How playing a racist cop in Three Billboards won Sam Rockwell a Golden Globe

The actor received an award for his role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Next up? George W Bush

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards

Sam Rockwell sits down, wearing a skin-tight white T-shirt with a duotone image of Dennis Hopper, and runs his fingers through his artfully unkempt hair. At 49 he looks lean and fit, and he chats easily in a laid-back, retro manner that echoes Hopper’s era of counterculture cool. “Yeah, yeah, it’s all good, man,” he says as we look at the lunch menu. “Get a cocktail.”

We’re in a bustling Moroccan café in Manhattan’s East Village, the neighbourhood where Rockwell shares a loft apartment with his long-time partner, the actress Leslie Bibb. No one pays any particular mind to the actor in their midst (celebrated for his roles in films such as Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Matchstick Men and Moon), and he looks happy and relaxed as we tuck into plates of Mediterranean eggs and discuss his role in one of the finest films of the year, the Martin McDonagh-directed Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Dancing nimbly between episodes of dark hilarity, heartbreaking loss and brutal violence, the film features superb performances from Rockwell, Frances McDormand and Woody Harrelson, all making the most of an incendiary script by McDonagh. It won four Golden Globes, including Best Supporting Actor for Rockwell on his first significant nomination, and was nominated for two more. On Sunday night he thanked McDonagh, saying: “You’re such an actor-friendly director. Thanks for not being a dick.” He made a point about kindness: “This movie is about compassion and I think we need some of that these days,” and thanked McDormand, who won Best Actress, calling her a “badass” and a “force of nature”.

I wonder if he lets himself get excited by awards talk and ceremonies. “It’s fun,” says Rockwell. “It’s nice to get props, but you can take the piss out of it all at the same time. There are moments of enjoyment when you’re rubbing shoulders with a mentor like Gary Oldman. That’s a kick. Tom Hanks, who I’ve worked with. Meryl Streep. Judi Dench . . . Oh, I got to talk about dancing with Justin Timberlake.” Rockwell is a nifty mover himself and has shown off his steps so many times that fans have cut their own compilations. “Yeah, I’m pretty good. Not as good as Justin.”

Did he get any tips from the man who brought sexy back? “Well, we were talking about Bob Fosse [the dancer and choreographer who directed Cabaret], who I might play,” he says. “He knows a lot about it. I showed him a move and he showed me a cooler way to do it — because he’s Justin f***ing Timberlake.” The music in the café switches to jazz and he snaps his fingers. “Ooh, Chet Baker.”

Playing Jason Dixon in Three Billboards

Three Billboards is not the first time Rockwell and the British-Irish playwright-turned-director McDonagh have worked together. The actor starred in 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, which McDonagh wrote and directed, and in the play A Behanding in Spokane, which opened on Broadway in 2010. “I put him up there with David Mamet, Quentin Tarantino, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Kenny Lonergan,” says Rockwell. “His writing is astounding. And now he’s this amazing film director. He’s made three pretty f***ing good movies, and this is probably his best. I’m not embarrassed to tell you I’ve seen it more than once. I’m so proud to be in it.”

“McDonaugh’s made three pretty f***ing good movies, and this is probably his best. I’m not embarrassed to tell you I’ve seen it more than once. I’m so proud to be in it.”

The film’s lead, played by the Oscar, Tony and Emmy-winner McDormand, is Mildred Hayes, a tough, divorced mother who is frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation into the rape and murder of her daughter. She embarks on a campaign to shame the small town’s police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), into action. “It’s the first female protagonist [Martin] has had since I think The Beauty Queen of Leenane [1996]. She’s a great actor. There are these actors like Phil Hoffman, Hilary Swank, John Malkovich . . . It’s what my teacher used to call ‘emotional power’. And vulnerability. Frances has that.”

Rockwell plays Jason Dixon, a drunk, violent, racist cop with anger issues. He’s a repellent character who, in a deft piece of characterisation, somehow manages to command sympathy. “It’s easy, working with Martin,” he says. “I’ll be nervous to read in front of him for the first time. I work with coaches and do my homework, so I’m usually pretty prepared. Then he’ll make little adjustments, like the hair. But it’s never, like, ‘You’re way off the mark.’ He casts the right people, ultimately.”

As preparation Rockwell went to Missouri and did “ride-alongs” with officers, asking them to read his lines. “I’ve talked to navy Seals, FBI agents,” he says. “When I played a basketball coach in The Winning Season I talked to so many. But nobody saw that. Some parts don’t require so much research, though. For Iron Man 2 I had one conversation with a guy who knew an arms dealer and that was it.”

The actor Paul Sparks (House of Cards, Boardwalk Empire) pops over from a nearby table, and the two hug it out and make what sound like fun holiday plans. “He’s a really great actor,” enthuses Rockwell, settling back down. “He’s great friends with Michael Shannon. They’ve done so many plays together.”

Rockwell in the 2009 sci-fi hit Moon SONY PICTURES

Rockwell is an accomplished stage actor himself, which he thinks stands him in good stead. “People who haven’t done theatre have a hard time doing take after take,” he says. “On Conviction, with Hilary Swank, the film went through airport security and x-ray destroyed it. It was a really important day of shooting — heavy, emotional stuff in a prison. Of course, we were devastated. But Hilary’s trained. And director Tony Goldwyn is also theatre trained. So we just did it all again. Not everybody can do that. You need to play the guy with the sword and spear before you play Hamlet, you know.”

One of the central themes of Three Billboards is the confrontation of deep-seated misogyny in society, which feels extremely relevant right now. “It does,” he agrees. “Though he [McDonagh] wrote this eight years ago, so it’s partly coincidental. I think great writers are a little touched — ahead of the eight ball, you know?”

The film also highlights the institutional racism at the heart of American society at a time when white supremacists are again emboldened to march in the streets — although it has attracted some controversy in the US over the way his character’s racism is handled. In a forthcoming movie, Rockwell will play CP Ellis, the Ku Klux Klan leader who went on to renounce his past and become a civil rights activist, an experience which, he says, “got a little dark at times”. He pulls out his phone and shows me an email from Christian Picciolini. “Apparently, the Ed Norton character in American History X was based on him. He was a white supremacist, but he now pulls people out of hate groups. I talked to him before I played Ellis.

“He told me, ‘It’s not that you hate brown or black people, or you’re homophobic — you hate yourself.’ Ultimately, that’s what’s going on with Dixon. Everyone’s had a bad day, so you can relate to that. But I can’t relate to being racist, because I didn’t grow up like that — I had a black girlfriend, I just hung with a different crowd,” he says, referring to his youth in San Francisco. “I’m a city kid, but I play rednecks and cowboys a lot.”

As galactic president Zaphod Beeblebrox

Speaking of which, he is playing president George W Bush in Adam McKay’s forthcoming Dick Cheney biopic Backseat. “Well, there you go,” he says with a laugh. “That was daunting. Ultimately, I think he was a rich kid who was in over his head. He had the charm that Dick Cheney did not. It’s a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac story.”

Is Rockwell a political person? “No.” But surely it’s hard not to be in these times. “Well, I watch Bill Maher [the late-night talk show host]. But . . . no, it’s just depressing.”

His name is attached to Mute, a forthcoming film by Duncan Jones, with whom he filmed the surprise sci-fi hit Moon, although he says it’s just a cameo. “With Moon, we were terrified. We didn’t know what the f*** we were getting into,” he says, then laughs. “Though now it’s considered one of the better sci-fi movies of the last 20 years.”

Rockwell was also in Galaxy Quest, a 1999 cult sci-fi spoof. “And Hitchhiker’s,” he adds proudly, referring to the 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which he plays two-headed president of the galaxy and all-round hoopy frood Zaphod Beeblebrox. These roles are light years from the oddballs, racists, alcoholics and psychopaths he’s often tapped to portray — perhaps he’d like to do more comedy or sci-fi, to balance the darkness? “I’ve always wanted to do darker stuff, but I like to be silly too,” he says. “Though comedy also takes it out of you. I mean, it’s not digging ditches, but mentally. You do 16-hour days, with a deadline. Working with Adam McKay and playing George W Bush, with Christian Bale as Dick Cheney . . . that’s responsibility, you know? You gotta have a beer at the end of the week.”

What are his hopes for the coming year? “Apart from the obvious, I just want to do good work. I’m too old to play Hamlet, but maybe I can still play Mercutio. Though I’m probably too old for that too.

“That’s all you can do, man,” he continues. “There’s a lot of horrible shit going on. I’m not really good at fundraisers and charity, but I can take a KKK guy and try to illuminate that. And maybe if you make a good enough movie — like Three Billboards, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Midnight Cowboy — maybe it makes people think about things differently. You know, I don’t have control over anything else. That’s all I know how to do.”

Previously published in The Times, Jan 9 2018