It's Fun to Play Anarchists

Sam Rockwell plays one of seven psychopaths in the new movie aptly titled “Seven Psychopaths.” He sat down with Martin Eiermann to discuss renegade characters, small acts of heroism, and his favorite stereotypes.

The European: What’s more fun? Playing a likeable guy or a psychopath? Or a likable psychopath?
Rockwell: It’s fun to play a guy who breaks the rules. It’s fun to play anarchists, regardless of whether they’re likable or not. It’s good to make your characters appealing only because you want to draw the audience in and bring them on this journey where they follow the character. But they don’t have to be likable to do that.

The European: Why is it fun to play anarchists?
Rockwell: I guess that’s where the interesting stories are. People love outlaws, you can’t explain that stuff. Everyone wants to be a rule-breaker. I don’t know whether that’s always helping our society, but guys find that appealing. Young men especially.

The European: There’s something about characters who are not only bad people doing bad things but who seem almost supernaturally evil. Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” for example.
Rockwell: It’s a very primal thing, a caveman thing. People respond to testosterone on some levels. That’s also why James Bond is such a fucking rockstar. Especially Daniel Craig’s character.

The European: Is he the greatest James Bond of all time?
Rockwell: I think Daniel Craig and Sean Connery are probably the two best. Craig is pretty fucking great.

The European: His James Bond is very visceral.
Rockwell: Exactly. He’s very visceral and very butch.

The European: Have you got a favorite movie psychopath?
Rockwell: I like Hannibal Lecter. Christopher Walken in “True Romance” was a good one. He’s done a few good psychopaths. Gary Oldman has done a few as well. Robert De Niro and Robert Mitchum were good in “Cape Fear.” Mitchum was good in “Night of the Hunter,” too. Kathy Bates was in “Misery,” she’s probably one of the best.

The European: Does it make a difference whether the psychopath is male or female?
Rockwell: Kathy Bates was pretty fucking freaky. She kinda freaked me out. Hell has no fury like a woman scorned, as they say.

The European: You’ve done a few dark comedies or dark satires: “Choke,” “Moon,” and now “Seven Psychopaths”…
Rockwell: It’s really fun to do those movies. “Choke” had a really sardonic tone, that was a lot of fun. That’s another great misanthrope and rebel character that I’ve played. A bit of a “fuck you” attitude towards society.

The European: A few of your movies have been somewhat quirky and have built a bit of a cult following. Is that by accident or almost by design?
Rockwell: It just happened. You’re always aiming for the stars as an actor, and you’re always looking for critical and commercial success. But you don’t know whether it will happen or when it will happen. You can’t explain that stuff. I’ve been in very commercial movies like Iron Man 2 or Charlie’s Angels, and then I’ve also been in tiny movies that I am very proud of: Snow Angels or Joshua, for example.

The European: Chris Walken is famous for saying that he rarely turns down a script. Are you a picky actor?
Rockwell: You try to be selective, but eventually you just have to go to work. Sometimes you do things you’re scared of – I was scared of “Moon,” for example, and it turned out great. You just get lucky sometimes.

The European: Apparently the tendency to yawn in social settings is correlated with empathy, which is negatively correlated with psychopathy. Are you a big yawner?
Rockwell: Is that right? I yawn a lot when I am tired and when I try to get more oxygen. I don’t breathe enough. But these scientists think that if you’re not a big yawner, you’re a psychopath?

The European: It goes back to the caveman thing. Yawning had a social component: when the tribe’s elder yawned, everyone knew it was time for bed and started yawning as well. And if you’re not picking up on those social cues, that might be a sign that you should see a psychologist.
Rockwell: And if you’re yawning, you should probably think about getting more oxygen as well. Yawning is good, there’s nothing bad about it.

The European: Do you think there’s a little psychopath in each of us, a basic tendency to be evil and do evil?
Rockwell: We can all snap. When it’s raining and people have umbrellas, sometimes they don’t tip them when they’re passing other people. There’s a certain level of narcissism: it’s so easy to raise the umbrella or tilt it so you don’t hit other people in the head, it’s common courtesy. If you’re tired, something like that could send you over the edge and make you want to beat the living hell out of someone. In LA it’s called “road rage.” Anyone of us could have a psychopathic moment or could at least want to have that kind of moment.

The European: Do you expect the best of people or the worst?
Rockwell: A mixture. People are good but selfish. We’re empathic but we’re also concerned with survival. That’s a natural instinct. So when you see a heroic act, it’s an extraordinary thing. A selfless act is a small miracle because it’s not our natural instinct to be heroic.

The European: Anyone comes to mind in particular?
Rockwell: The pilot who landed the plane in the Hudson River or the guy who jumped onto the subway tracks to pull someone out of there. Remember that? He was a regular guy and didn’t think twice about pulling someone off the tracks. He could have gotten himself killed. You hear about that and think: “Wow.” I’ve had moments where I surprised myself and did something for others, and I’ve also had moments when I’ve been pretty selfish and haven’t done the right thing.

The European: Give me an example of Sam Rockwell’s heroism.
Rockwell: I helped an old lady across the street the other week. I wasn’t trying to be nice, she was just there and needed someone to help her and I happened to be there. It was the natural thing to do. And then there are moments when I don’t have time for that shit. It depends where you are. Do you hold the elevator door for someone or do you let it close? I’ve done it both.

The European: There’s quite a bit of religious imagery in the movie and your characters deal with it very differently. Your character Billy is dismissive of it, but Chris Walken’s character is deeply moved by thoughts of the afterlife. Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Rockwell: Not really. I think the symbolism in the movie might come from Martin [McDonagh’s] Irish catholic guilt.

The European: I guess I hadn’t thought about psychopaths as religious people. But when you think about it, maybe you’re really looking for a higher authority to make sense of the fucked-upness of your existence here on earth.
Rockwell: Exactly. Or you’re thinking that you are the final authority. You see the characters dealing with religion very differently.

The European: There’s a line in the movie when your characters talk about the script that they are working on and someone says, “Man, there are so many layers in here.” We’ve got layer one: a dark comedy. What’s the next layer?
Rockwell: There’s a certain poignancy to the movie. People keep saying it’s “meta.” I don’t even know exactly what “meta” means. But there’s a certain philosophical nature to the movie. In one scene, we’re witnessing the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk that recreates the famous photograph from Vietnam. I think that’s a profound moment.

The European: It’s an image that most of us know very well.
Rockwell: Yes, we’re all familiar with it. And Martin has a lot of psychology behind it. The initial act of self-immolation is a violent one, but he takes it and turns it into a selfless act to protest violence. It’s coming out of great rage and anger towards the violence in the world. That’s a very interesting concept: to use your rage, turn it inside out and use it for something positive, for something that is so selfless and so horrible at the same time. And the fact that it really happened gives it more significance. It really fucks with your head, and it shows that Martin has a lot of depth.

The European: Harmony and the arts don’t always go well together. So many creative projects seem to spring from deep suffering or at least from very intense emotional reactions to the world. And I guess you don’t want that reaction to be just love, or else you’d spend all your time making romantic comedies.
Rockwell: That’s right. The Vulcans in the Star Trek universe aren’t known for great art, they’re all logic. I don’t know whether you can make art with just logic. You need some sort of utopian dream, just logic doesn’t work.

The European: There’s a scene in the movie where your character says: “The Spanish got their bullfighting, the French got their cheese, and the Irish got their alcoholism.” What have Americans got?
Rockwell: They have tolerance. That’s what it says in the movie.

The European: What do Germans have?
Rockwell: Good beer.

The European: Good bread.
Rockwell: Yeah.

The European: Women?
Rockwell: Oh yeah. Helga. Definitely great women. Really hot. Heidi Klum is German, right? She’s incredible. I met her in Berlin once.

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