The road to winning an Academy Award is frequently a long and windy one, and if anyone can vouch for that, it’s Sam Rockwell. Almost three decades after he made his big screen debut in a small 1989 horror film called Clownhouse, Rockwell finally took home an Oscar statuette last year, though it wasn’t for a lack of acclaimed roles. Before his award-winning turn as Officer Dixon in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Rockwell had built an impressive, eclectic resume that included well-received work in films like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon, Seven Psychopaths, and The Way Way Back, among others.
This week, he co-stars in a unique, imaginative take on former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s life and rise to power called Vice, from director Adam McKay (The Big Short). Rockwell plays an earnest, guileless George W. Bush who insists Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney be his running mate in his bid for the presidency, and he’s already earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role. With the film released on Christmas Day and currently in theaters, Rockwell spoke with Rotten Tomatoes about the new film and how he approached his portrayal of the former president. Before that, though, he talked about his Five Favorite Films, warning “I’m a movie nerd… Don’t get me started on the movies.” With that in mind, below are descriptions of just five of Sam Rockwell’s favorite films, which also include: Taxi Driver, Coming Home, Stir Crazy, Badlands, Goodfellas, Dog Day Afternoon, and Aliens.
The Deer Hunter’s something I saw when I was very young. I saw a lot of disturbing movies when I was young. Alien, American Werewolf in London. There were a lot of movies that probably kids shouldn’t go to. And it just blew the top of my hair off, you know? The Russian roulette scene. Kind of like the chainsaw scene in Scarface was just really dynamic cinema, you know? Raiders of the Lost Ark is another one. Jaws. You get me going, I can’t stop. But those scenes, they stick in your mind and, yeah, it changed you. I think they kind of change you. Maybe Deer Hunter changed me. It was about friendship. It was about war, but it was also about friendship.
It’s just a perfect movie, you know? Everything about it, you just can’t… It’s just perfect. You can watch it over and over again.
That’s probably just Bill Murray in his prime. There’s a lot of good stuff in there.
That’s just one of the great… That’s another great one. That and Chinatown are probably — and maybe Five Easy Pieces — I mean, those were the big Nicholson performances. But McMurphy’s kind of the quintessential Nicholson performance. It’s kind of everything about Nicholson that’s great.
That movie blew me away. I think my dad made me see that and I remember Lee Marvin in that; Lee Van Cleef and Strother Martin are sort of the sidekicks. Woody Strode, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart. Just an incredible cast, I mean… It was just a surprise kind of western. There’s this scene where he gets his heartbroken — John Wayne gets kind of vulnerable in the bar. He loses the lady. That’s a great scene.
Ryan Fujitani for Rotten Tomatoes: Let’s talk about Vice. It’s an interesting movie, and while it’s a comedic take on its subject, it’s not quite a farce, and Adam McKay clearly wanted to channel some authenticity into these real people that you and your co-stars were portraying. How did you find that line between an effective, comedic portrayal of George W. Bush and an outright caricature?
Sam Rockwell: Well, you know, the impression always has to take a back seat to reality, and that’s always the rule for me. If the impression overrides the acting, I mean, you’ve got a problem. Because I think, ultimately, when we watched Daniel Day Lewis play Abe Lincoln, I think we’re seeing Abe Lincoln, but I think we’re also seeing the heart and soul of Daniel Day Lewis and all the attributes that he thinks are similar to Lincoln and what he imagines Lincoln would have been like. Ultimately, you want to see the actor’s heart and soul come through. You don’t want to just see an impression, I think. Otherwise it’s just, you know, who cares?
RT: Did you have to set aside your own personal feelings about him, whether positive or negative, to play him as he was written in the script?
Rockwell: No, not at all. It’s not really that kind of a movie. It’s more of a big American epic, you know? It’s kind of like, I don’t know, like Citizen Kane and The Big Short. It’s like that kind of a big kind of movie. You’re right, though. It’s not a farce and it’s not a biopic, either. It’s sort of somewhere, I don’t know what it is. I also haven’t seen it, so I’m going off of the script that I read. So I don’t know.
RT: I think you’ll be surprised by some of it.
Rockwell: There was a dancing number in there. I think it was cut, but there was a big dance number, so it was all over the place. Stylistically it breaks the narrative, you know?
RT: Were you in that dance number?
Rockwell: No, I wish!
RT: I was going to say…
Rockwell: I’ve been working with that choreographer, though, right now. Yeah, I’m playing Bob Fosse.
RT: Right! I’m looking forward to that.
Rockwell: Yeah, it’s going to be good.
RT: You’re uncannily spot on as President Bush. Do you know if Adam McKay specifically had you in mind for the role?
Rockwell: I don’t know if he did or not. I think he said he did, but I don’t know. I mean, he’d already had the best. Will Ferrell is pretty, pretty good, so it’s like, how do you follow that? I think it was just me and Christian [Bale] matched up in age, too, you know? Sort of the right age group, and I think it just felt right. I had the advantage of a prosthetic nose; that helps a lot to make me look more like him.
RT: Was there ever any concern about how your portrayal might be received by the man himself?
Rockwell: I really found him very charming, so I was trying to find the humanity in him and stuff. I tried to come at it from trying to find sort of this boyish charm that he had.
RT: Did you ever get to meet him?
Rockwell: No, I never did. I tried to. I played phone tag with his P.R. person.
RT: So your research was mostly watching clips…
Rockwell: Pretty much online, yeah. And then I listened to his book. He reads his book on tape, his autobiography.
RT: Politics aside, what do you think about this recent shift in public opinion to embrace George W. Bush as sort of a harmless grandfather figure who hands out free candy?
Rockwell: You know, I’ve been under the Fosse rock for a while. I’m completely oblivious to everything but Fosse right now. I haven’t really been keeping up on what’s happening, current events.
Vice is currently in theaters everywhere.