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Sam Rockwell on doing serious comedy and learning to lasso

The acclaimed and versatile actor talks about "Don Verdean" and liking his comedies to be grounded.

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.

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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.

You’ve often played fast-talking, energetic characters. But Don is very tired. Is playing someone that tired actually, weirdly physically draining?

You know what was physically draining? There was a lot of dialogue. There was a lot of exposition about religious artifacts and New Testament stuff. I had to go research that. It was a lot of dialogue to memorize, and not a lot of time to get ready. I usually like to be off-book by the first day of shooting, and I wasn’t able to do that on this one, not completely. That was taxing. He talks a lot.

Speaking of research, you once talked about doing a lot of it for “Snow Angels,” in which you played someone who was born-again. How much did that help with this?

I met a Jesuit priest, Jim Martin, when I did “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” I played Judas. It was a play at the Public Theater that Phil [Seymour] Hoffman directed [in 2005]. Eric Bogosian was in it. I initially met Jim on that, and he gave me a New Testament tutorial, because I wasn’t raised religious. For “Snow Angels” I went to services with him, and that research wound up helping with Don, too.

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One perk of being an actor, I imagine, is getting to do deep dive research on subjects you probably know little or nothing about.

It’s amazing. I’ve been lassoing for a year. I’ve been hanging out with cowboys for this play [ “Fool for Love”]. I’ve become obsessed with lassoing. I’ve got 14 lassos. I’ve broken a million lights in my apartment. I’ve broken a couple picture frames. I’m lassoing in the park, lassoing trashcans. You learn how to do some cool s—t, you know?

This is your second film with Jared Hess, after “Gentlemen Broncos.” What is it about him that keeps you coming back?

Jared is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Him and Jerusha, his wife [and the film’s co-writer], they’re of this new generation of Mormons. They’re modern Mormons. They’re artsy and hip. And yet he doesn’t swear. He makes an art form of not swearing — “dang that” and “fudge” that. He speaks softly and he carries a bit stick. He knows what he wants, but he’s really nice about how he get it from you. He’s not going to settle. He’s kind of a gentle badass.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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