Sam Rockwell has spent his career all over the map, doing serious fare (“Frost/Nixon”), comedies (“Galaxy Quest”) and mixes of both ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Moon"). Right now he’s promoting his new film, the religious satire “Don Verdean” while doing the final performances of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in New York. He’s used to the gearshift. In “Don Verdean,” the latest from “Napoleon Dynamite” director Jared Hess, Rockwell plays a “biblical archaeologist,” but not a good one: Having fallen on hard times, he now fakes finds, like Goliath’s head and the Holy Grail.
This is a comedy, but you don’t exactly play Don as a broadly funny character. You play him as self-hating and sad.
I really thought that was important. We had the funny hair and the glasses and the outfit. He’s a funny character. At the same I don’t think it would sustain a whole movie if we just did funny bits. Jared and I were on the same page about that. I said, “This is a funny movie, but you’ve written a real tragic character here.” I maintain it’s almost like a comedic version of “The Apostle.” He’s an amalgam of a lot of archetypes, like [Inspector] Clouseau or Steve Martin in “The Jerk.” But he also has that thing that [Robert] Duvall’s character in “The Apostle” has: There’s a redemption thing. He f—s up then he tries to make up for it. He sells his soul a little bit. We needed to keep that real, otherwise I think we’d lose the audience.
Are you always consciously grounding your characters in reality even when you’re playing broadly comedic characters?
I tend to like comedies that are grounded in reality, like “The Way, Way Back” or “Fargo.” Even “The Hangover” is grounded in some kind of reality. I like those comedies that have an emotional throughline. Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig’s relationship in “Bridesmaids” keeps that grounded in an emotional way. In “Meatballs” you’ve got the kid and Bill Murray. There’s a relationship there, but it’s also silly and funny.
Don is often the straight man surrounded by crazy characters.
I was very happy to be the straight man. I’m often the guy showing off in the background, like in “Galaxy Quest.” “Iron Man 2,” that was a flashy, comedic part. I’m happy to be the straight guy. I like playing that character; you have a moral foundation.