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18 Strange, Surprising Performances That Show Why Everyone Loves Sam Rockwell

Updated September 18, 2020 1.9k votes 296 voters 8.2k views18 items

List RulesVote up the performances that make you love Sam Rockwell.

The best Sam Rockwell performances span a wide variety of genres. Here's an actor who can do it all - comedy, drama, science fiction, horror, action, and everything in between. It's hard to find a type of movie that he hasn't been in. This versatility has made him one of the most respected actors of his era. He is not, however, a traditional movie star. Rockwell's emphasis is clearly on trying to make the best films possible, so he's perfectly happy as a character actor.

What's really impressive is the way he inhabits the skin of whomever he's playing. Rockwell isn't exactly what you'd call a chameleon; you always recognize him when you see him. But what he brings to each character is unique. The racist cop he plays in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is leagues different than the Hitler Youth camp instructor in Jojo Rabbit. Sam Rockwell roles are never the same, whether he's playing real people such as Chuck Barris, George W. Bush, and Bob Fosse, or fictional figures like Zaphod Beeblebrox and "Wild Bill" Wharton.

The following Sam Rockwell movies and TV shows are just a small sampling of what he has to offer. A closer look at them reveals just what a surprising, endlessly creative actor he is. Everybody loves this guy, and for good reason. Remember to vote up your favorite Rockwell performances.

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  • Rockwell won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work in 2017's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He's cast as Dixon, a small-town cop who has earned a reputation for violence against people of color. He is, quite frankly, a racist - and a bit of an idiot, too. Despite his often offensive behavior, Dixon ends up doing something remarkable in that he ultimately tries to help the grieving, angry Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) find the man who assaulted and took the life of her daughter.

    A lot of actors dislike playing racists because they don't want to be unlikable or use uncomfortable language onscreen. Rockwell doesn't shy away from showing Dixon in all his enmity. At the same time, he tempers the character just enough that we know it stems more from ignorance and weakness than from outright hatred. That makes us willing to follow him even in his worst moments. The actor also makes Dixon's character shift in the film's back half feel justified, as though this prejudiced cop has discovered a piece of compassion inside his heart that he didn't know was there.

    • Actors: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage
    • Released: 2017
    • Directed by: Martin McDonagh
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  • Jojo Rabbit is a comedy set in Nazi Germany. Understandably, it divided people significantly, with some finding it offensive and others labeling it a masterpiece. What most everyone agreed on, however, was that Sam Rockwell is hilarious as Captain Klenzendorf, the fatalistic lead instructor at a Hitler Youth camp. He's the guy who teaches kids to use weapons, make explosives, and create overall mayhem. 

    The movie is able to mine comedy from dark places because the bad guys, especially Klenzendorf, are all idiots. Although he ends up trying to do right by the title character in the end, the captain is a guy who takes a weird amount of pleasure in talking about destruction. In most other areas, he's relatively clueless. Rockwell nails the essential quality of the character, which is that he's dangerous because he's so dumb. It's a sly comedic performance that makes us feel okay about laughing at a Nazi.

    • Actors: Roman Griffin, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson
    • Released: 2019
    • Directed by: Taika Waititi
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  • In Iron Man 2, Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, a charming yet amoral arms dealer. He's working to provide the US government with a suit similar to Tony Stark's so that they can mass-manufacture them as a defensive weapon. Needless to say, that idea doesn't sit too well with Stark.

    Given that Stark was already a charming and - in the first film, at least - morally ambiguous defense contractor, modeling Hammer in the exact same fashion could have felt repetitive. But Rockwell finds a way to play the character completely different from what Robert Downey Jr. does with Tony Stark. He gives Hammer an over-the-top cockiness, as though it's not just making a ton of money that brings him joy, but also the egotistic rush of being a player in a dangerous business. We can, through the performance, detect that Hammer isn't quite as competent as Stark, which makes him even more of a threat.

    • Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell
    • Released: 2010
    • Directed by: Jon Favreau filmography
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  • The Way, Way Back gave Rockwell another chance to do something completely unexpected. The film was inspired by '80s teen flicks, specifically Meatballs, and his character Owen is a Bill Murray-like mentor to a troubled teen boy. You wouldn't think he'd be the heir apparent to Murray, yet his performance hits all the right notes.

    Owen is the manager of a water park who takes new employee Duncan (Liam James) under his wing. The role allows the actor to drop the sort of sardonic, low-key zingers that Murray is famous for, while also showing a little bit of heart as he helps this unhappy kid. This is not an imitation, however. Rockwell's performance is, by design, an homage to Murray. He puts a modern spin on the Tripper Harrison character from Meatballs, adapting the general concept to his own unique style.

    • Actors: Steve Carell, Amanda Peet, AnnaSophia Robb, Maya Rudolph, Toni Collette
    • Released: 2013
    • Directed by: Jim Rash, Nat Faxon
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