Movie Stars Who Meisner: Sam Rockwell
Movie Stars Who Meisner: Sam Rockwell
People talk about the importance of training all day long but how much of that translates to performances on the big screen?
Sam Rockwell plays real-estate lawyer Watson Bryant in Richard Jewell, which came out in UK cinemas on 31 January. Clint Eastwood's new film is closely based on a true story as reported in Marie Brenner's longform journalism article AMERICAN NIGHTMARE:The Ballad of Richard Jewell , published in 1997 in Vanity Fair. The story goes like this: Security guard and law & order junkie, Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovers a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. He is hailed as a national hero, but this status is destroyed a few days later after it is leaked that he is the FBI's prime suspect for planting the bomb.
The lives of he and his mother Bobi (Kathy Bates) are railroaded by the media circus camped outside her apartment as the FBI, spearheaded by a perfectly hate-able Jon Hamm, hound him, violating his First Amendment rights. Charging in, like the one-man cavalry, is Watson Bryant who took a shine to Jewell a decade earlier, and now fights his corner tooth and nail.
Sam Rockwell, who hails from California and is 52, is a joy to behold as the straight man in a odd-couple scenario. His role as a righteous and wry man of the law requires him to listen, react and serve as the middle-man between Jewell and the audience, something he does with infinite empathy, yet also a hot-headed sense of the injustices playing out. This is how Brenner describes Bryant, who has no credentials, as a real-estate lawyer, to fight a huge terrorism case: “His only asset was his personality; he had the bravado and profane hyperbole of a southern rich boy” and “Bryant had a stern demeanour lightened by a contrarian's sense of the absurd.”
Rockwell has clearly devoured this biographical information, yet plays his student’s knowledge lightly, with spontaneous ease. He spent time with the real Watson Bryant who told The Hollywood Reporter: “He would observe me and have me read lines from the script. But I can't do what he does. Each individual hair on his head is acting when he's doing something.”
In a short profile for The Talks in 2015, interviewer Johnny Adams asked Sam Rockwell:
Mr. Rockwell, what was the smartest thing that you did in your career?
“It was probably studying acting with William Esper. I did that for two years when I was 24 years old in ’91. I was in desperate need of training and I had done theater, but I needed some training. I studied Meisner for two years and then I met my acting coach there, Terry Knickerbocker. I still coach with Terry. It’s been a huge thing for me.”
Esper worked and studied with Sanford Meisner subsequently founding a school in New York based on his principles.
You can see evidence of Meisner values in every little thing that Rockwell says and does. He is one of contemporary cinema's most under-rated actors, because his craft is rooted in having a natural presence. He generates a consistent pitch of life-force conveyed in small gestures, even when he plays loud or downright fascistic characters, as he has done more often than is prudent of late. He has a quiet swagger. He'll never blast you to the back of the room with a great roar of acting.
If you want to see him on the small screen in your home, there's a cure for that. Rockwell won a SAG award this year for playing Bob Fosse in the eight-part TV series Fosse/Verdon. The American choreographer and director of the likes of Cabaret and All That Jazz, was an incurable womaniser, who left a trail of casualties in his wake. Working opposite Michelle Williams who plays Fosse’s wife, creative partner and Tony-award-winning performer in her own right, Gwen Verdon, Rockwell plays this clichéd weakness for infidelity with such freshness that it feels like a brand new problem. He owns everything his character does with not a trace of theatricality. It's only when Williams shows her devastation that you see the remorse in his eyes. All the drama stems from their relationship.
Fosse/Verdon is available to stream - free to TV License-payers - on BBC iPlayer.