Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Actor Sam Rockwell, director Clark Gregg and author Chuck Palahniuk have to hand it to David Duchovny. He brings sex addiction to the public's attention, though it certainly wasn't his intention. While there are far bigger issues to lay on the common consciousness, his antics and subsequent separation from spouse Tea Leoni have put a whole new focus on their cinematic vehicle, "Choke"—one of the most talked about films at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
No wonder, since the film's lead character Victor Mancini—the "sort of" hero of gonzo cult author Palahniuk's convoluted novel—is both a sex addict and quasi-grifter who is using a choking scheme to pay for his mentally addled mother.
Whether at his mom's nursing home, his 12-step SA recovery program or his part time job as a performer at a reconstructed colonial village (nee Williamsburg), Mancini finds partners everywhere to share his sexual obsession. From bathroom to barn, Mancini gets off by flashing back to his twisted past. The only woman Mancini can't perform with is Dr. Paige (Kelly Macdonald), but she only wants to do it in the chapel which totally fucks him up.
In playing "Choke's" lead character, Rockwell considers an obsession with his pee-pee essential to the job. But you have to give Rockwell credit; he isn't worried about his penis size; he admits it's just the average tool--nothing to turn him into an AVN Award winning porn star.
But in making this absurd character plausible, Rockwell faced the kind of challenge that he's grappled with throughout his unique and pretty quirky career. Whether he's playing a 19th century American like Charley Ford ("The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford") or the loopy Guy Fleegman in the Star Trek parody "Galaxy Quest," Rockwell defies laying down an obvious rendition of a character in a film where its logic defies easy expectations.
Q: In terms of the smart, weird and quirky spectrum you have explored throughout your film career ("Galaxy Quest," "Snow Angels," "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), where do you place this character Victor?
SR: He's all that [smart, weird and quirky], isn't he? You've got to be, sort of... He's manipulative. You remember a movie called "Tom Jones" starring Albert Finney? I thought it was like that, a kind of comedic psychoanalysis of a Casanova. And if you meet a real ladies' man, they're usually not really good-looking guys, and they're really empty inside. That kind of stuff is fun for a while, and then it just turns into an empty pit.
That's what this movie does well, it gets inside the head of a ladies' man, so to speak, and we find what it is to really be a Casanova instead of glamorizing it. That's what I think is cool about this movie... and it's funny.
Q: since it's based on cult writer Chuck Palahniuk's wacky novel (h also had the hit "Fight Club"), that's what appealed to you with this role?
SR: It's just challenging material. It's a great part because it's like a comedic Hamlet. It's got a lot going on, a lot of internal conflict.
Q: With all that internal conflict, how did you get into his head and wrap your head around Victor Mancini, and his life?
SR: Therapy, a lot of therapy [laughs]. Clark and I did some research. Brad Hanke [who plays Victor's best buddy Denny] and I went to some sex addict meetings, anonymously most of the time...
Q: In New York?
SR: In New York and Los Angeles. I also watched this documentary, and there was a sex therapist named Sean, and talking to him about it helped me a lot actually. It's a very serious condition, nothing to be laughed about. It's pretty severe. It goes from anything like chronic masturbation to prostitution to people who've been molested as a kid, so it's very serious. It's like an eating disorder more than something like alcoholism.
Q: Because it's emotionally rather than physically addictive?
SR: Exactly. Because it's about filling that hole and sort of numbing yourself. I think a lot of repressed anger is involved, trying to numb that anger. What they say about it is, if sex addicts are hungry, they have sex; if they're angry, they have sex; if they're sad, they have sex, so they attribute it to every emotion. If they're celebrating, they have sex. So it's like that.
Q: Sex and affection are separate for them?
SR: Yeah, they can compartmentalize like that, but also, it's just a weird. I think everybody at some point, well, maybe not everybody, but a lot of people, especially people who live in cities, I feel like urban people especially, because they're ambitious or something, and they have careers...
I know that I have in the past compartmentalized intimacy and sexuality. Finding real intimacy is integrating eroticism and love...That's the problem with the sex addict is that they separate the two, to an extreme extent.
Q: So, of the movies you've done, this one has the most sex scenes with you?
A: Oh fucking hell yeah.
Q: It was a challenge to vary the different sex scenes?
SR: It was tricky, pretty silly stuff, and not erotic at all. At one point, I was having an orgasm on a close-up, and I'm basically fucking a camera. We had done an 18-hour day, and we were losing it. We were exhausted, and it's one of those great out-takes, and I just started laughing. I was trying to fake cum, and it's ridiculous. I just lost it.
Q: How do you feel about frontal nudity?
SR: Men or women?
Q: For you.
SR: I'm not a fan of it. If it shrivels up, then I'm not a fan. I've had to do frontal nudity after diving into cold water, so I'm not a big fan of it. I've done it because I felt it said something about the character. With "Box of Moonlight" or a movie like "Lawn Dogs," it says something about the character, it shows something about their freedom, and who they are as people, so it is relevant to the film, whereas if it's just gratuitous, it's just not, you know...
I mean, I was in "The Green Mile" and I showed my ass, and I very carefully asked the Academy Award-winning makeup artist Lois Burwell if she would help paint zits on my ass, because it was described [that way] in the book. Sometimes it's the opposite, where your vanity comes into play, where you want your ass to be tan, or "The Green Mile," that character, he's like a puss ball.
Q: Well, you looked good.
Q: When you mentioned frontal nudity and was it important to "your character"... What do you think about using a prosthetic so that you look bigger than you are.
SR: I suppose [I would] if it were restoration theater? I don't really give a shit. I'm a medium-sized man; I have an average sized penis. I wouldn't say I'm small or well-endowed. I'm sort of in between. I don't really care unless... I'm not planning to show my penis again on film, but it would depend on the movie I guess.
Q: What do you look for in a role? Would you hold out for a lead rather than take a supporting role?
SR: I've done that, yeah. I don't like doing supporting parts because you do a lot of waiting around. That's the long and short of it. I like to act. I show up and I want to act.
Q: Talk about an acting challenge; the choking scene was very intense and had amazing action--how did you worked out?
SR: That was funny stuff. We had a medic nearby just in case it got a little funky. I used tofu or marshmallows. We'd use different food products. I was pretending, I was faking it, but you know, you have to stop breathing a little bit to get the real effect of making it look like you're really choking, otherwise it feels fake, and then I feel like I'm full of shit, so I kind of stop breathing a little bit, and sometimes you'd hyper-ventilate or get a little spacey afterwards.
Q: Did you ever perform the Heimlich maneuver?
SR: No. Did you?
SR: No kidding!
Q: It was interesting.
Q: What was it like working with Anjelica Huston, who plays your supposed mother? Two or three times you're doing those scenes with her and a real tear falls down her cheek.
SR: Oh, yeah, she's the real deal.
Q: How did you two talk about interacting because it's supposed to be a mother/son situation where the mother doesn't recognize him as her son. It's really weird.
SR: Yeah, it's a very weird relationship. We rehearsed a little bit. It was pretty much on the page, what needed to happen. It was in the book, there was a lot of subtext in the book, and we referred to the book a little bit and her character is really mapped out in the book. Anjelica did all that homework, and it really pops off the screen what she does, and we just have the same work ethic, the same aesthetic about acting.
She's just amazing. She's all that and a bag of chips. She's present, she's visceral, she's available, she's wise, she's lovely, she's like a little girl, and she's a wise, sage-like actress. She's glamorous, and she's fantastic, man. She's incredible. She was having a gin and tonic at the wrap party and I think she had the flu. She's a trooper. She's badass, you know what I mean. I just love her. I think she's just fuckin' amazing.
Q: It took eight years for Clark to get this made from when he got this started. How long were you associated with this project and did you have a lot of input into what happened to it once it was going?
SR: It happened really quickly. We almost didn't make the movie, and Dave Matthews' company came to the rescue.
Q: Of the Dave Matthews' band?
SR: Yes. He has a production company. He did "Joshua" too [Rockwell played the lead in this suspense film]. He and Johnathan Dorfman [the producer]. Their company pulled it together and they saved us.
Q: Who got to them?
SR: Somebody called them, because I had already done "Joshua" with them, and they said, "You know, we need help, this is going south." So we got them in, and made this movie.
I got the call. Clark had sent the script my way. I'd done a play with Clark almost 20 years ago. It was a Canadian play at the Orpheum called "Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love."
Q: You were naked?
SR: Almost everybody was naked except for Clark. So it was funny that we did the play and then ended up doing this movie. I knew Clark from years ago, in the late '80s or early '90s, and heard he wrote this script--that he became a writer, that it was based on a book by the guy who wrote "Fight Club," and I was like, "Wow, I'm gonna check this out."
The description of it [was something like] "Colonial theme park sex addict." I was in from that description. I was like, "What the hell." I read it, and thought it was great, and thought it was clever...
Q: You read the book?
SR: I read the screenplay that he adapted first, and then I read the book later. So I called him after I read the screenplay. We talked for a while, and then he said, "What do you think?" I said, "I see it like this. It reminds me of 'The Fisher King'... blah blah blah," and he's like, "Yeah, that's what I'm seeing; nobody sees it like that."
We started talking about it, and then we went after some women; we got Anjelica, and got Kelly, and then Brad came in. Clark was like, "That's our Denny."
Q: You were walking around the set listening to an audio tape of the book.
SR: Yeah, Chuck reading the book. That got it into my head, the repetition of listening to it over and over.
Q: When you're working on a project that's based on a book like this one, or "Snow Angels" [starring Rockwell and directed by David Gordon Green], do you look to the book to help you on a character?
SR: Oh, absolutely. You get all that subtext. You get all that stuff that the character's thinking when he's not talking. I think Meryl Streep said, "It's great, if you're a lazy actor..." which is funny, coming from her. The book usually gives you what they're thinking...
Q: Chuck was asked, "Do you ever think of actors when you're writing your movies? What about Sam Rockwell?" and he said, "I always think of Sam as the parts he plays. I don't think of Sam Rockwell as Sam Rockwell." Is that a compliment--to be an actors' actor--or is it frustrating that people think of Sam Rockwell as the parts you play?
SR: Well, that's cool. I'm fine with that. I get recognized plenty, and I'm happy with the level it's at right now; I don't need it to be any more. I just want the good parts and I just want to make a living. I've done all that. I've been on the cover of magazines, and it gets old. I've seen more famous people, how hard it is for them, and it's no picnic. Even my friend Justin Long—he's "The Mac guy"—gets recognized as much as Tom Cruise, so I don't envy that position. That's hard; I've seen it.
Q: You like to be able to go out to dinner without having paparazzi and you've worked with Brad Pitt (in "...Jesse James")!
SR: Yeah, he's got his hands full. He can't go anywhere. Those guys happen to have their feet planted in the ground better than a lot of movie stars, you know? George [Clooney] and Tom Hanks should teach a class on how to behave if you're a movie star.
I don't know how the fuck they do it, but they seem to be generous, normal people. They've always got a smile for the crew. I can't be like that. I'm grouchy. It's an amazing quality.
Q: When you went to the Sex Anonymous meetings did some people recognized you?
SR: I don't know if they did or not. I know one meeting they did...we made it public, we sort of said, He's an actor, researching, but the rest of the meetings, I think I got away with being anonymous.
Q: Did you tell fake stories?
Q: Did you disguise yourself?
SR: I might have put on some glasses...