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With Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Sam Rockwell will be underrated no more


Sam Rockwell, perpetually on the brink

Sam Rockwell poses for a portrait during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 27, 2015

With the actor's latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, tipped as a major Academy Awards contender, he may finally gain mainstream recognition

As long as there are Sam Rockwell movies, there will be articles proclaiming Sam Rockwell to be one of the most underrated actors of his generation. So apologies off the top, but this is going to be another kick at that irresistible can: Sam Rockwell, Underrated Genius, Now and Forever Ignored. Well, maybe.

The actor has been hearing the "underrated" tune starting in roughly 1998, the year he made an unmistakable impression in the otherwise mistakable Tarantino homage Jerry and Tom. All of a sudden – but really not all that suddenly, since he'd been working steadily and respectfully since the late eighties – Rockwell was the favoured cri de cœur of critics, who took deep, sincere pleasure in noting Rockwell's unique skill at playing captivating psychopaths and unnerving ne'er-do-wells. There is his serial killer in The Green Mile. His deceptively shy bad guy in Charlie's Angels. His perpetually high space cadet in Galaxy Quest. And his unstable game-show host in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which probably marks the height of the Rockwell-is-underrated essay boom.

Not that he hasn't earned each and every one of those kudos. Thanks to his always-curious line delivery, his twitchy mannerisms, his puppy-dog visage and the surreptitious, wiry dance moves he sneaks into nearly every role, Christopher Walken-style, Rockwell has perfected the art of mixing the dangerous with the debonair. You're never quite sure whether this guy wants to kiss you or kill you – and you're pretty confident he hasn't a clue, either.

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"Because he comes from being a character actor, Sam sees every opportunity on the screen as a chance to do something special – he doesn't take for granted the fact that he's getting to play a role," says director Jon Favreau, who's worked with Rockwell on three films that couldn't be more different: the indie crime comedy Made, the Marvel extravaganza Iron Man 2 and the intellectual-property mashup Cowboys & Aliens. "Sam seizes every moment, and you can tell he's having fun with every movement of his body. He pops. As actors say, he's in control of his instrument."

Yet with the actor's latest film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, it appears that the Sam Rockwell-as-underrated narrative, neat and tidy and easy as it is to employ for articles such as this, might finally be reaching its end. A bold mix of dark comedy and darker drama, Three Billboards arrives in theatres this weekend boasting those two rare Hollywood qualities: critical prestige and audience favour.

Sam Rockwell plays a racist cop in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which stars Frances McDormand.

It's already being tipped as a major Academy Awards contender, and those lucky enough to have caught it on the festival circuit have been lapping it up with glee – there's a reason why it won the much-coveted People's Choice Award at TIFF this past September. Soon, the 49-year-old Rockwell may not be underrated at all, but simply stamped as perpetually excellent, as expected.

Not that Rockwell cares much about labels, either way.

"The fact that people are saying that kind of stuff, about being underrated, well, that means I'm not underrated, right?" the actor says over the phone the other week. "They've been saying that about Jeff Bridges for years. About Gary Oldman, who's never won an Oscar. Anthony Hopkins! It took a while for him to get on the map. As long as people are saying your name, it's all good."

Rockwell's name is certainly a familiar one among the chattering film classes, though it must at least feel good to be, finally, on the crest of greater, potentially Oscar-certified things? Or, at least, to shake a humble tag so closely tied to so many character actors over the years who have yet to feel the warm, fuzzy embrace of the mainstream?

Rockwell says he's 'attracted to the darker side of humanity.' Larry Busacca/Getty Images

"It does feel good, man, it does," he says, "it's just you know …" There's a giant pause on the other end of the line, as if Rockwell might be considering the entire arc of his career, or as much consideration as one can offer over the course of a 15-minute telephone conversation conducted on the other side of the continent. "But it's just getting the word out there on the film. You want the film to be seen, you know? You can do your job and do your homework, but sometimes that's not enough. The movie has to be good, too. This has to be a good movie."

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On that front, Rockwell shouldn't worry. Three Billboards comes from writer-director Martin McDonagh, a previous collaborator of Rockwell's both on the screen (Seven Psychopaths) and the stage (A Behanding in Spokane). As with the pair's earlier work, the plot here ducks and weaves in unexpected and uncomfortable ways as it charts one mother's quest for small-town justice following the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. As Mildred, that force-of-nature matriarch, Frances McDormand owns the screen with a fury and vengeance – well, that is until Rockwell shows up as the profoundly dimwitted and racist cop Dixon, who starts down his own path of self-righteousness and ends up stealing the picture along the way.

The role ticks all the requisite Sam Rockwell boxes: Dixon is befuddled but menacing, his anger simmering in a stew of myriad emotions he cannot quite recognize, let alone reconcile. But as Dixon begins to destroy himself and everything he thinks he stands for, McDonagh pushes the character further into the darkness, allowing Rockwell to explore a new level of villainous nuance.

"I think I play good monsters," Rockwell says with a laugh. "For some reason, I'm attracted to the darker side of humanity. But when you do a role like this that requires emotional depth, it can be cathartic, too. Dare I say even therapeutic, though that might be stretching it. It's fun to be miserable when you're an actor – you can indulge emotions you wouldn't be able to in real life."

Which gives Rockwell licence to go deep while shooting.

"It's like being a child, acting. You're laughing one minute, then crying, and that's what it's like to be an actor: you have licence to be a big baby," he says. "It's interesting when people are surprised when actors have temper tantrums. I'm not surprised because when you're manipulating your emotions every day, it's an insane job. I saw Gary Oldman recently, and he had a great analogy: It's like being in a Christmas snow globe and you're just shaking it up every day."

Woody Harrelson and Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

And it's those daily tremors Rockwell prefers to concentrate on, rather than any rumblings of Oscar glory, humbling as that buzz may be. "Yeah, you know it's exciting but my mind is occupied right now with working, so I don't have to think about this stuff too much."

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Right now, that occupation is with playing, of all people, George W. Bush in director Adam McKay's Backseat, an upcoming biopic of Dick Cheney (starring Christian Bale; really). It's Rockwell's most unusual role to date, which is saying something. "It's a hard act to follow because of what Josh [Brolin] and Will [Ferrell] have done. It's daunting, like playing Elvis," Rockwell says. "I'm on the internet every day watching or listening to Bush."

So Sam Rockwell will continue to act (and dance) on, underrated or not.

"The work is never done," he says. "I've been acting for 20 years, and I'm always learning something. It's never done."

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri opens Nov. 17 in Toronto, Nov. 22 in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax, and Ottawa, and Dec. 1 across the country

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