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

Updated September 18, 2020 1.3k votes 218 voters 5.5k 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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  • The Green Mile was a star vehicle for Tom Hanks, and it featured Michael Clarke Duncan in a career-making role as inmate John Coffey. Despite sharing scenes with those giants, Sam Rockwell doesn't get lost in the shuffle. Whenever he comes on screen, it's hard not to pay attention to him.

    His role is William "Wild Bill" Wharton, a psychopath on death row for multiple slayings. His manner of coping with life behind bars is to taunt both the guards and his fellow inmates as mercilessly as possible. Rockwell steals his scenes by making Wild Bill's delight in creating havoc palpable for the audience. This is a genuinely bad man, and the actor has no qualms about making him as loathsome as can be. That willingness makes the story's eventual revelation about his character land even more profoundly.

    Although not as physically imposing as Duncan, Rockwell makes Wild Bill's hatred substantial enough to match Coffey's presence.

    • Actors: Tom Hanks, Gary Sinise, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, Michael Clarke Duncan
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: Frank Darabont
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  • It's part of Star Trek lore that characters who wore red shirts when they were beamed down to other planets were always doomed. These "redshirts" were played by guest actors, not main cast members, for obvious reasons. Galaxy Quest, a 1999 comedy that spoofs Star Trek and its fandom, casts Rockwell as Guy Fleegman, an actor who plays a redshirt in an episode of the fictional show at the movie's center. Or, as he frantically puts it, "the guy in the episode who dies to prove the situation is serious."

    The joke here is that Guy and the proper stars get involved in a real intergalactic mission not unlike what they were pretending to face on the show. As a redshirt, Guy spends a lot of time fearing that the fate he met on TV will become the same fate he meets in real life. Rockwell earns huge laughs leaning into the character's understandable neuroses. It could have been annoying, but his deft comedic work makes it oddly endearing. The audience really, really hopes this particular redshirt will find a significantly happier ending. (Spoiler alert: He does.)

    • Actors: Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tim Allen, Sam Rockwell, Justin Long
    • Released: 1999
    • Directed by: Dean Parisot
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  • Anyone who ever read Douglas Adams's hilarious book series knows that Zaphod Beeblebrox, one of the main characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is a quirky creation. He's like Han Solo on helium, Captain Kirk as a kook. The newly elected president of the galaxy, a narcissist if ever there was one, is on a quest to locate a special computer that may hold the answers to life, the universe, and everything. (The answer, for those uninitiated, is 42.)

    Playing wacky characters always seems to liberate Rockwell. That's certainly true here. Zaphod is a larger-than-life, flamboyant figure with a second head he hides by keeping it tucked under his neck. The actor has a ball milking those peculiarities for all they are worth. He even gets to prove his skill at physical comedy, most notably in a scene in which the main characters traverse a "field of flyswatters" that repeatedly spring up and slap them in the face. In scene after scene, Rockwell's creative choices are as delightful as they are surprising - all of which are perfectly in line with the comedic insanity of Adams's prose.

    • Actors: Sam Rockwell, Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel, Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy
    • Released: 2005
    • Directed by: Garth Jennings
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  • In Duncan Jones's 2009 sci-fi film Moon, Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut in space tasked with mining gas for a gigantic corporation that hopes to end Earth's energy crisis. The loneliness and isolation of being in orbit are starting to get to him. Weirdly, he receives company after an accident in his lunar vehicle - in the form of a clone of himself inside the space station.

    Playing a dual role is tricky for any actor. Playing a dual role in a movie with almost no other characters almost seems impossible. Rockwell does it perfectly. He wisely makes the choice to give Sam #1 and Sam #2 very slight discrepancies, so that they're technically the same person, yet we can always tell them apart. Weirdly and unpredictably, he has great chemistry with himself, turning Sam's puzzling identity crisis into something riveting to watch as the story plays out.

    • Actors: Kevin Spacey, Mary Tyler Moore, Kaya Scodelario, Sam Rockwell, Dominique McElligott
    • Released: 2009
    • Directed by: Duncan Jones
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