There are no vacuum cleaners, no rules and no shame,’ is what Arthur Miller wrote of New York’s most notorious hotel. Keith Richards once (half) joked that ‘you had to be a certi - fied dealer to get a job as a bellboy’ at 222 West 23rd Street. And the stories, encom - passing legendary greats from Warhol to Madonna to Hendrix, are as numerous as they are salacious. Martin Scorsese, who most likely took advantage of those additional bellboy services in the late 1970s, this year even exec-produced Dreaming Walls: Inside The Chelsea Hotel. But though plenty of firsts have happened here, this is likely the only time that someone has attempted to smoke a mouthful of French fries in one of its suites.
‘Is that my f***ing lunch?’ an unassuming Sam Rockwell had asked, when he saw the fish wrapped in newspaper, before taking his place in the make-up chair. That was… well, not that long ago. Then ES’s photographer took him out into a corridor for a quiet word about how shooting anything normal was off the agenda today, before a sequence of Things You Never Thought You’d Get An Oscar-Winner To Do unfolded in front of his lens. First came the head on the table. Then head on the table in the bag. And so on until the French fries, which had his agent looking seven shades of nervous. But not Sam Rockwell. Once he’s done and business has been taken care of, he and his modest demeanour shake hands and depart, causing a minimum of fuss as they go.
When we meet a few days later on a baking hot Manhattan afternoon at an East Village restaurant, Rockwell tells me that he loved the ‘very odd, very avantgarde’ shoot. Compact and muscular with close-cropped, brown hair, his biceps bulge out of a fitted, short-sleeved, navy button-down shirt. In short, he looks great. ‘Thanks, hangin’ in there man,’ Rockwell says. ‘Got into yoga and boxing at 26. Didn’t step into a gym until I was 25. Now I kind of go as a therapy. I have to move my body.’
Ordering a Greek salad and orange juice, he says that he likes being able to leave his characters behind. He is thankful for the freedom he has to move through the world relatively anonymously. Fame, says Rockwell, is ‘a hate-love thing. It gives you opportunities. It’s really tricky. I’m lucky because I can kind of go under the radar. People generally don’t know who I am. Sometimes they do and I deal with it. Daniel Craig is very famous. That’s a tougher thing.
‘Brad Pitt can’t walk down the street,’ he continues. ‘I hang around with these guys. George Clooney, Nic Cage, DiCaprio: they have a really tough time. I can do regular things and not get hassled. I’m much happier that way.’
In his latest on-screen incarnation, Rockwell plays an old-school British detective, Inspector Stoppard, in Tom George’s 1950s London-set madcap mystery-com See How They Run. In it he, Saoirse Ronan (with whom he was com - paring Peloton scores), Adrian Brody, Ruth Wilson and David Oyelowo shamelessly ham their way through silly jokes, wild revelations, and in-the-know references to films and theatre. Rockwell deploys an accent that, he says, ‘started with a very posh Marlon Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty. Then we went Ray Winstone and Michael Caine. Completely posh to completely Cockney. Then we mixed the two and settled on that.’
It was filmed during London’s lockdown, for which his longtime partner Leslie Bibb and their beloved three-year old German shepherd, Gus, joined him. He has lived in the UK before — an ex-girlfriend was actor Gina Bellman — loves Bar Italia and The Toucan in Soho, and hangs out in Shoreditch and Hackney. His favourite brand of tea is Yorkshire Gold, to which he adds milk and honey. ‘It’s name-droppy, but Sigourney Weaver once hooked me up with PG Tips,’ he confides.
The film is yet another stylistic switch-up for an actor who has already played a racist cop (his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), choreogra - pher (Fosse/Verdon), gay Nazi (Jojo Rabbit) and George W Bush (Vice), to name but a few. It’s hard to think of another actor of his generation — he is 53 — who is quite as much of a chameleon.
On screen, Rockwell is most proud of his performances in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Moon, Three Billboards, Snow Angels, and Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy. ‘A lot of success I have had in movies was in movies that initially didn’t do well but have an afterlife, or are rediscovered four years later. Three Billboards was an anomaly.’ He likes mixing comedy and drama in his role choices — even in the fabric of the same roles. ‘To me, that’s everything. I think we are always doing both. Even in dramas like The Deer Hunter there is always comedy.’
Rockwell is the only child of two actors, Pete Rockwell and Penny Hess. They divorced when he was five and he went to live with his father in San Francisco, returning to spend summers with his mother in New York. ‘Everything was cordial. At that time my mother couldn’t handle being a mother, so my father was a kind of mother and father. He had lots of odd jobs including being a cab driver. We were struggling until I was about nine.’ Then his dad remarried, and the family ‘became middle class’ with his stepmother’s additional income. As a kid, his parents took him to see The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Alien. ‘Some I didn’t get right away at 11 or 12. I rewatched them in my early 20s. You re-educate yourself.’
His first performance came onstage when he was ‘10 or 11’ alongside his mother (‘It was a pretty wild, Bohemian upbringing in those summers,’ he says). He was ‘terrible’ at sports growing up, and ‘got bullied and beat up a lot’ in middle school. ‘I didn’t know how to fight and they were tough schools. I got the shit kicked out of me. Sometimes I’d fight back. Sometimes I’d win. Most of the time I’d lose. I wish I’d wrestled or something but I was an artsy kid.’ Once in high school, life improved as his academic perfor - mance declined.
‘I barely graduated,’ he says. ‘I was rebelling, smoking dope and just wanted to hang out and meet girls.’ A project called Urban Pioneers ‘kind of saved’ him, which took kids on out - ward-bound activities in the mountains. ‘There is always a little residue, a little post-traumatic stress, so to speak. But it was pretty mild. I’ve done a lot of therapy, which has been very helpful. If I hadn’t done therapy, and if I hadn’t had act - ing to use as a kind of cathartic channel, I don’t know what I’d be doing. Pumping gas or something.’
Instead, Rockwell moved to New York, bussed tables, worked in bars, and even assisted a private detective. ‘That was really weird. We followed some woman who was having an affair. Very sleazy.’
At 18 he did his first movie, Clownhouse, and at ‘around 23’ studied the craft of acting with William Esper, finding inspiration in Christopher Walken, John Turturro, Laurie Metcalf, Sean Penn, Stanley Tucci, Tim Roth, and John Malkovich. It has been ‘extraordinary’ for him to work with and become friends with some of them. And there his journey began in earnest: peaking with that Oscar win for Three Billboards… in 2018.
Award nominations and victories, he says, are ‘a great honour. Business-wise it can sometimes help you with negotiations.’ Is he competitive to win when nominated? ‘For me, it’s very conflicted. Success is a dangerous prospect because it comes with certain conditions. It comes with great things, but it also puts you in the limelight.’ Rockwell’s rise to fame was deliberately gradual. ‘I didn’t want it to be overnight. I turned down Broadway a couple of times because I wasn’t ready for it until I was ready.’
On screen he is best known for his stand-out supporting roles. ‘The thing about supporting roles is that you get more time off,’ he says, smiling. ‘Lead roles are exhausting because you’re working every day. It doesn’t matter if you’re supporting or the lead. It’s really about workload and prepa - ration. I like leading-man roles, but I don’t know if I want that notoriety.’
Rockwell became particularly known for playing racists and bigots (in Three Billboards, The Best of Enemies, Jojo Rabbit and The Green Mile). There was controversy after he won the Oscar for Three Billboards, given his awful charac - ter’s redemption arc.
‘I did understand the controversy,’ Rockwell says. ‘But it’s a role, he’s an anti-hero, not a villain. In Cuckoo’s Nest, Murphy admits to statutory rape in the first five minutes. I don’t know how people would respond to that now. It’s ironic I play bigots and rednecks because I don’t come from that. I come from a liberal background. My dad was a union organiser. I’m a city kid.’
The racist character of Dixon in Three Billboards ‘hit the zeitgeist for sure,’ the film being released late into the first year of the Trump presidency. ‘My character had a redemp - tive quality — either you resented or responded to that. But you can’t be redeemed unless you’ve done something bad. We’ve been dealing with these sorts of characters for years. But this is a different time and I understand why people are sensitive about it.’
The right-wing shift in much of America, brutally sym - bolised in the repeal of Roe v Wade and the curtailment of the constitutional right to abortion, is ‘bad news,’ says Rockwell. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen. People can carry guns but you can’t have abortions. Now they’re going after gay marriage maybe,’ he says, referring to a Supreme Court ruling on gun use and Justice Clarence Thomas’ stated intent when it comes to overturning mar - riage equality. ‘I would hope we get our minds straight and not be lunatics,’ Rockwell says. ‘It’s really disheartening.’
Rockwell and Bibb have been together for 15 years, never married, and do not have children. ‘Leslie and I are very happy, we have good life,’ says Rockwell. ‘We just like it the way it is. We don’t want kids. It’s interesting when you tell people this. They get very upset with you. I know more and more couples who don’t have kids. Listen, if I knew they’d turn out great, then maybe — but there’s just no guarantee. Also, I don’t want to be selfish and be a bad parent. My dad was a single parent, it takes a lot to be a parent.’
As for staying unmarried, Rockwell says that they are ‘basically married. She’s in my will. I feel like we are mar - ried. We live like a married couple. I’m really proud of her. She’s kicking ass and she’s now doing this Apple TV series [Mrs American Pie]. We are both actors, so understand our lifestyle. We can help each other with scenes. She’s awe - some. She’s very kind to me and takes care of me.’
Does he enjoy getting old? ‘Ageing sucks man, because you’re falling apart. I have tennis elbow and my joints hurt. It’s all f***ed up. I’ve got injuries everywhere.’ He points to his heel and an injury sustained while break-dancing at a club night in Atlanta, ‘trying to keep up with the kids’. He pulled his hamstring doing Fool for Love. ‘No, no,’ he says smiling, when asked if he’d ever have work done, framing his features with his hands. ‘This is it. This is what you’re looking at. No way.’ He thinks about his mortality ‘a lot. It’s intense. But what can you do? It is what it is.’
What about aiming to be the leading man in all he does? ‘I don’t know,’ says Rockwell. ‘There are different rules now. Leading men are both getting older and older, and younger and younger. Brad Pitt, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington are still kicking ass. I’ll take what I can get. I want to do it all.’
And with that he heads out into the baking New York heat, no doubt ecstatic that not one of his fellow diners’ heads jolts in recognition of him as an Oscar-winner. Or a smoker of French fries.
‘See How They Run’ is in cinemas from 9 September | hotelchelsea.com
Stylist: Michael Fisher @mjonf
Set Design: @ChloeTNelson
Grooming: Kristan Serafino @serafinosays
Photographed at The Hotel Chelsea, New York. @hotelchelsea