Oscar Actors: Rockwell, Sam–Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Vice

Sam Rockwell, two nominations, one win, Best Supporting Actor

2018: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Supporting Actor Oscar winner

2019: Vice, Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (as George W. Bush)


You do not call an officer of the law a f***ing prick in his own station-house, Mrs. Hayes.  Or anywhere, actually.”   Officer Dixon (Rockwell)

Willoughby’s right hand man, Dixon, is a troubled officer whose potential is self-sabotaged by intolerance and a wildly erratic temper, usurping the chief’s authority and order.

Sam Rockwell has brought a long roster of unforgettable characters to life, including playing Chuck Barris in CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, Nicolas Cage’s con artist protégé in MATCHSTICK MEN, astronaut Sam Bell in MOON, wrongfully convicted Kenny Waters in Tony Goldwyn’s CONVICTION, Jesse James gang member Charley Ford in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and Billy Bickle in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS for McDonagh.

“Dixon seems to be everything you would despise in a man,” McDonagh says, “but there’s something in him, and it’s partly in the way that Sam plays him, which is childlike and moving despite all his obnoxiousness and horrible faults.”

“Dixon may be my favorite character,” Woody Harrelson confesses.  “Sam has a unique ability to play a guy where you sense there’s something not quite right about him – and in fact a lot of what Dixon does is very wrong — yet then he’s got this redemptive quality.  Sam as Dixon has an incredible innocence about him, so you care about the guy even when he’s doing bad things.  I think he’s a terrific actor and it was great to work with him again.”

McDonagh and Rockwell had worked together not only on SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS but also the play A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE, yet this was new territory.  “I always think of Sam as my go-to actor for that generation,” McDonagh says.  “When he goes dark, he really goes dark.”

Rockwell’s versatility was especially welcome in a character who experiences profound shifts in the course of the film. “Sam was able to offer so much in his ability to riff with Martin,” observes Graham Broadbent.  “They would try many different options again and again and again.  And like Martin’s writing, Sam can somehow be funny, tragic and sad all at once.”

Frances McDormand loved what Rockwell did with the character. “I think this is the best work Sam has ever done,” she says. “There’s a real synthesis between Sam and Martin as an actor and director who have worked together repeatedly and are just getting better and better at it.”

McDormand continues:  “Sam and I come from a place of deep respect for each other and getting to be in scenes together was so delicious.   The choices he makes are so completely random and glorious and unpredictable– it’s kind of like getting on a great roller coaster but not knowing when the hills and valleys are coming.  I think he knew he had a kindred spirit along for the ride in me.  We never went past the point of no return, but we were always kind of dangling out there over the edge of everything.  And what I also love about Dixon is that he’s allowed redemption, Martin allows him redemption, and he never, ever becomes a caricature.  He’s always something more than that and what saves him is his love for Willoughby – it’s the tenderness between two men.”

Like his cast mates, Rockwell was drawn to McDonagh’s writing.  Says Rockwell:  “Martin is especially great in this script in dealing with taboos, racial taboos and other taboos, which he brings to the surface in so many compelling ways.”

Rockwell observes that though McDonagh hails from Ireland, he has keen insight into small-town America, perhaps because hard-working towns anywhere have more in common than not.  “Martin understands small towns because in Ireland there are all the same kinds of tensions. Working class is working class wherever you go, and he writes so well about that.  I feel you could do this story with an Irish accent or a Brooklyn accent and it would work just as well as it does in Missouri.”

Perhaps the local accent is inconsequential, but Dixon is certainly a character unto himself.  “Dixon’s kind of a classic,” muses Rockwell.  “He’s like the bastard Edmund in King Lear in that he’s a real angry, angry guy — angry at the world and filled with this idea that he’s always been mistreated. He seems at first that he’s a kind of villain in Ebbing, and yet he’s more complicated than that.”

Ultimately, as Dixon’s curiously co-dependent home life is revealed, the source of his psychic angst comes clear.   “He still lives with his mom and he’s a bit stunted, unable to just break free and finally become an adult,” Rockwell explains.  “He has an extremely dysfunctional relationship with his mom, which makes for quite a bit of trauma and then he takes that out on other people.”

“I think we all can relate a bit to his anger and his sadness,” Rockwell goes on, “and also I think to his hero worship of Chief Willoughby.  I think a lot of us have felt that kind of reverence for someone and yearned for their approval.”

Rockwell and Harrelson seemed to find an instant frisson that deepened the tricky bond between Dixon and Willoughby.  “Woody’s got a real moral compass and he’s also very laid back, which makes you feel at ease.  With great actors like that, there’s often a sense of anarchy and mischief, and Woody brings all that to Willoughby,” says Rockwell.   “His approach is never predictable.”

McDonagh and Rockwell agreed that the glaring peril with Dixon would be letting him slip even for a second into caricature.  His humanity was the crux. “We both knew Dixon had to be played real, and not for the jokes,” says Rockwell.  “Really, playing it too much for the jokes or too much for the pathos were equal dangers.  I think in the end people will feel conflicting things about Dixon.  I want them to be annoyed, angered and amused by him yet feel for him all at the same time.”