Now 41 and just as unpredictable as ever, Sam Rockwell is one of the most enjoyable and committed performers Hollywood has to offer. His latest film, Conviction, opens in the UAE next week, yet most cinemagoers probably remember his signature wild-eyed roles in the likes of Lawn Dogs and Iron Man 2, as well as more sober appearances in Frost/Nixon and Moon. Rockwell has a winning tendency to throw himself into whatever part he plays. His role in real-life courtroom drama Conviction is no exception: he plays fast-living small-town chancer Kenny Waters, whose incarceration for murder drove sister Betty Anne, played by Hilary Swank, to study law in an attempt to free her brother. A convincing, old-school Hollywood melodrama, the film may sugar-coat its subject a little, but it never descends into schmaltz.
There was a risk Conviction could have become overly melodramatic. How did you counter that?
Director Tony Goldwyn said something very important. He told us, ‘Whatever happens, you’re not feeling sorry for yourself.’ It’s an emotional story, but the characters are resilient, they’re always helping each other. Even in the prison scenes, they’re in pain but they’re trying to take care of the other person, they’re not just worried about themselves. That’s key to the film working as well as it does. My character is no Boy Scout; he’s self-absorbed, but he loves his sister – there’s an undying devotion to her.
Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself, appearing in the likes of Nixon and Law and Order. How did that affect your working relationship?
It was invaluable. He knows what you’re going through, what the process is like, how emotionally naked you are, how vulnerable. He’s very collaborative, very open to ideas, but he’s also spent a lot of time with the material so he knows what he wants.
Kenny Waters died shortly after his release from prison, but the film keeps quiet about that information. Why?
Tony struggled with that quite a bit. Originally they put it in the end scroll, and Tony was even thinking of shooting a scene. But the studio did test screenings and the audience loved the movie, then when they saw that Kenny died it was almost like they’d been punched in the gut. It erased the positive experience of the film. And that’s not what the film is about. It’s about this relationship, this love story between a brother and sister.
Did you find playing a real person at all limiting?
Well, Kenny’s not around any more so I had a little more liberty than, say, Hilary did. But even though Kenny’s sister Betty Anne was on the set, she never interfered with the process.
She was always really encouraging. We could defer to her but she was never intrusive. But of course, we both felt a big responsibility.
You had quite an unconventional upbringing, travelling the US with your parents and acting at a young age. Does that help when playing outsider characters like this?
Hilary and I both had a few hardships in our childhood, and I think that informs characters like this. We can identify with them. I’m drawn to these sorts of people; there has to be something personal about it or it’s
not going to work.
What can you tell us about Cowboys and Aliens, which you’ve just finished shooting with Jon Favreau?
It’s a John Ford western with aliens. Unforgiven meets Close Encounters. It’s played straight. Harrison Ford is John Wayne, Daniel Craig is Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and I’m Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I think that’s the best way to describe it.
Which do you prefer, Hollywood luxury or indie freedom?
I like a movie like Conviction or Snow Angels [a 2007 film by David Gordon Green] where we have a medium amount of time. A movie like Cowboys and Aliens is perhaps too much time, a 30-day shoot like Moon is too little. I’m happiest in the middle.
Conviction is released in UAE cinemas on March 3.