It's not as if Sam Rockwell wasn't prepared. He had read game-show icon Chuck Barris' "unauthorized autobiography," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind." He had gone over the script for the movie based on it a million times, it seemed. He watched old "Gong Show" tapes, including rehearsal tapes, to hone Barris' Philly accent and alternately authoritative and nebbishy mannerisms. Still, when it came time to shoot, the pressure was nerve-racking, Rockwell says. "It's one thing to do 'Hamlet' in your garage, and another thing to do it on Broadway," he says.
Playing Barris -- the violent, lewd and strangely likable "Gong Show" host who claims he assassinated 33 people for the CIA -- is the highest-profile role of his low-profile career. Hollywood has been talking about the movie, scripted by screenwriter-of-the-hour Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation"), for at least four years. Megastar George Clooney was directing for the first time. Nearly a dozen bigger-name stars, from Johnny Depp to Sean Penn to Mike Myers, wanted the chance to play Barris.
Now it appears that "Confessions" could be a career watershed for Rockwell, 34, known to friends as the archetypal "actor's actor." Trained in theater and in stand-up comedy, he lives in New York and, friends joke, spends more money on therapy than on rent.
Even after 14 years in the business, Rockwell recently won Movieline's Breakthrough Award for a "career launching" performance. He has even landed on some long lists of Oscar hopefuls.
Barely known outside Hollywood, Rockwell is familiar to many producers, directors and other actors for his believable eccentrics in small independent films: the free-spirited backwoodsman in "Box of Moonlight" (1996), the trailer-trash exhibitionist in "Lawn Dogs" (1997) and the inept safecracker in "Safe Men" (1998). In the last three years, mainstream audiences have begun to recognize his small, scene-stealing parts in big studio films: a psychopathic prisoner, cowardly nerd and evil con man in, respectively, "The Green Mile" (1999), "Galaxy Quest" (1999) and "Charlie's Angels" (2000).
"No one can deny he's a major talent," says casting director Deborah Zane, who directed producers of "Galaxy Quest" to Rockwell. "I put him on any list I can. The main thing is that his acting is so seamless. It's hard to catch him acting, whether he's playing a dope, an idiot, someone terrified or charming." As a stage-trained actor and comic, he is also highly disciplined, says director Ridley Scott, who cast Rockwell in "Matchstick Men" (to be released next year) as a protege of con man Nicolas Cage. "He comes prepared, like an athlete."
The only problem is that he's been an unproven commodity as the lead in a big-budget film, and Zane says "studios still tend to get hung up on the box office." In the case of "Confessions," Clooney held out for Rockwell, with whom he had worked in this year's disappointing "Welcome to Collingwood."
Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein "didn't want someone who's not well-known in the lead in a $30-million film," Clooney says. Part of the deal was that Rockwell be backed up with more bankable actors Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore, who play his love interests. Clooney himself had already signed on to play a CIA agent.
By studying old "Gong Show" tapes and talking with Barris, who consulted on the set, Rockwell mastered every detail of Barris' mannerisms -- the hand clapping, the head tousling, the squinting at the cue cards and the high, raspy voice. Barris, Rockwell says, had stage fright and psychosomatic asthma when he hosted "The Gong Show." He squinted at the cards because he'd forget his glasses.
Early this month, when director Mike Nichols hosted a New York screening, Weinstein witnessed firsthand the audience's enthusiastic response. "He said, 'Tell Sam to put a suit on,' " as Clooney puts it. "He [Weinstein] went into sell mode."
A wiry 5-foot-9, Rockwell is cleanshaven, tousled and a little lost in his roomy suit. He has a winning, streetwise smile and a take-it-easy attitude toward those who want to call him a rising star.
He is grateful to Clooney for having the faith in his talent to fight for him. "It's rare that somebody goes to bat for you in that way. It's a very courageous thing, and in this business, it's really rare. I could almost use the word 'noble.' "
For his part, Clooney says, "I had the right actor in the right role." Rockwell, he says, "looks exactly like Chuck, which helps. He's the right age. Just simply, he's one of those actors all actors know about and like. He steals movies."
Eventually, Rockwell won over even Barris, who had initially pushed for Robert Downey Jr., Edward Norton or Depp to play him in the film. Barris, now 73 and living in New York, says he was astounded by Rockwell's performance. "At the end of the movie when he portrays me having a quasi-nervous breakdown on the set [of 'The Gong Show'], it was stunning," he says. "I could feel that same feeling I had."
Toughest playing himself
"Oh, the scary part," says Rockwell, having just been warned that the conversation is about to turn personal.
He already felt the surprise of media exposure in 1996 after the indie success of "Box of Moonlight." Rockwell now regrets some things he said to the press then, like naming starlets he might want to date and not clarifying his upbringing -- a bicoastal custody arrangement between his remarried father in San Francisco and his bohemian actress mother in New York. He compares his relationship with his mother to the one "that Cher has in 'Mask' with her kid, Eric Stolz." When he visited in the summer as a 10-year-old, they smoked pot together and he acted in her company, "Joan Crawford's Children," on the Lower East Side.
"Smoking dope and being treated as an adult is good and bad," he says. "Bad in that boundaries are crossed and there's nothing to rebel against. Good in a 'Confederacy of Dunces' kind of way. It prepared me."
Besides, he adds, "I'm talking about a sip of Budweiser. A hit of a joint. I wouldn't go crazy with that one."
His friend Leif Tilden says Rockwell's charisma was apparent 12 years ago when they first met as actors on the set of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," in which Rockwell played the head thug.
Rockwell frustrates girls who are attracted to him, Tilden says. "He's still working on himself. He's not ready." The only character Rockwell doesn't have a grasp of is himself, Tilden says.
Despite his anxieties, Rockwell says he can be confident when necessary. When he interviewed for the role of junior con man Jimmy Silk in last year's "Heist," he says director David Mamet told him he needed a guy who could steal a girl from Gene Hackman. "I said, 'I can do that!' I was terrified. I didn't know if I could do it. The character's cocky, so I had to be sort of cocky to get the job."
One thing Rockwell has learned, he says, is that an actor can't care too much during an audition. "That will kill you. They smell it on you. They smell desperation," Rockwell says. He believes acting is a science, but one in which the unconscious does the homework. Done properly, dancing, he says, is one way to unleash impulse and spontaneity and let them rule. To calm himself on the set of "Confessions," he brought a boombox to the set, turned on James Brown and danced before takes. He did some clogging on the set of "The Green Mile"; under a shaded canopy amid the lunchers and waiters, Rockwell stands up in his suit and pointy shoes and demonstrates.
Rockwell knows he's not a star yet, but he's already thinking about how he'll deal with the rest of his allotted 15 minutes. All sorts of scripts are coming to him now -- many, he says bemusedly, that cast him in ethnic roles. What he wants are the sort of leading-man roles that Clooney gets.
He knows his unconventional Irish-German good looks aren't traditional matinee star like Clooney's, and he says, "I don't think I will ever be as famous as George. I don't think I have that quality. In a more offbeat way, I could be like the more unconventional leading men of the '70s." He ticks off his favorites: Dustin Hoffman, Hackman, Jon Voight, Jeff Bridges, and newer stars he compares himself with: Kevin Spacey, Ben Stiller, Billy Crudup, Steve Zahn.
He knows he's ready to move on from comedy, he says. "I'm looking more for something like 'Taxi Driver.' "