Actor Sam Rockwell has played thugs, free-spirited misfits, and hapless actors. He was a maniacal villain in Charlie’s Angels, Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and the two-headed President of the Universe in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s a darling of the indies, recently starring in Joshua, Snow Angels, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Now he’s enjoying a fall that sees him starring in this month’s instant cult movie Choke, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, and the high-profile presumable Oscar contender Frost/Nixon, based on Peter Morgan’s West End/Broadway hit (“It’s going to be bad-ass,” Rockwell promises).
Rockwell’s energy sometimes comes out in comic bursts and sometimes seeps out of a bottled intensity, but he’s always a magnetic presence. Calling his new character “a chameleon,” he confesses the similarity between Victor Mancini and an actor like himself. By day, Mancini is an indentured Irish servant in a colonial theme park. By night, he plays the role of a choking victim in restaurants to leech money from his now personally invested saviors. At every other available moment, he’s either by the bedside of his ailing mother (Anjelica Huston), plying her for the secrets that might heal the damage she caused in his youth, or cruising for tail at sex addiction meetings that he thinks he doesn’t need.
Palahniuk’s blend of psychodrama and wild satire required a delicate handling of tone, a responsibility shared by Rockwell (who’s in every scene) and his director Clark Gregg, also an actor. “Clark understood the character, coming from his past. Y’know, he’s got some demons,” Rockwell explains. “Clark and I talked about Harold and Maude as a tone. Fisher King, I brought that up. And then Alfie and Five Easy Pieces and a few others…He knew exactly what he wanted. We wanted something realistic but funny…moving and emotionally deep.”
In his serious-minded insistence on doing his “homework,” Rockwell stands out among his peers. Several areas were key to his preparation for Choke, beginning with research: meeting with a therapist, watching a recommended documentary, and attending several meetings incognito. “I found that a lot of these people were in a lot of pain. And they were there because they had to be there. It was like a life-and-death situation. You know, it was like being an alcoholic. They had to be there so they wouldn’t drink. And they wouldn’t surf the internet porn for eight hours at a time. And not go to work. You know, it’s one thing to watch porn on the Pay-Per-View if you’re out-of-town or whatever. It’s another thing to do it eight hours a day and not go to work and lose your wife and your house ’cause you’re always—you know, it’s compulsive behavior.”
“What you find about sex addicts is that they’ll compartmentalize eroticism and love. And they don’t integrate the two. And so they’ll never really find intimacy unless they figure that out. And that’s a tough thing. It’s a sad thing. It’s a lot like a food disorder. There’s a lot of repressed anger and issues with control. And so it’s about a struggle for some kind of intimacy with a woman. He’s obviously all tied in with his mother, so he can’t quite let go of that. And so it’s very difficult for him, yeah.”
Rockwell also treated the novel as his Bible, listening to Palahniuk’s audiobook reading on a loop during production. Some actors will toss the book and embrace only the script, but Rockwell says, “Yeah, I don’t really understand that. I mean, why wouldn’t you have the book? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s just more subtext, more help…I listened to it over and over again. A lot of my ad libs or improvisations came from the book.”
The third key ingredient is the actor’s imagination in devising, among other things, the outward trappings of the character that reflect his inner self. “One thing that the wardrobe woman and I incorporated was wearing some of the colonial garb with his street clothes. So he would mix in the colonial shoes with jeans. We liked having the mix of that. It was cool to incorporate his work with his street clothes and kind of have him be this sort of gypsy, X-generation guy. He’s constantly on the move.” The same could be said of Rockwell, a dedicated actor’s actor.