Even the most notable actors have roles that are often forgotten and overshadowed by their career defining performances. The acting ability of these actors, particularly in the earlier stages of their careers, has shone through from supporting roles – Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys, Robert Downey Jr in A Scanner Darkly and Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction.
Similarly to these aforementioned actors Sam Rockwell built, and maintained, his career from the shadows, exceeding in smaller roles as support to cinema’s most recognizable personalities. Due to his quality in these performances, specifically his electrifying role(s) in Duncan Jones’ debut Moon, he’s risen in popularity and though he remains connected to “smaller” titles, he’s seen an increase of appearances in mainstream blockbusters. Whether as leading man or in a supporting role, Rockwell is comfortably one of the most talented actors currently working. Let’s take a look at some of his most refined, but lesser known performances.
One of Ridley Scott’s smaller films that better compares to Thelma & Louise, rather than his epics Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator. The focus lies on two con-artists; the experienced, but troubled Roy Waller (Nicolas Cage) and his eager protégé Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell), as the pair being a more dangerous long can, following the arrival of Roy’s young teen daughter Angela (Alison Lohman).
Because he is limited with screen-time and appearing alongside Cage, who presents similar self-destruction and eccentricity that won him his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, Rockwell doesn’t quite steal the show, but he certainly shines. Frank is a tough character to understand, throughout the narrative you can’t quite put your finger on what his motive is. His character presents as much mystery as he does confidence. But it’s this confidence that makes him the perfectly cast, antithesis to Roy, which anchors to the narrative making the conclusion all the more heartbreaking.
Whether as leading man or in a supporting role, Rockwell is comfortably one of the most talented actors currently working.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The story of the Old West legend Jesse James has been re-told throughout American history and the bandit leader is one of the most iconic western heroes. Andrew Dominick’s film focuses on Robert Ford who having idolized Jesse James since childhood, soon becomes resentful of the notorious outlaw leader.
For this film Rockwell plays Charley Ford, the little known brother of Robert. Rockwell continues in a similar vein, providing a standout performance among a strong cast that includes Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and Sam Shepard. Within this narrative Rockwell portrays a character that has rarely been mentioned in film, but because of his strength as an actor he becomes as memorable as Jesse James and Robert Ford.
Ron Howard’s retelling of the post-Watergate interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon is the platform for another great supporting role from Rockwell. He is often forgotten due to the overshadowing quality of the remarkably accurate lead performances of Frost and Nixon by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella respectively.
As James Reston Jr, Rockwell is portraying a real person as brilliantly as he had in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. His memorable performance is testament to the effort he puts in to preparing for a role. He met with Jim Reston and gained an understanding of his motivation; one that was centred on shaming Nixon for betraying his country, the resulting performance captured in the film.
It’s no surprise what he can do when given more time in a lead role, which have paved the way for his most memorable performances in Choke, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and career-defining role in Moon.
The Green Mile
Frank Darabont’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name presents the epitome of Rockwell’s success as a character actor. A combination of the factors mentioned above culminate in a performance that completely overshadows the rest of the cast. In this film, unlike the previous, Rockwell is allowed more screen-time and rises to this challenge.
Throughout the film Darabont cleverly provokes thoughts on the death penalty by challenging audiences to pity the death row inmates, who truly regret their crimes. From the gentle giant John Coffey to the mouse-training Eduard Delacroix, the inmates on Edgecomb’s mile are well behaved and friendly with the guards.
A third of the way into the narrative Sam Rockwell’s ‘Wild Bill’ Wharton is introduced into the mile. He remains catatonic as he approaches the prison, but as soon as he’s inside and the cuffs are off he begins shouting and spitting with rage. This is just a brief glimpse of the emotionally explosive character that will shake up the narrative.
The confidence that Rockwell’s characters have comes in this case with a lack of fear of the punishment he will receive for his actions. Unlike any other inmate he believes he has nothing to live for, so will do what he can to have fun antagonising the guards and other inmates. The moments of animalistic anger provide the mystery, and, just like the guards we’re never sure what he’s going to do next.
Wild Bill’s sub-plot matches the intensity of the central narrative, this is the first inmate to be utterly loathsome and not at all regretful. He treats the guards with disrespect, playing pranks and refusing to cooperate. For the audience, when he receives his punishment, which on two occasions is solitary confinement, is cathartic.
In each of these films, despite being lesser known support roles, Rockwell’s ability as an actor is continuingly impressive. These smaller appearances have informed his style and it’s no surprise what he can do when given more time in a lead role, which have paved the way for his most memorable performances in Choke, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and career-defining role in Moon.