Sam Rockwell is nothing if not a gracious host. Upon entering his stately but far from extravagant suite at the Ritz-Carlton, he offers a firm handshake, followed in short order by a scalding cup of tea. His energy is irrepressible. He practically sprints to the bar, pouring the tea so quickly he spills it all over his arm. Undeterred, he rushes back, ever eager to please.
Rockwell, who was born in Daly City and considers San Francisco home, attacks his roles with similar exuberance, whether he’s playing a dangerously unstable drunk in last year’s “Snow Angels” or an emotionally handicapped sex addict in “Choke,” the remarkable new comedy based on a typically offbeat novel from “Fight Club” author Chuck Palahniuk. Rockwell admits he was unfamiliar with the novel prior to accepting the part, but he was intrigued by the opportunity to play a character who treats his glaring and yet strangely endearing imperfections as merit badges.
It’s the type of role Rockwell is familiar with. He has made a living playing misfits, outlaws and men whose lives defy logical description, such as famed “Gong Show” producer Chuck Barris in 2002’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” Rockwell is not exactly a household name yet, but to him, that’s not a major concern. Sure, he wanted to play the Incredible Hulk in this summer’s franchise reboot, a point he drives home by jumping off his couch and tearing away a generous portion of his shirt. But at the end of the day, he’s more interested in producing quality films regardless of their commercial viability.
“It reminds me of something Sean Penn once said about movies,” Rockwell says with a slightly bemused grin. “If it’s all about entertainment, go get an eight ball and some hookers. There has to be some substance, something you can take away from the theater.”
Not that Rockwell eschews blockbuster-type movies — after all, this is a guy who helped to build his professional reputation on small but memorable supporting roles in “Charlie’s Angels” and the “Star Trek” parody “Galaxy Quest.” But he’s less concerned with box-office receipts than making movies people will see and appreciate.
“How do you avoid the mainstream? Who wants to do that?” he wonders. “All the movies I’m in, I want people to watch them. Who wouldn’t? But at the same time, I care about what I’m putting out there. Making something like ‘The Incredible Hulk’ would have been great, and I love watching Ed Norton in that role. But for me, ‘Snow Angels’ is like my version of the Hulk. That’s where I invest all that rage and instability.
“Victor, my character from ‘Choke,’ isn’t angry like that, but he kind of reminds me of Hamlet, with his weird Oedipal complex. He’s not a conventional guy and this isn’t a conventional story, but there’s an underlying sweetness to both. Yes, he’s a sex addict who’s trying to rediscover how to connect with people, but in the end this is a love story. Beneath all the messed-up compulsions and eccentricities, he’s looking for the same things most people are looking for, and that’s how we relate.”