During one of his many award speeches in 2018 for his supporting role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” Sam Rockwell proclaimed himself a character actor as opposed to your traditional leading man. The line between those two types of actors is often blurry and Rockwell himself has vacillated from supporting roles to lead roles throughout his career.
Rockwell’s success has been a long time coming. He moved to New York at a very young age after attending a school for the arts in San Francisco. He worked steadily on the stage and television building up a resume of small roles. He would eventually gain name recognition during the 1990s heyday of independent film, in particular with the films “Lawn Dogs” and “Box of Moonlight” starting to get the actor noticed.
He began to work frequently with playwright turned film director Martin McDonaugh, eventually leading to the point where McDonaugh described him as his muse. The two teamed with Christopher Walken for the Broadway play “A Behanding in Spokane” and later for the film “Seven Psychopaths.” It would be the film ” Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” that would ultimately bring Rockwell a slew of awards. In the 2018 Best Supporting Actor race, Willem Dafoe seemed to be the early favorite for “The Florida Project,” winning the bulk of critics’ group awards but Rockwell proved to be a surprise winner at the Golden Globes. He would then take all the major televised awards and ultimately the Oscar.
On November 5th, 2018, Rockwell celebrated his 50th birthday. In celebration, take a photo gallery tour as Gold Derby ranks his 15 greatest movie performances from worst to best.
15. CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2000)
The popular TV series from the seventies that launched Farrah Fawcett into becoming a TV icon was first resurrected in this film produced by Drew Barrymore. The film was not the best experience for Rockwell who has spoken about how the rewrites were coming so fast and frequently that he ended up having to wear an earpiece and have the new lines fed to him since he had no time to memorize them.
14. A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1999)
This lavish all star production of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays features Rockwell in a small role as one of the traveling band of actors led by Kevin Kline. The cast featured Christian Bale, Calista Flockhart and Dominic West as part of the play’s group of young lovers with Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Stanley Tucci among the cast of otherworldly fairies that populate the play.
13. BOX OF MOON LIGHT (1996)
One of Rockwell’s early breakthrough roles came in this film starring John Turturro as a methodical engineer who meets an eccentric men played by Rockwell. As button down and meticulous as Turturro’s character is, Rockwell’s character is the exact opposite. The odd free spirit brings a new perspective to Turturro.
12. CONVICTION (2010)
Rockwell and co-star Hilary Swank got some early Oscar buzz and each received a few nominations or recognition from film festivals or critic’s circles but ultimately the film came up empty handed at the Oscars. Swank stars as a woman who goes to law school in order to help her brother who has been wrongly imprisoned for murder. Rockwell and Swank each have their moments in the film but ultimately are both sunk by the film’s somewhat manipulative plot.
11. THE WAY WAY BACK (2013)
Rockwell stars in this cult hit about a young teen whose family spends the summer in a small town where the main source of activity and employment is a some what second rate amusement park. The young man at the center of the film finds a substitute father figure in Rockwell and a respite from the bullying boyfriend of his mother.
10. FROST/NIXON (2008)
Frank Langella reprised his Tony winning role and received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of disgraced President Richard Nixon. The story details an interview Nixon gave after his resignation to British journalist David Frost in which he hoped to restore his reputation with the American people. Rockwell plays an investigator who helps Frost prepare for the interview.
9. THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)
Jesse James was an outlaw who robbed trains and caused other havoc in the 1800s. He was ultimately murdered by a member of his own gang Robert Ford. The film was considered a bit too long but Casey Affleck‘s performance as Ford earned him a great deal of acclaim and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Rockwell plays Ford’s brother who was also a part of the James gang.
8. LAWN DOGS (1997)
“Lawn Dogs” is an interesting independent film that details the friendship that forms between an aimless young man and a young girl. Rockwell’s character is a trailer park resident who works mowing lawns in an affluent suburb. While gardening at the house of a new family that has moved to the area he meets a 10 year old played by Mischa Barton. Wise beyond her years and as lonely and out of place as Rockwell’s character is leads the two to form an innocent friendship that is misinterpreted by Barton’s parents. The film is a complex and heartfelt story.
7. GALAXY QUEST (1999)
The popular comedy tells the story of how the cast of a cancelled science fiction show who have been reduced to signing autographs at conventions. They are contacted by real aliens and end up actually going into space. Rockwell’s character joins the stars of the show even though he was only what Trekkies would call a “red shirt” character, meaning someone who wears a red shirt and usually dies early in the episode.
6. THE GREEN MILE (1999)
Four Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture (but as sometimes happens with certain films, no Best Director nomination) went to this adaptation of a Stephen King story set in a prison death row where supernatural events are occurring. Starring Tom Hanks, Rockwell has a scenery chewing role as a viscous killer who is among the prisoners kept waiting on death row.
5. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS (2012)
After working with Martin McDonagh on the play “A Behanding in Spokane” on Broadway, Rockwell struck up a friendship with the writer and was given a key role in this film. The title basically is self-explanatory. Seven psychopaths go through the usual crime and violence sprees that frequent McDonagh’s work.
4. MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)
Rockwell had an interesting role in this intricate thriller from director Ridley Scott. The story centers on a pair of con man who swindle unsuspecting customers by selling them overpriced water filtration systems. Nicolas Cage also suffers from a variety of mental disorders which ultimately lead to his being tricked by Rockwell’s character.
3. MOON (2009)
Rockwell had a tour de force role as a man stationed for three years in outer space who slowly begins to lose his sanity. The film is reminiscent of such earlier seventies films like “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and interestingly is directed by the son of Ziggy Stardust himself, David Bowie. For classic TV fans the use of reruns of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” are a nice touch.
2. CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (2002)
Just how true this supposedly true story is remains a mystery. Rockwell plays Chuck Barris, a TV game show producer from the seventies who later found fame himself as the host of “The Gong Show.” If this story is true we are led to believe that somewhere during the course of his game show duties, Rockwell also became an operative for the CIA involved in various espionage activities. Rockwell’s impersonation of Barris is spot on and the scenes that recreate “The Gong Show” an infamous seventies “talent” show are fun to watch.
1. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)
Rockwell ran the whole derby in early 2018 winning Oscar, SAG, Golden Globe, BAFTA as well as various critics awards for Best Supporting Actor for this dark drama from McDonagh. The film tells the story of a woman (Oscar winning Best Actress Frances McDormand), who places three billboards in her town asking why the murderer of her daughter hasn’t been found yet. Rockwell plays a police officer consumed with rage and alcoholism who at first clashes with McDormand but ultimately joins her cause.