HOLLYWOOD — “Boy, you’re bringing back an experience where I got fed up and pretty tired of myself!” exclaims Sam Rockwell on the topic of the sci-fi cult film “Moon,” which he dominates more than any other single actor has done in a movie for years.
“The funny thing is, when all that (experience) was over, I was glad to see the back of me, as it were. I really wanted to go back to being just one actor out of a whole bunch of actors. But now, time has passed and, well, if someone sent me a great script about identical twins, I wouldn’t automatically say no.
“That’s how life is: you get tired of something and swear off it, but then eventually you miss it and you’re ready to sort of repeat the whole situation.”
In “Moon,” Rockwell’s only costar to speak of is the unseen Kevin Spacey, as the voice of a robot named GERTY, who was inspired to some extent by H.A.L. in the 1960s sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut working on the Moon, as well as what Sam thinks is a clone of himself. A few other faces pass fleetingly through the movie, which ultimately exposes corporate greed and duplicity and offers more than one surprise for viewers.
Technologically, “Moon” is more complex than past films in which an actor portrayed identical twins. Those usually featured a few scenes in which the “two” appear together — sometimes crossing past each other, or one lighting the other’s cigarette. But in “Moon,” Sam and the lookalike are together often and engage in a fight scene in which “both” faces are displayed simultaneously rather than one featuring the typical back-of-the-head shot of a double while the star is seen frontally.
“That was done with inserts,” explains Rockwell. “When the other guy had me in a headlock, it was shot with another actor wearing a green head mask. Later I had to, like, act with just my head and mind. You know: I had to focus on my head and just move it as if it was in a headlock. Then later that got put into the shot, superimposed on the other actor’s green-covered head.
“All this was done on a $5 million budget, which — if you see the movie — you won’t believe, because it’s really well done.”
The film was directed by Duncan Jones, son of singer David Bowie (who starred in the ’70s cult sci-fi feature “The Man Who Fell to Earth”). Born Zowie Bowie (his dad’s real name is David Jones), he long admired Rockwell’s work and wanted him to star in his debut picture. Jones sent Rockwell a script, but he didn’t wish to play the character in it and passed on that project.
“Unfortunately, I can get a little bitchy,” admits Rockwell. “It’s in the nature of the business. It’s no kindergarten, and has some very shady characters — the real-life kind — in it. And Los Angeles, well, it’s a place I do not like — to put it mildly. But then, when I realize I’m being silly or bitchy, I think, ‘You know, this isn’t like a real job.’ And I’ve had enough of those — lots in restaurants — so I know how crummy those are. And there’s lots of restaurant jobs with even less dignity than a waiter. No, I do not like jobs. If you can make a living acting, you are damn lucky.”
Born in northern California’s Daly City in 1968 to actor parents who divorced when he was 5, Rockwell grew up with his father, mostly in San Francisco, but made his acting debut at age 10 with his mother. As early as high school, he appeared in an “indie” motion picture titled “Clownhouse” (1989). He played one of three brothers terrorized by escaped mental convicts disguised as clowns.
“Over the years,” he reflects, “I’ve gotten a lot of offbeat roles in regular projects or semiregular roles in offbeat projects. And of course offbeat characters in some pretty offbeat movies.
“But I learned early not to judge or categorize, which can make you unhappy or nuts. A comedy can be as good as a drama; an indie can make you as proud as a $100 million studio project. Mostly, if you have to judge, it’s on how you feel about the work you’ve done, and how the audience likes it and how long they . . . remember it . . . like, will they still be screening it in, say, 15 or 20 years?”
Rockwell has done considerable TV work, and although he was fired from NBC’s “Dream Street” series in 1989, it was a 1994 TV ad — for Miller Ice beer — that allowed him to give up those unpleasant jobs and concentrate on acting. From then on he was able to work primarily on the big screen, appeared in several films, and was widely noticed in the 1997 critical hit “Lawn Dogs.”
“I just move along, I do one thing after another and hope I enjoy it and give a worthy sort of performance. But I still get surprised at some of the parts I am offered. Like, I’m an urban guy, always lived in cities, but just try and add up all the hicks and country yokels I’ve played — it’s ridiculous. And outcasts, of course. Lots of outcasts!”
Rockwell notes in passing that he and Jones — who devised the story for “Moon,” but not the screenplay (by Nathan Parker) — bonded and intend to work together again. “Duncan’s an only child, and so am I, and that just means we have certain memories and attitudes and experiences that non-onlys don’t.”
“No, really, it’s just of interest to only children.”
But doesn’t Jones have a half-sister via Bowie’s current wife, ex-model Iman? “Yeah, but she came along way later.”
Before the filming of “Moon” in England (using convincing miniatures for the lunar surface and machines thereon), Jones was concerned that Rockwell, known for his fondness for improvisation, might ignore the script and adapt many of his lines.
“Duncan took me aside and explained why it was important to pretty much stick to the written lines,” states Rockwell. “It’s a technical kind of movie, and actors have to be flexible. But it’s an interesting and exploratory kind of flexibility, not like in regular jobs where being flexible just means having to get used to whatever crap the job or the boss throws at you.”
In “Moon,” GERTY the robot sports a round-face sticker that frequently changes expression but usually features the “smiley face” that may give viewers a sinister impression. Says Rockwell, “As with any mechanical or robotic being in this sort of movie, you don’t know how much, shall we say, ‘soul’ it has.
Does the fact that the male-voiced robot has a female name reflect on Spacey’s sexuality?
Rockwell laughs. “Well, that you’d have to ask whoever named GERTY. But I do think it was a great choice, having Kevin voice her or him . . . or whatever. His voice has always had that sort of ambiguity to it and a quality of, like, sarcasm and even implied menace. And yet, sometimes, a warmth.”
In “Moon” it turns out that the corporation for whom Sam works on a three-year contract (the lifespan of a clone) helping mine Helium 3, a fuel source for a petroleum-depleted Earth, is using clones to keep costs down.
“Yeah, the ethics and morals . . . they’re not there. It’s just the bottom line; it’s maximum profits, minimum expense — a very familiar ring to it, unfortunately.
“The company manipulates. Literally. They provide ‘edited memories’ so the clone thinks he’s a human. His wife and little girl? Memories. Someone else’s. When he thinks that three-year stretch is over and he’s finally going home . . . well, the fuel corporation can’t let him go back — and back to what? How long ago were those memories? It really is sort of an interesting movie, it provides food for thought, and that’s not surprising when you find out Duncan got a degree in philosophy.
“He’s very much his own man. If you thought, ‘Well, what’s the son of David Bowie going to be like? Is he freaky?’ . . . after you meet him and talk to him, you forget about parentage and just settle into the mind of this guy. He’d have made it with or without any famous dad. And that’s the healthiest thing, believe me. I’ve seen kids from famous parents, and eventually — except in a few cases — it tells. You know? Without going into any sad details.
“Like, look at me: I’m not known as Peter Rockwell’s son. And that’s how it should be.” Unusually, and though Rockwell is averse to discussing his private life — seldom mentioning a girlfriend, except in passing — he’s made it clear he doesn’t want to have children. “If that’s a controversial thing to say, then it doesn’t stem from me; it’s from the people who choose to make it a controversial statement or decision.”
In “Moon,” Rockwell often looks lousy as Sam but better-looking as his clone (or fellow clone). Viewing the film, how did he react to seeing so much of himself?
“One thing, and it’s why I prefer theater even though I’m mostly doing screen acting, is that in films there is so damn much emphasis on how you look. It’s a big chunk of the performance, in a way, or the concerns of the actor and everyone around him. In theater, you’re farther away from the audience, looks don’t come first or second, and you get to use your whole range of talent.
“But the other thing is that everyone has a self-image. No matter how you look, you think you look different from what people think. You think you’re a bit like Cary Grant, and then you see yourself up on the big screen. No Cary Grant, not at all. Or you think, well, a little bit like George Clooney. Then you see your face, how you move, the whole package, and no, no George Clooney. It kind of brings you down, at least temporarily.”
When Rockwell is told that he sometimes resembles a scruffier version of Tom Cruise, he laughs. Then he notes, “I can live with that! Scruffy, yeah. When there’s no bruises and my hair looks good, I guess there is a kind of Cruise-ish resemblance there. Yeah. Why not?”