Sam Rockwell’s reliably scruffy, irreverent swagger is much in evidence in his latest film — “The Way Way Back.” It’s a serio-comic coming of age tale which has Rockwell playing Owen, the slacker manager of a water slide park who teaches our young hero, Duncan (Liam James) about girls, love and self-worth.
Rockwell’s performance has critics contorting this way and that to find analogies.
“Rockwell makes Owen his version of “M*A*S*H”’s Hawkeye Pierce,” ventured The New York Daily News. No, Owen’s “a combination of the Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield characters in “Caddyshack,” cool but with an anarchic streak,” declares The New York Post.
But think of Rockwell’s self-described affinity for the work of Bill Murray. Might Owen be his version of Tripper in Murray’s breakout film, 1979’s “Meatballs”?
“Bingo,” Rockwell says. “Yeah, there’s a lot of that guy in him. I was thrilled to play Owen — mentor, lover, slacker, goofball. What a great character, a no brainer for me to play when they offered me the part.”
Like “Meatballs,” “Way Way Back” features a lost kid who befriends an offbeat, rebellious older man for the summer. As in “Meatballs,” the mentor is a would-be ladies man who pines for a colleague (Maya Rudolph) who is more mature and won’t give him the time of day. And as in “Meatballs,” “Way Way Back” lets the kid learn from both the patter of the mentor, and the mentor’s obvious shortcomings.
“Owen chases Caitlyn (Rudolph) because she’s this grown woman who can kind of set him straight,” Rockwell says. “There’s a maternal thing going on there, a maturity. She’s the one person who can make him give up all his nonsense. The kid, Duncan, is kind of abused — mentally — by his mom’s boyfriend. He needs a male role model, even a goofy one.”
“Way Way Back” is about a 14 year-old Duncan’s summer at a Massachusetts coastal resort town. Mom (Toni Collette) is dating a creep (Steve Carell) who owns a beach house there. The creep belittles the boy, the adults are all wrapped up in recreating their drunken-cheating adolescence, leaving Duncan to find something to do and someone to mentor him doing it. That’s where Owen and the Water Wizz water park come in. It’s time for Duncan to “come of age.”
“We’re all entitled to a ‘coming of age’ summer,” says Rockwell, 44. Even guys like him, a former child actor, a guy who has “never been to a water park before in my life?”
“Even child actors. I spent my summers in New York with my mom and all her crazy actor friends. I learned a lot about life from that crowd, acting with them, and off stage. Guys like (playwright) John Jiler, Wade McDonald and Tom Edwards took me under their wing, showed me the acting ropes and other stuff, too.”
Rockwell’s formidable screen reputation — in dramas such as “Conviction,” thrillers like “Moon” and dark comedies such as “Seven Psychopaths” or “Choke” — spin out of his smart mouth, his disreputable screen appearance and his sheer unpredictability. A Variety critic noted that only the knowledge that “Way Way Back” is a comedy keeps the feeling that Owen might be a pervert at bay.
“The magic on film comes from those moments where something feels spontaneous,” Rockwell says. “Hard to do, because you’re working from a script and you’re doing more than one take. You’ve got to throw things in there — a LOT of things in there — to make it seem this moment is happening for the first time, with every take. I do the same thing on stage, trip it up a little.”
And it takes effort to find each character’s off-the-thrift-store-rack appearance.
“Every guy’s wardrobe is key. For instance, Owen has got to look kind of trapped in the past, in the ’80s — from his shirts and sunglasses, to his car (a Cavalier convertible).”
Another element of the Rockwell mystique is the films he turns up in. “Cowboys & Aliens” “Iron Man 2” or “Frost/Nixon” seem like exceptions to his rule of thumb — he always find the small film where he can make a bigger impression. He tends to do a lot of ensemble pictures with a small, juicy part for himself in it.
“I particularly like to work with directors who’ve been actors or are still actors. I’ve made a couple of films with Clark Gregg (“Choke,” “Trust Me”). These guys from ‘Way Way Back’ (writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) are actors. It helps. They have compassion for what you’re doing. They get it, and they give the actors the room to play around a bit, make a part their own.”