Renee Zellweger and Sam Rockwell on How Bob Fosse Changed Their Lives

Renée Zellweger and Sam Rockwell sat down for a chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors. For more, click here.

Sam Rockwell and Renée Zellweger both owe a career reinvention to the legendary choreographer and director Bob Fosse. Zellweger cemented her stardom with the 2002 film adaptation of Fosse’s musical “Chicago”; now she’s the latest big-screen superstar to shift to TV, with a rich turn in Netflix’s anthology series “What/If.” Rockwell, who, like Zellweger, is an Oscar-winning movie actor, actually plays Fosse in FX’s “Fosse/Verdon,” making his series debut examining the Broadway legend’s gifts and demons.

SAM ROCKWELL: We have something in common. I’m playing Bob Fosse, and you did “Chicago,” which I watched recently. 


SR: I’m too lazy, and I wasn’t going to read the play or see it onstage. You were great in it. How was the preparation for the dancing?

RZ: It was Broadway boot camp. We spent months on a makeshift stage on a loading dock in Toronto. Rob Marshall took Fosse and expanded on it, but there was a lot of the original vocabulary incorporated. 

SR: Did you get cramps in the middle of the night?

RZ: We didn’t have a middle of the night. We worked around the clock. Didn’t realize what a blessing it was until now. I just remember joy. We were working hard, but it didn’t feel like work.

SR: Michelle Williams [who played Gwen Verdon], she was like, “They seem like normal people, but these dancers are superheroes. What they can do with their bodies is extraordinary.” They don’t complain. They’re soldiers.

Renne Zellweger photographed by Shayan Asgharnia in Los Angeles, CA on April 27, 2019

RZ: Did it change the way you thought about your work?

SR: I’ve always been a physical actor, and I was a hoofer before, but not like this. This is serious hoofing. We’re both physical actors. 

RZ: It’s more interesting when you find a way to express something subtly, without words. You say so much more with the way that you move, or don’t move, than you do with a line.

SR: When you do this flawless British accent — 

RZ: This is where the interview gets awkward. 

sr: No, you do. When I work on accents, I always have a dialect coach, and then I have to compartmentalize. Do the impersonation, and then work on the acting separately, and merge the two eventually. Do you do that?

RZ: They’re different jobs. 

SR: You do it as Renée, and then throw the British accent on? Because if the impression takes over, you miss out on the soul of the character.

“It’s more interesting when you find a way to express something subtly, without words. you say so much more with the way that you move than you do with a line.”
RenÉe Zellweger

RZ: I like everything to become such a habit that I don’t think about it anymore, so that whatever you’re trying to communicate can be in the moment. If you’re busy calculating lists of things that you’re supposed to be getting right, there’s no possible way to transcend whatever is going on.

SR: It’s survival. You don’t want to see the acting.

RZ: When it comes to accents, I like to marry it to the text early on, because you can get into a habit with hearing what comes out of your mouth. If you don’t spend the time doing that, the first time it comes out, it’s so distracting. Whatever feeling you’re conjuring is lost to “I’m such a fraud.”

SR: Or you fall in love with the line reading: “That’s the way it should sound every time.” That’s death. I did episodics early on. Did you? 

RZ: No, I didn’t.

SR: Never “Law & Order” or “ER”? 

RZ: No. I’m sure I tried. But probably nobody would give me a job.

SR: You got any good audition stories?

RZ: I was trying to think about that a lot recently, with the things that are going on in our community right now, the current reset. I have things where I’ve felt like a jerk, because I watched myself spiraling.

SR: I remember going in for “ER,” for Noah Wyle’s part, I think, and that was terrible.

RZ: Why was it bad? What did you do? 

Sam Rockwell photographed by Shayan Asgharnia in Los Angeles, CA on April 27, 2019

sr: I came in with a lab coat. Talk about gilding the lily.

RZ: Did you bring a patient with you?

SR: I brought a hypodermic needle, but without the needle, just the plastic part. They looked at me like I was from Mars.

Did you have anything where you were pinching yourself? Somebody you worked with who was a hero? 

rz: Well, my audition for “Jerry Maguire,” I didn’t believe it was happening.

First of all, it was hilarious to me, the fact that I was driving across town to the Sony lot, because Tom Cruise was there, waiting for me. That was high comedy. 

SR: How was he? He’s a dick.

RZ: Everybody knows. No, the nicest guy in the world. We did the scene where he shows up drunk. That’s all I’ll say about that! 

SR: And it felt like you had good chemistry?

RZ: I was told later that it had something to do with “the tie test.”

SR: Like a necktie?

RZ: He had to change his necktie, and I was standing next to him. And we just had playful banter. We stood next to each other and giggled, laughed, and that was it. 

SR: What’s it like working on “What/If”?

RZ: Everybody was telling me, “Get ready.” The pace. But haven’t you found that making movies in the last few years has been the same?

SR: I did eight episodes, and it’s like making four independent movies in a row. Three, four takes sometimes.

“I’ve always been a physical actor, and i was a hoofer before, but not like this. This is serious hoofing.”
Sam Rockwell

RZ: That’s a good way to get your movie made these days: Call it TV. I love that you have to be courageous in the choices that you make, because you might not get to do it again.

SR: That’s right. The adrenaline of losing the light.

RZ: You have to be ready to make some choices.

SR: Friday night at midnight and there’s a big emotional scene, and they’re like, “We can shoot this Monday, or we can do it now.” 

RZ: No time like the present.

SR: That’s my attitude.

RZ: Kamikaze all the way. Because you don’t know how long it’s going to take to get back to that place. It shows up or it doesn’t, and some days you have to fake it.

SR: What do you remember from your Oscar night? 

RZ: I didn’t fall down the stairs. 

SR: I thought about that too. 

RZ: I don’t remember it that much.

SR: It’s a bit of a wash.

RZ: I remember Sean Penn. When you look out from the stage, everything is a freeze frame. Time stands still. It looked like the “Sgt. Pepper’s” cover. Sean Penn was right in the middle.

SR: It’s surreal. You stop breathing.

RZ: I didn’t have any expectation that I would be overwhelmed in that way. We get to do the job — that’s the win. I’ll forget in the middle of the process that this is for public consumption. God, we have been lucky, haven’t we?

SR: Oh, yeah. You’ve got to fall in love with it.

RZ: Even when it’s hard, even if it’s dark, there has to be some joy in doing it.

SR: Gratitude, which is tough when you’re doing a 17-hour day. 

RZ: In a little plastic trailer, in subzero temperature, far from home. It’s awesome, isn’t it? And that we keep wanting to do it, that’s pretty telling, isn’t it?

SR: That’s right. 

More Film

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

  • Joachim Trier

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • Cat in the Wall Movie Sarajevo

    Sarajevo Film Festival Builds Bridges Through Art

    Rising from the rubble of the Bosnian War to become one of Southeastern Europe’s leading film and TV industry events, the Sarajevo Film Festival has plenty to celebrate as it marks its 25th edition this year. The festival was established in 1995 during the four-year siege of Sarajevo as part of an effort to help [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]

  • Patricia Louisiana Knop Dead: Screenwriter Was

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop Dies at 78

    Screenwriter Patricia Louisianna Knop, who collaborated with her producer-director husband Zalman King on erotically-charged films of the late 1980s and 1990s including “Siesta” and “9 1/2 Weeks,” died Aug. 7 in Santa Monica after a lengthy illness. “9 1/2 Weeks,” starring Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger, was directed by Adrian Lyne, co-produced by King and [...]


    How 'Blinded by the Light' Brought Bruce Springsteen's Music to the Screen for a Song

    Blinded by the Light co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha knows firsthand what it feels like to be an outsider. Born in Kenya when the country was a British colony, she grew up part of the Indian/Asian diaspora who made their way from East Africa to London. For that reason, the 59-year-old’s movies has always dealt with the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content