Rockwell Is a Craftsman in Any Genre

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To the casual moviegoer, it may come as a surprise that William "Wild Bill" Wharton, the unnerving, psychotic convict in "The Green Mile," and Guy Fleegman, the faux slickster convention host/bit player in "Galaxy Quest," are both portrayed by the same actor: Sam Rockwell.

After all, there could hardly be more difference between smirking Wild Bill, a coldblooded killer with the violent manic energy of three men, and dimwitted Fleegman, the tag-along hapless TV actor whose minor role on the fictional "GalaxyQuest" series is one of the film'srunning jokes.

Not that it would necessarily take a film buff to know it's the same person--Rockwell has made a lasting impression in a number of independent films over the last 10 years, among them "Box of Moonlight," "Safe Men" and "Lawn Dogs." But being a buff can't hurt when it comes to understanding the actor--who himself possesses an extensive knowledge of movies--and his motivations.

Rockwell will tell you that inspiration for the two very disparate roles came from some very unlikely sources.

"Muhammad Ali was a big influence [for Wild Bill]," he said in an interview recently at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, explaining that he drew on "the bravado that the young Cassius Clay had" by incorporating the boxing great's fleet-footed moves and cocky, baiting attitude into the menacing Appalachian prisoner character of the 1930s.

And, he added, Michael Keaton's frenetic, all-stops-out performance in "Beetlejuice" was a motivating influence as well.

As for "Galaxy Quest's" out-there yet affable Guy Fleegman, he explained, "That part is kind of an homage to Bill Paxton in 'Aliens.' I definitely stole some moves from my buddy [actor] Steve Zahn, and Bill Murray's lounge singer character from 'Saturday Night Live' is in there somewhere. Plus a little Michael Keaton in 'Night Shift' and definitely some Richard Pryor. I get a lot from Richard Pryor actually. How agile he is, vulnerable."

That one picture is a far-out comedy and the other an intense drama is neither here nor there for Rockwell. Jumping the chasm between comedy and drama isn't new to the 31-year-old New Yorker, who grew up in San Francisco and made his stage debut at 10, when he performed with his actress mother in a play in New York.

"I've done a little bit of both comedy and drama. I've always loved comedy," the actor said. "I really believe that people like Bill Murray or John Belushi are just as great and just as valid as Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. And I don't think you can say 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is a better movie than 'Animal House'; they're different genres. I think they're both examples of great craftsmanship."

Although Rockwell exhibits an innate ability for playing comedy--even his frightening Wild Bill interpretation has a bit of a comic element, though not an inappropriate one--he doesn't want to be pigeonholed as a comic actor.

"I really can't see just doing comedy; I'm just too sedate a person," he explained. "I have a constant sort of melancholy approach to acting that fuels me. I want to do everything."

Born in New York to stage actor parents, Rockwell, an only child, lived there until he was 5, when his parents separated. He then moved to San Francisco with his father, spending a month each summer with his mother back in New York. He attended San Francisco's High School for the Performing Arts, and during his senior year was encouraged to pursue an acting career after being cast in the 1988 horror film "Clownhouse."

"When I got out of high school I went back to New York and I lived with my mom for a year, then I went out on my own, going from sublet to sublet and job to job," he said.

In his typical actor's existence in New York, he said, "I was making a living doing commercials, then I'd run out of money and do a restaurant job."

Good fortune struck when he was cast in the pilot for the short-lived 1989 NBC drama "Dream Street," which he described as a "Jersey 'twentysomething' from the makers of 'thirtysomething.' " But it wasn't to last--he was fired from the role by the network right after the pilot.

"They replaced me, reshot all my scenes, and the series got picked up for midseason replacement," Rockwell recalled. "I was the young stud kid--the 'Teen Beat' part. I was 18 or 19, and I wasn't quite hunky enough. I was just a kid; that was 12 years ago."

Ironically, "After I got fired, the writer-producer wrote a part for me as the best friend of the character that I used to play. So I was acting with the guy who replaced me. Very odd."

While he landed a role in 1989's "Last Exit to Brooklyn," there were big disappointments too: He failed to get roles he was up for in what were to become two big hits, "Dead Poets Society" and "Unforgiven."

Among his other roles was an outsider redneck type who befriends the 10-year-old child of upwardly mobile parents in "Lawn Dogs," a 1998 dramedy. '

'Raging Bull' Influenced His Italian Period

He recalled a period when he was 18 "where I watched 'Raging Bull' like 50 times. I wanted to be Italian. For a year I was Italian; that's all I did. I could do all that New York street stuff to the point where I would get feedback from my auditions, 'He's too New York, he's too urban.' And I was from San Francisco, really."

But his favorite film role was in "Safe Men," the quirky 1998 comedy in which he co-starred with friend Steve Zahn as talentless singers-cum-bumbling-safecrackers. "I have a special place in my heart for 'Safe Men.' That character's probably more like the real me, more of a sort of self-deprecating, fragile person, actually. It was a sweet little movie, and not too many people saw it."

When it came to his role as Wild Bill in "The Green Mile," Rockwell said he was concerned that he would not be convincing as a deranged convict. "I'm not a big guy. I'm 5-9, I'm average height," he said. "I'm not a tough guy. So I asked correctional officers about tough guys in prison, and I learned a lot of the tough guys in prison are not big guys. In fact, they're agile and they're small. But because they have been picked on, they are the most resilient sometimes. They've had to prove themselves.

"Wild Bill is the kind of guy that's been damaged so much you can't do anything to him that hasn't already been done," the actor explained. "That is what makes him tough." "

Rockwell said he did not fully grasp the ugliness of his character until he read the Stephen King novel on which the film is based.

"I realized there was more to it. There were descriptions in the book like 'cyclone,' 'tornado,' 'pus-ball,' and it described these blackened teeth and zits on his [butt]. Little things you just can't get from the script."

Working with accomplished actors also helped him rise to the occasion, Rockwell said. "You're talking about a lot of stage actors: David Morris, Jeffrey DeMunn, James Cromwell, Michael Jeter, Doug Hutchison, Patricia Clarkson and Tom Hanks, who has done a lot of theater--a lot of people don't know that. What that brings to the table is people who know how to do homework, which a lot of actors who haven't worked in theater don't know how to do."

He said the same was true for "Galaxy Quest." "Tim Allen has stand-up experience--don't think that's not stage experience. That's serious. And Sigourney Weaver. Alan Rickman, of course, has done 'Hamlet.' And I saw Tony Shalhoub in 'Waiting for Godot.' "

Next up for Rockwell is "Charlie's Angels," in which he'll play Drew Barrymore's love interest. Rehearsals begin in January.

For now, Rockwell, who is single, has no plans to move westward. "I'm footloose and fancy-free, hanging out and seeing where the wind blows me. I think I'll save my money and buy something in New York," he explained, adding, "You always end up there anyway."

Not surprisingly, there's more than one side to the current cinema's toughest sociopath, the self-described sometimes-fragile man who takes comedy and drama in equal measure.

"I think there's a lot of comedy in drama--Robert Duvall, he's always using comedy in his performances, playing against things. He's got a death scene in 'Geronimo' that's beautifully played, he kind of laughs everything off," said Rockwell, pulling once more from his impressive knowledge of films.

And the drama in comedy is not lost on him either.

"You know, I just watched Bill Murray in 'Scrooged' on the plane and the scene at the end, where he's de-Scrooged and sees the light, made me cry. When the stewardess came up to me and said, 'It's time to take the tapes now,' I tried to hide the fact that I was crying. I was embarrassed."

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