“I like to work in a stress-free environment where it’s fun, collaborative and creative. He brings a beautiful energy to set and is a very generous artist who makes filming an absolute joy. He’s also not bad at acting. I love him.” There was no holding back by director du jour Taika Waititi when he spoke to The Rake about Sam Rockwell — the two worked together on the forthcoming world war two satire Jojo Rabbit. What could otherwise be palmed off as the usual press-period platitude between cast members is actually a snapshot of the kind of regard in which Rockwell is held throughout Hollywood. His career has been peppered with a sort of unnamed magic; he is a Tybalt of stage and screen, with time, distance and proportion a constant lesson on nuance and subtlety. This is why we all know him but know next to nothing of him. Somewhere in between lies his vulnerability as well as his menace, the braggadocio and the melancholy, the beguiling and the nefarious. He has made himself irresistible to the curious, and The Rake is nothing if not curious.
Rockwell is California born and bred, the son of two actors. He grew up watching his parents in plays such as Twelfth Night and The Crucible, and even featured in a play with his mother when he was 10 years old, playing Humphrey Bogart. In his Oscar acceptance speech in 2018 — Rockwell won best supporting actor for his performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — he said: “When I was eight years old I was called into the principal’s office. My father was looking very solemn, and he said, ‘We gotta go, it’s grandma’. We got in the car and I said, ‘What’s wrong with grandma?’, and he said, ‘Nothing, we’re going to the movies’.” I ask whether this was a fairly good précis of his childhood. “There was a little anarchy there,” he says. “I saw a lot of movies as a kid that I was probably too young to see.