Film interview: Sam Rockwell on playing a racist cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Rockwell and Frances McDormand get in each other's faces
Rockwell and Frances McDormand get in each other's faces
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Sam Rockwell completely convinces as an ignorant police officer in Martin McDonagh’s new film, writes Alistair Harkness, but he also brings enough humanity to the character to make him more than just a stereotype

Read past interviews with Sam Rockwell and one of the most commonly cited career facts is a 1997 quote from Harvey Weinstein declaring “he’s a movie star” when he was still an unknown actor. Taken from an article in the New York Times about the booming indie film scene, the much-regurgitated story remains a useful reminder of the disgraced mogul’s formerly lauded status as a kingmaker – one we now know came at a terrible price for the many women whose careers he promised to make or break. “Yeah,” sighs Rockwell when I bring it up. “I think these women are very brave and courageous to come forward. Anything like this is horrible and, in fact, you see some of that misogyny in our movie.”

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features a, racist cop butting heads with a grieving mother who wants answers about her raped and murdered  daughter

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri features a, racist cop butting heads with a grieving mother who wants answers about her raped and murdered daughter

He’s referring to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the new film from In Bruges director Martin McDonagh in which he plays a small-town racist cop who repeatedly butts heads with a grieving mother, played by Frances McDormand, as she tries to get answers about the stalled investigation into her daughter’s rape and murder.

“Racism and misogyny has been very prevalent in the United States so I think that shines a new light on some of the scenes in this film,” he says. He sighs again. “Yeah, I think it’s horrible. What are you gonna say?”

He’s right about increased focus on racism and misogyny shining a new light on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, especially as McDormand’s Mildred Hayes strides through town like Marge Gunderson crossed with Mad Max, her increasing propensity for frontier justice coming to the fore as she’s set on a collision course with Rockwell’s hate-filled, IQ-challenged police deputy Jason Dixon.

But if Rockwell sounds like he’s floundering a little as he tries to figure out what to say about the Weinstein revelations, that’s possibly because we’re meeting on the final day of the BFI London Film Festival when the story is barely a week old.

The allegations about Kevin Spacey – who supplied the voice of the robot in Moon, one of Rockwell’s most beloved films – are still some weeks away, but the extent to which Weinstein’s behaviour has brought systemic abuse in Hollywood into the open is forcing everyone to take a long hard look at the way the industry operates.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” says Rockwell of the specific abuse allegations against Weinstein. “I’d done only one movie with him [his break-out film Confessions of a Dangerous Mind]. We had some creative issues, but, basically, I think it’s horrible. I don’t know what to say. I was lucky as a young actor. I mean, I’m a dude, but I didn’t have any close calls like that when I was a young cute boy. But it happens to women, obviously, more than it does to men. I think it’s awful and it’s terrible and it’s gross.

“You know, I saw a guy on the street stick his tongue out in a fellatio kind of way and I thought of Harvey. I thought – and he was not an attractive man – ‘Wow, that’s interesting. Do you think that’s going to help you get women? I wanted to go up to him and say, ‘How’s that working out for you?’”

Rockwell’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri isn’t exactly a model of humanitarian goodwill either. In fact, he might be the most reprehensible character Rockwell has played: a dumb (and dangerous-with-it) alcoholic mama’s boy with a reputation around town for mistreating black suspects and prisoners. Given that Rockwell has done his fair share of live-wire villains and oddballs, that’s saying something. But what makes him even more uncomfortable as a character is the way his ignorance is used by his colleagues to excuse his behaviour. Dixon is the sort of guy who thinks racially abusing people is okay if he uses the politically correct terminology to the refer to the act. Woke he ain’t.

“He’s very gullible,” says Rockwell, trying to explain how he got inside the head of the character. “There’s an innocence to that so you just stay in the moment. If you’re truly in the moment and someone tells you there’s a pink elephant in the moment, I’ll kind of go like that [he looks over his shoulder]. That’s the moment. I’m open to you telling me there’s a pink elephant. I think you have to stay open and then you look kind of gullible or stupid. I think that’s the key to that. Kinda…”

As this last quote makes clear, Rockwell isn’t particularly good at explaining his craft. McDonagh, however, considers him “the greatest actor of his generation” and wrote the part with Sam’s voice in his head (this is the third time they’ve worked together, after Seven Psychopaths and the play A Beheading in Spokane). Indeed Rockwell’s performance was so good it altered the focus of the movie, bringing humanity to a character that McDonagh had hoped was there, but couldn’t be sure would be transmitted on screen.

“I was surprised at how rounded his journey is,” confirms the filmmaker. “It’s Frances’s film but he comes in close behind and it’s because of the change in his humanity that we get there together with the two of them. I think I thought it was Mildred’s film,” he adds. “And then it became their film.”

Rockwell does have a habit of surprising audiences. If he seems like the sort of guy who coasts by on movie star charisma – of which he has an abundance – he’s worked hard to get where he is. He still has an acting coach to whom he turns for help with his roles, especially this one, and he’s certainly paid his dues, training hard in his 20s with the legendary method acting coach Bill Esper in New York. “You don’t do that two-year course and not be a serious actor,” he says.

He’s also been working at it since he was a kid. His mother is an actress in New York and he’d spend summers with her, acting in plays. It was a world away from the regular life he led the rest of the year in San Francisco with his father, a union organiser – although that too could be interesting. “I met Harvey Milk when I was eight years old,” he says. “It was an amazing childhood.”

It took him until he was around 30 to start making a living from acting, which was a turning point in what he reckons has been a “slow-burn” career. Though he could have been a much bigger movie star – “I’ve turned down a lot of money,” he says – these days he’s just pleased he’s being cast as grown men rather than being offered man-child roles.

Still, he continues to be amused at the number of Southern rednecks he’s asked to play, especially given he’s always lived in liberal-minded cities. “It’s hilarious. I just played a KKK guy,” he says, referring the forthcoming Best of Enemies.

He’s also playing George W Bush opposite Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s new Cheney biopic Backseat. “Yeah, another guy from Texas,” he drawls. How is he approaching Dubbya? “I’ve been watching him on the internet. I think he’s very charming. I feel for him. He’s very likeable. But the make-up helps. Thank god for make-up and hair.”