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Sam Rockwell Speaks With “Conviction”

Sam Rockwell Speaks With “Conviction” (photo)

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The new film “Conviction” tells one of those stories so incredible no screenwriter on their best day could invent it. After her brother Kenny went to prison for a murder he didn’t commit, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank) devoted almost two decades of her life to freeing him. She earned her GED, then a college degree, then a law degree, so she could represent him in court when no one else would. In other words, “Conviction” is one of those movies that’s “based on true events,” a phrase that made Sam Rockwell, who plays Kenny, chuckle when it came up during our conversation. Why? “When my girlfriend sees horror movies that say ‘Based on true events,’ she always goes ‘Honey, it’s based on true events, I can’t see it!'”

Obviously the true events tag didn’t stop Rockwell from taking on this project, which is another in a series of interesting performances he’s given in recent films about fallen family men, including “Moon” and “Snow Angels.” I asked Rockwell why he’s drawn to these parts and to working with actors-turned-directors (like “Conviction” director Tony Goldwyn), and what he dances to when he’s got to pretend like he’s rocking out onscreen.

You don’t look the real Kenny Waters, right?

No.

He was a bigger man.

Yes. I only had three or four weeks to prepare, and there was just not enough time to get into that kind of shape. Otherwise it would have been a “Nutty Professor” thing — which I actually think Eddie Murphy should have gotten an Oscar for. I tried to lift a few weights, but it just didn’t take.

I ask because I was wondering if you prefer it that way because you don’t have a responsibility to look exactly like this guy. You can use your physicality to help express who this guy is.

It is nice. Tony [Goldwyn] and I did talk about shaving my head [like the real Kenny Waters]. But I was going to do “Iron Man 2” right after, and I had committed to “Iron Man” before this so I couldn’t shave my head. I bulked up a little for some of the scenes. But mainly I wanted the guy to look kind of sinewy as a young man and then we wanted to make him look bulky later. So we did some things with tightening my clothing and I pushed my belly out in a couple of the scenes. The makeup artist, Vivian Baker, was pretty amazing. With the budget she had, I think she did a pretty incredible job. We did some tricks with the hair, accentuating the receding hairline and all that stuff. But Vivian should get a lot of credit.

You’ve talked in the past about watching movies as part of your preparation for roles. What did you watch for this one? A lot of prison movies, I’m guessing.


Absolutely. I watched all that stuff. “The Hurricane,” “Dead Man Walking,” “American Me.” But I caution young actors against doing that too much because you don’t want to start mimicking other actors. You don’t want to be a carbon copy of a carbon copy. In acting terms, we talk in actions and verbs; what are you “doing” in this scene? Because you should always be active. That’s why they call it acting, not reacting. And I think when you’re watching movies you’re shopping for actions. And so you’re not necessarily mimicking the actor, you’re stealing actions, which is your arsenal in a scene.

There’s a theme that’s popped up repeatedly in your films lately, and it’s certainly present in “Conviction.” You keep playing men who are separated and isolated from their families. Is that something you’re actively trying to explore in your work? Were these just the best projects you were offered? Or do you make one and people see it and start saying “Hey, I think Sam Rockwell would be good for this role.”


[laughs] I think Tony and Hilary [Swank] mainly saw and responded to “Lawn Dogs,” another isolated dude I played. I guess I’m drawn to those parts, and they find me. They keep pulling me back in. I don’t know. I guess they remind me of some of the films that really made an impression on me as a kid and that I rewatched as adult later on. And I saw these films at a very young age, which may say something about me. “Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Alien,” “Blue Collar,” “Badlands,” “The Last Detail,” “Midnight Cowboy.” These films had a big effect on me. I’m sort of a film geek for all the films of the 1970s. I still maintain that was the best decade of American film.

You’re working with an actor turned director here, in Tony Goldwyn. That’s also something you’ve done quite a lot lately.


Yeah.

Do you seek out those collaborations with actor/directors?

Yeah, I guess I do…Clark [Gregg, director of “Choke”], Tony…

Jon Favreau, twice [on “Iron Man 2” and the upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens”]. Some guy named George Clooney who’s done a couple projects [like “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”].


Yeah, that dude. A lot of good looking funny guys. And they’re all very compassionate toward the actor’s process. Including the “movie star” George Clooney, because he struggled a lot as a young actor. He had a lot of lean years before he became “George Clooney.” That builds character, I think. And Tony’s the same way.

WARNING: The next question contains spoilers about what happened to the real Kenny after the events of the film.

Reading the press notes after watching the film I was sort of devastated to learn that the real Kenny passed away six months after his release from prison. Was there ever a discussion about putting that into the actual film?

It was a discussion. They played around with putting it in the end text crawl. I think they were testing it, and people loved the movie but when they saw that they would be completely devastated. And it wasn’t really what the movie was about. Not to be corny, but the movie’s about the transcendent power of love. It’s about this relationship between these two people and it’s about his freedom. So that was just not punctuating the film in the way that they wanted. Tony struggled with that decision a lot.

You have a terrific scene at the beginning of the movie in a bar where you get into a fight with a guy and then you do this crazy dance and striptease to “My Sharona.” How much of that is the script and how much of that is you creating that on the set?

The script by Pam [Gray] was really solid. And all the dialogue was verbatim. The only thing I maybe ad-libbed was [in a Boston accent] “Now it’s a pahty!” or something like that. And I wanted to have those sunglasses because I felt that would make it more playful in a realistic way.

When you’re doing a scene like that, what’s the set like? Do they play “My Sharona?” Or any music at all?

I had them play James Brown, and I had them play a song from “Mean Streets. And I actually was copying De Niro a little. It’s after he shoots the guy at the end of the movie, and there’s this song playing in the car, “Mickey’s Monkey” by The Miracles. And so I was clinging to that image, and I copied a little bit of that. And I did a lot of fancy dancing that thank God they cut because it just wasn’t realistic.

I went to see “A Behanding in Spokane,” on Broadway in which you starred opposite Christopher Walken. Is it fun or terrifying to have to act opposite that guy on stage?

[The publicist enters the room to tell us our time’s up.]

Yeah, yeah, I’ll just say he’s brilliant and he likes surprises and he loves to play. And I love to play too. We had a blast.

Do you have any good Walken stories from the experience?



I do, but we’d be here for like five days.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.