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How Sam Rockwell prepared to play George W. Bush, Chuck Barris and a racist cop

Sam Rockwell in
Sam Rockwell in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Twentieth Century Fox

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Sam Rockwell is the kind of actor who can steal a scene, sometimes when you’re least expecting it.

In the new Martin McDonagh movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Rockwell plays Dixon, a racist cop who he describes as "kind of like Don Knotts meets Travis Bickle. We wanted him to be goofy. That served the story. And yet he couldn't be too goofy, because then he would lose his danger."

Three Billboards trailer

The Frame's John Horn caught up with Sam Rockwell recently while he was on a break from shooting an upcoming movie from "The Big Short" filmmaker Adam McKay. In that one, Rockwell plays George W. Bush opposite Christian Bale, who's playing former Vice President Dick Cheney. Rockwell opens up about how he thinks about his characters and how he prepares.

To hear the full interview click the play button at the top of this page. Below are some highlights.

Interview Highlights

On what he's learning from a documentary about Gary Oldman:

He was talking about playing Beethoven and biographical people and he was saying, there are limitations, but there's also the advantage that you have literature at your disposal. Or you have relatives of the real person at your disposal. And then in George W. Bush's case, you have tons of stuff on the internet. Without the internet, I wouldn't be able to do my research as well for George W.

On how he approaches playing true-life characters:

When I get intimidated by the fact that George W. is so famous — it's like playing Elvis — I think I just go back to, I've done this before. I know how to do this. I did Chuck Barris. I've done a few real people recently with Taraji Henson, I played this Ku Klux Klan guy who was a real person. And I would listen to his voice. He had a very difficult accent. Liz Himelstein is a great dialect coach who helped me with it. So that does help — that background. I had the advantage of hanging out with Chuck Barris at that time, literally filming him and spending so much time with him and having him tape my lines. I would love to have George W. tape my lines, but that's not possible really.

On why he gets cast as rednecks and racists:

It's funny — I'm a city kid. I get cast as rednecks a lot and I've played a few racists. They're always trying to throw me on a horse. I had to learn a lasso for a role once. I think it's hilarious because I'm such a city kid. But I've played so many country people. And I don't know. I think I have an affinity for it for some reason. But, now I'm playing George W. who's got a Texas accent. But I think with the racist thing — and Dixon in "Three Billboards" is a racist — I did do some research for the KKK thing and I talked to an ex-white supremacist — a guy who now pulls people out of hate groups. So he's completely done a 360. And the thing that he said to me that was really useful is he says, it's not so much that you hate black or brown people, it's that you hate yourself. That was the key to me, because I can't really relate to being a racist. I grew up in an interracial school so I have to find something else — another hook. And I think that everyone has had a bad day and everyone's felt bad about themselves. So that's something we can all relate to. So I think it's just accentuating that part of yourself and then turning it around. That's where that hatred comes from.

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in
Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri."
Twentieth Century Fox

On how Christian Bale is gaining weight to play Dick Cheney but Rockwell prefers to use costumes or props to transform:

I'm not like Christian. He's really doing it. He's getting up at 2 in the morning to do hair and makeup. He's gained a bunch of weight. I can't do that. I put on some padding. I put on a mustache and a wig. I come from the theater and we put on funny hats. I gained a little bit of weight for Dixon [in "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"], but we used padding in the pants to accentuate that. These cops that I met in Missouri — I did some ride-alongs with some cops in southern Missouri. You know, these guys aren't sinewy. They're big boys. They're strong and they're big. We had to create that illusion. I think on film, it looks that way, although I'm a pretty slight guy.

On what he most enjoys about being an actor:

Sometimes it's the catharsis of it, but let's not mistake it for therapy. It's a job and you do it. But I guess I really go back to the Meisner training in my early 20s. [It] taught me that there was an emotional responsibility to the text. You had a responsibility to these imaginary circumstances. I found it to be — if it's done well — dare I say, noble. If you see somebody like Robert Duvall or Gary Oldman or Meryl Streep doing it at its peak — I think Stanley Tucci or somebody like that — it's like a great carpenter building a beautiful house. I think it's a noble thing.

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