Anyone who's seen Sam Rockwell in wacky, off-kilter cinematic mode would be surprised by the seemingly calm, serious-looking individual who settles into a Modernist red chair in New York's Milk Studios on a windy afternoon. Dressed in a tan corduroy jacket, worn-in Levi's and blue suede skater Pumas, and wearing artsy, thick-frame specs ("I'm slightly nearsighted"), Rockwell is both unassuming and all business, his expression saying, Let's do this thing. Even when he begins to chat about his latest project, Conviction, out this month, it is in a slow, sleepy speech filled with long pauses, few smiles and little to no wisecracks.
But there are hints that Sam Rockwell the person is not completely devoid of some real-life idiosyncrasies: In place of more mundane coffee, he takes occasional slugs from a Liquiteria lemonade–cayenne pepper concoction called The Killer; he sports a tattoo on his right arm of a rooster on a noose (or as he puts it "a hanging cock—I got it very young, I went to a parlor in the Mission looking for a coming-of-age masculinity sort of peacock thing, and I went with the rooster"), and a calf injury from his recreational boxing activities has him stretching at fairly regular intervals in a manner that borders on hypochondria. ("Sorry, I'm being a bit neurotic," he apologizes.) And then there's his 1995-worthy flip phone, from which he sends snail mail–paced texts—he refuses to partake in e-mail.
"Sam is a very special individual. He's pretty eccentric, he has to walk through life his own way," says Conviction director Tony Goldwyn.
In Conviction, written by Pamela Gray, Rockwell tackles the true story of Kenneth Waters, a troubled New England native who was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder in 1983. He spent 18 years in prison while his sister Betty Anne Waters (played by Hilary Swank), a single mother, put herself through law school and fought to prove his innocence.
"I think he was a good-hearted guy, a tough guy, very charming, the life of the party, but I think he had a temper and...he probably developed some emotional issues he hadn't quite worked out," says Rockwell of Kenny, who along with Betty Anne was the product of a series of foster homes and even juvenile jail. "You know, he's a street kid, he's from a bad background, so it's a different etiquette, a different rule book for social graces. I think the childhood informs everything."
The real-life Kenny died six months after his release from prison in 2001, but Rockwell had plenty of material from which to draw, including stories from Betty Anne, who was on the film's set; audiotapes from prison and oral histories from relatives (he was also reading Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast at the time). What emerges is a performance that is at once sympathetic and ambiguous: Rockwell refuses to temper Kenny's anger and roughness for sentimental currency.
"What we needed in this role was a kind of duality, an actor whom you are charmed by and fall in love with and has a sweetness and a bigheartedness and has a volatility and madness. Sam has that madness beneath the surface...and he's very sweet," says Goldwyn, who jockeyed for the actor to play the part. "Sam comes in having thought deeply about all of it and then sees what happens and goes in really drastically different directions on the set. He likes to explore every possible corner...He's very free."
That spontaneity certainly came in handy when a reel containing a day's worth of the film's most difficult scenes was ruined and had to be reshot. "I said, ‘Guys, I have some tough news,' " recalls Goldwyn. "Sam starts moaning and falls to the ground, grabs his stomach; Hilary started to cry." "The first time Sam did it, it was incredible," recalls Swank of the reshoot. "The second time I'm pulled out of my character and I'm saying, ‘This is Sam's Academy Award moment. What's my line? Don't ruin his Academy Award moment!' [At the end] the camera operator puts down his camera and he's crying; all around the monitor everyone's crying."