Consider the phrase “Rockwell crackles.” It’s often turned up in reviews of Sam Rockwell’s film performances over the years, in Amber Wilkinson’s plug for his latest, “Laggies,” in London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, for instance.
All that crackling comes by design — a raised eyebrow, a laid-back, Christopher Walken-esque way with a line, a deftly-delivered put down, all “part of the souffle” of a performance, Rockwell says. And once he’s worked out the ingredients he wants to use, his character’s entrance is where he shoves that dish into the oven.
“I love a great entrance,” he says. Craig, his divorced lawyer/single dad in “Laggies” has one. The film is about a woman (Keira Knightley) who hides from the adult life she’s not quite worked out by hanging out with high school kids — one kid in particular — for a week. Chloe Grace Moretz plays the kid, Rockwell’s Craig is her father.
“Craig comes on at just the right moment in the film,” Rockwell says. “Because it changes when Keira’s character has an adult to confront with what she’s doing. That’s why the entrance is a big deal. Like Kramer on ‘Seinfeld,’ right?
“So you work on it. Every little detail makes a difference in how you regard the character. He’s got to be a little guilty, being a single parent. Over-compensating, maybe. He’s trying too hard to be the cool dad. But he’s the lawyer dad.”
So Craig bursts in on daughter and daughter’s new grownup pal with an “A-HA!” Cool Dad, joking around with his kid. Forgetting to knock. He sees who she’s with and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind.
“Wow,” he says, looking Knightley up and down. ” High school students are looking rougher and ROUGHER these days.”
In just a line, Craig establishes himself as the cool dad, but the concerned and involved father. He’s raised an eyebrow at something inappropriate and insulted a beautiful woman. Because, who knows? She might be a drug dealer luring his kid to her doom.
“Hey, did you hear about the grown woman who started hanging out with a bunch of pubescent kids? No, I’ve never heard of that either.”
In “Laggies,” Rockwell, the king of quirky since way before “The Way, Way Back,” plays an adult.
“Yeah. A totally new thing for me, being the ‘adult.’ First time for everything, right?”
The novelty in that didn’t mean extra prep time, because “I’m kind of at that age now where I sort of AM this guy, you know? A little bit. He wasn’t that big of a reach. Aging yuppie? I can do that. Not far at all from who I am.”
Director Lynn Shelton, of “Your Sister’s Sister,” makes chatty, touchy-feely comedies like “Touchy Feely” and “Your Sister’s Sister.” She relies on actors who can analyze a script and bring more than what’s on the page to her films, part of that “mumblecore” genre of talkative, insightful romances.
“I like rom-coms that make you think,” Rockwell says. “This reminded me of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan,’ with Keira as a version of Susan. Or a John Cusack movie, where he’s gone off in ‘Grosse Point Blank’ to figure his stuff out. In our movie, it’s a chick. Keira’s doing that. And I get to be a sort of eyewitness to that. Kind of the Tom Hanks part, or the Paul Rudd role. You know, the straight man. The adult. I like being the adult.”
At 45, Rockwell is in his four-films-a-year prime. He likes jumping back and forth, from lead roles to supporting parts. He likes making a cool entrance. Watch for him doing that in an upcoming remake of “Poltergeist,” He turns everybody he plays, serious or comic, into someone a little off center. And he likes characters whose function in the film is pivotal, clearly defined, even if the role seems small. He only shows up in “Laggies” half way into the film, but Craig and Rockwell change it.
“I like to think she brings out the kid in him, and he makes her think adult thoughts. Oh yes.”