck reads more like Peter Sellers' Clouseau character in The Pink Panther. Chuck Barris killing people? Having sex with these beautiful women? What? But underneath what we found—myself, George, Drew, Julia, and Terry—was the emotional depth that this could have. I think that's what George brought to the table. It doesn't hit you over the head like most movies do now. It's subtle. I don't know if people will get it for another 10 years, but I think this is a very special movie."

Movie Jail

While reviews of the film have been mixed, most critics and audience members agree that Rockwell is pitch-perfect as Barris. Still, there's the chance that, like the film, Rockwell will not be appreciated by mass audiences for what he brings to this movie. But if you're an actor and you want to witness an actor's dedication to his craft, study this performance.

Rockwell is a disciple of the period of film acting in the 1970s that many consider the height of American film, when now-classics like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chinatown, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and Little Big Man hit the screen. These were studio films that took immense risks and challenged audiences with their grittiness and intensity, when unlikely leading men played unlikely heroes.

Said Rockwell, "I'm an encyclopedia of American film. I would say '68 to '80 would be my period—directors like Hal Ashby [Harold and Maude, Coming Home], Alan Pakula [Klute, All the President's Men], Terrence Malick [Badlands], Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, and writers Robert Towne [Chinatown, Shampoo] and Paddy Chayefsky [Network]. And Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, John Cazale, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, and John Savage—nobody talks about John Savage. He's amazing in Deer Hunter, The Onion Field, Inside Moves."

And then there was the next generation of actors that came up in the 1980s and early '90s, when Rockwell was just getting started.

He recalled, "I remember seeing John Malkovich in Burn This [on Broadway] and that was a big deal for actors. And John Turturro in Miller's Crossing was a big performance. Gary Oldman in Sid and Nancy and State of Grace. The list goes on and these new actors emerge."

Now it's Rockwell's turn to emerge as a force and to inspire the next generation of actors. Whether he will continue to land leading roles in studio-made pictures is not really his concern.

"I just want to work, to do good parts," said the actor, who stars next with Nicolas Cage and Alison Lohman in Ridley Scott's Matchstick Men for Warner Bros. Cage plays a con man and Rockwell his protégé. "Whether I kiss the girl or not, that's not really up to me. The public kind of chooses your fate. You can only choose so much."

Rockwell, however, has been selective to a certain point about what kinds of projects he'll work on.

He noted, "I've always been choosy, even when I was broke. I was turning down a lot of TV stuff—auditions for pilots—when I was working at restaurants and delivering burritos. But I was also able to do TV commercials to keep bread on the table. You've got to have the money to survive. I understand when people do dumb movies. I'm not going to blame them. I've done dumb movies. I'll continue to do dumb movies probably. But you can only do a bad movie if you have no other choice. If you've got options and you do a bad movie, then you go to movie jail."

For a split second, I picture Rockwell passing a cigarette to John Savage, his bunkmate at the Correctional Institute for Great Actors Gone Astray. But a more likely scenario is Rockwell and Christopher Walken, two great, risk-taking artists, sharing an Off-Broadway stage some time soon.

"I might have to go out there and sit by him," reconsidered Rockwell, peering out a window at Walken as we wound up our interview.

Go get him, Sam. BSW