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Playback: Sam Rockwell on ‘Three Billboards’ and Tackling George W. Bush

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

Sam Rockwell has been on the brink of serious awards attention for a while now. He came close to Oscar recognition with his tour-de-force performance in Duncan Jones’ “Moon,” but his work as a racist Missouri law enforcement officer in Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is perhaps his best work to date, carved with complexity and grace. It might finally be hi ticket to the dance.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

Rockwell has worked from a McDonagh script three times now, having previously starred in the director’s “Seven Psychopaths” and his play “A Behanding in Spokane.” He relishes the collaboration, particularly for McDonagh’s capabilities on the page.

“[The characters are] very detailed and defined,” Rockwell says. “The dialogue is all there. The dialogue is amazing, like a Tarantino script. But also there’s room to play and interpret. It seems like all of [his] characters I’ve played — Mervyn in ‘A Behanding in Spokane,’ Billy in ‘Psychos’ and Dixon in ‘Three Billboards’ — are all derivative of Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’ or something, or Eric Roberts in ‘Star 80.’ There’s a kind of loneliness to all these guys.”

For years Rockwell was a stand-out character actor in films like “The Green Mile,” “Heist” and “Galaxy Quest.” He landed a few leads on the indie circuit, but his starring performance as “Gong Show” host Chuck Barris in George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” really took things to the next level for him in 2002.

“Without Clooney and [producer Steven] Soderbergh I wouldn’t have gotten that job,” Rockwell recalls. “The generosity of those guys — they both fought for me. It was an old-fashioned screen test with real film, dollies and tracks. I had like a week to prepare. I watched a bunch of ‘Gong Shows.’ I miss Chuck. I liked Chuck.”

Lately the actor has been gearing up to star as George W. Bush in Adam McKay’s new film, which also features Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. In fact he’s off to a wardrobe fitting session after our chat, but to say the least, it’s quite a role and he’s trying to have fun with it.

“In watching George W. Bush constantly and listening to him for the last couple of months, I find him to be actually a very charming guy,” Rockwell says. “Obviously nowadays he seems even more charming, but yeah, I’m having a good time doing the research.”

For more, including thoughts on the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and some reminiscing about that “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” gig, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Oh! And stick around after the interview for some shop talk with Variety Deputy Awards and Features Editor Jenelle Riley. The Oscar season is in full swing and it’s pretty unusual from the outset. Films like “Dunkirk,” “Darkest Hour” and, indeed, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” all look to figure prominently throughout.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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