'Three Billboards' Star Sam Rockwell on His Antihero Character, Friendship With Woody Harrelson and 'SNL' F-Bomb

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Still Sam Rockwell - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The Oscar-nominated actor calls writer-director Martin McDonagh "a bit of a genius," adding of their film: "It is sort of strange how timely the movie is."

The third time turned out to be the charm for Rockwell, who received his first Oscar nomination for his work on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, his third project with writer-director Martin McDonagh (after the Broadway play A Behanding in Spokane and 2012’s Seven Psychopaths). Rockwell, 49, who plays clueless, racist cop Jason Dixon, spoke to THR about his admiration of McDonagh, friendship with Woody Harrelson and that F-bomb on SNL.

How do you choose your projects? 

It's always initially an emotional response to the stuff. And then from there the material hits you or it doesn't. Then you see who you're working with. And that's it. But with Martin McDonagh, it is also about my relationship with him and just the fact that he's a bit of a genius. He is arguably one of the best writers on planet Earth right now, as far as I am concerned. And he has now become a pretty formidable director. He's made three really good movies, this one being his most ambitious as far as its appeal to more people, women being a prime demographic. He is hitting a chord here. It is sort of strange how timely the movie is. 

What made Jason Dixon special to you? 

He was just a great antihero. He starts out as kind of a goofball — you can't even really say he's an antagonist. He is more of goofball, comic relief as opposed to an antagonist, and then he becomes not so much of a protagonist, but rather an antihero of sorts. It's almost like the arc of a superhero or a supervillain; there's a form of that vigilantly kind of character. 

Did you pull from your life for the character?

I think the thing about acting is, on any given day, we are certain aspects of ourselves. One day, on your best day, you might be a hero. On your worst day, you might be a coward. If you're having a bad day, you might be a klutz. If you're having a good day, you might, dare I say, have finesse. That is what acting is to me — utilizing all the aspects of who we are as human beings and accentuating certain aspects for a character.

Are you and Woody Harrelson as close as it seems like you are when paling around at award shows?

Woody is a great guy. He is one of my favorite people. He is a very generous actor. We got pretty friendly when we did Seven Psychopaths [2012], and in that we had an antagonistic relationship. And then in Three Billboards, our relationship is completely different. We really like each other [in real life], so I think that carries over. 

When you hosted SNL, you joked that, as an actor, you are essentially "that guy in that thing you liked." Do you really see yourself in that light? 

It's a funny joke and there is some truth to it. I think of myself as a film nerd and people who are in the know about movies know who I am. And people in the Midwest, they don't know who I am. So, people in Colorado don't know who the fuck Sam Rockwell is (laughs), but we go from L.A. to New York and London to Paris. And they are in the know about independent movies. And that is my demographic, the independent film people. So I have always had a lot of respect from the film people. Not everyone goes to see Moon or Snow Angels.

Did Lorne Michaels give you a grumpy groan for accidently dropping the F-bomb on SNL?

No, he was surprisingly very cool about it. I guess it has happened before. I said I was really sorry and asked if he was able to bleep it out, which they could for the West Coast, but not New York. He said, 'Don't worry. It's not like your were planning to do that all week.' It was my first sketch ever on SNL. It was the first sketch up after monologue, and I was nervous and I was trying to look at the cue cards. And the scene demands that I become increasingly angrier at these kids, and it is a short scene, so it's a lot to ask to get to that point when you're like — it's what Will Farrell was so great at and what Chris Farley was so great at, that explosive anger. I wasn't quite able to get there as much as I would have liked and the F-bomb gave it a little spontaneity. (Laughs.

Do you have any interest in reprising Justin Hammer in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? 

Of course! I have some great buddies in that franchise. Jeremy Renner is a good friend of mine, and I am pals with Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo. Robert [Downey Jr.] is always fun. Would love to get me and Clark [Gregg] back in that franchise. That would be a lot of fun. 

Was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) your big break into film? 

Yes, that was one of them. Last Exit to Brooklyn [1989] was also one of the first, and I was on the TV show The Equalizer. [TMNT] is a good one to be a part of. I was 19 years old. I was working in restaurants, trying to put some food on the table. And they called me in and asked if I could audition for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And I said, "Teenage Mutant what? What the fuck is that?" I went in for "Head Thug." And I just saw him the other night, Skeet Ulrich, who played my second in command. And I met one of my best friends on that, Leif Tilden who was in the suit as Donatello. And then Josh Pais was one of the turtles and he was in Safe Men [1998] and he was also in Gentlemen Broncos [2009], so everything circles around. 

What are you most excited about when it comes to going to the Oscars?

I think it is just seeing all the fabulous, great actors, like Richard Jenkins, Willem Dafoe, Holly Hunter, Laurie Metcalf. I have had some good talks with Gary Oldman. I got to talk with Meryl Streep the other day. Just meeting those people is so thrilling and talking about acting and just stupid shit. 

A version of this story first appeared in a February standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.