Sam Rockwell may not be a huge name, but there's a buzz about
this extraordinary actor who seems to fit in any role he assumes.
But then, Rockwell's passion remains with the theatre.
"Stage is where it really happens for an actor because it
makes full use of whatever you have to give," Rockwell
explains in the noisy bar adjoining the Sundance Film Festival's
Hospitality Suite. But at the moment, the 30-year old actor is
receiving considerable attention for his deeply moving
performance on screen in the critically acclaimed Lawn Dogs,
directed by John Duigan.
"Let me tell you, that
was pretty heavy-duty" on learning to ride a lawn mower
Set in the heart of class-conscious Kentucky, Rockwell is
Trent Burns, who makes ends meet by mowing lawns in the rich
Louisville suburb of Camelot Gardens. But, his reception in the
community is less than cordial. He is the victim of verbal abuse
from Sean (Eric Mabius) and Bret (David Barry Gray), two college
boys with nothing to do than cause him trouble. Trent is also
under the close scrutiny of the neighbourhood security man, Nash
(Bruce McGill), who is quick to blame him for acts of petty
vandalism and theft in the area. Ten-year-old Devon Stockard
(Mischa Barton) is new to Camelot Gardens. She has no friends,
and busies herself with tales of the evil witch Baba Yaga. She is
sent by her parents to sell cookies for the Young Rangers.
Although they tell her "not to go beyond the wall" and
to sell more cookies than any other Ranger so she will get her
photo in the newspaper, Devon promptly leaves the subdivision,
intentionally dropping bags of cookies from her red wagon, and
heads towards the forest.
There she discovers a mobile home that’s no longer
mobile, and decides that this is the house of Baba Yaga. It turns
out to be Trent's home, however, and he catches her exploring.
Devon takes a liking to him and, despite his protests, becomes a
frequent visitor. The film explores the complex relationship
between the pair, a relationship that is ultimately
"He's incredible, and
one of the most nurturing and encouraging directors I've ever
worked with," on
director John Duigan
Rockwell felt that Trent was an easy character to relate to.
"I think everybody can identify with the loneliness of this
guy, the feeling that you have when you're in a fancy restaurant,
you're not dressed right and they treat you like an insect, is
what Trent goes through every day." That feeling of being
treated as someone inferior was something Rockwell drew from his
own life. "I was a bus boy and had pretty negative feelings
towards yuppies for a long time. People in perceived positions of
power can be very cruel." To prepare for the part of this
working-class Southern character, Rockwell did some intense
reserach. "Firstly, I had one of the best dialect coaches in
the country, who got my ear attuned to the dialect. In addition
to that, I had this truck driver, a teamster from Kentucky, tape
all my lines, in between mouthfuls of beer. I hung out with the
teamsters a lot, who are all these local Kentucky boys." And
finally, Rockwell had to learn how to ride a lawn mower
"which involved a two-week course. Let me tell you, that was
One of the most remarkable aspects of Lawn Dogs is the
performance of 10-year old Mischa Barton who plays the tough and
complex Devon. Rockwell first met the youngster when they were
undergoing final call-back auditions, and he has nothing but
praise for his young co-star. "She's a consummate
professional and could find her marks even faster than I could,
and I've done 20 movies. While I was so busy trying to muster up
some horrible self-deprecation for my character, spending a lot
of time alone, SHE was on the money; she just came in, and did
her job." But they never hung out together. "We'd get
together, do our scene, then she'd go off and do her thing, while
I did mine. I mean we dug each other, but we didn't spend THAT
much time together." Rockwell has equal praise for his
director, Australia's John Duigan. "He's incredible, and one
of the most nurturing and encouraging directors I've ever worked
with," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "He's such a
great guy and so talented. I made a point of watching his early
stuff, and I just LOVED Year My Voice Broke and Flirting."
He admits to some parallels between Lawn Dogs and those early
classics. "Duigan was the perfect director for this movie,
the way it dealt with young people and the theme of
outsiders." He says after this experience, and given his
clear passion for Australian cinema, that he’d like to work
with some more Australian directors.
"I just see myself as
a character actor"
Though set in America's suburban south, it's clear that Lawn
Dogs has a degree of universality. Rockwell defines the film
"as being one about friendship and trust. And the ending of
this movie still blows me away."
As for G.I. Jane, he had to quit after refusing to participate
in key scuba diving scenes "which were never part of my
contract. It's a pity, because I was looking forward to working
with Ridley Scott."
Rockwell remains coy about the hype beginning to build around
him. "I just see myself as a character actor. I'd like to be
a star in the same way as Gary Oldman or John Malkovich are
famous, who get to do character pieces and not act like movie