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'Moon' Shot: At Last, Sam Rockwell's The Star

In the new science fiction movie Moon, Sam Rockwell plays a lonesome mine technician working in outer space, struggling to maintain his sanity long enough to get home.

Rockwell carries the movie — he's essentially its only actor. (Another character is glimpsed on a video monitor, and a robot is voiced by Kevin Spacey.)

Rockwell is best known for playing oddballs and hoodlums. The 40-year-old is handsome, in a humble kind of way, with squinty hazel eyes and a certain facial plasticity. He brings a sense of history to his roles.

While still a teenager, Rockwell thought he'd made it when he was cast in the gritty 1989 movie Last Exit to Brooklyn — a film critically reviled at the time for its violence.

"We were throwing knives, switchblades at [Alexis Arquette, who played] the transvestite," Rockwell recalls. "It was a hot summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Red Hook was really a ghetto, you know? And we were out there doing this crazy movie, and we thought it would be the next Raging Bull."

Instead Rockwell ended up busing tables and delivering burritos, still waiting for his big break.

He studied acting seriously under William Esper, and started racking up starring roles in little indie films like Box of Moonlight and Lawn Dogs.

He became known as a fearless performer, a director's actor — and a superlative villain. He played the freaky child killer in the prison drama The Green Mile. In Charlie's Angels, he literally danced through his scenes as a slick, seductive baddie. Rockwell's flair for portraying twisted, damaged characters moved George Clooney to take on studio brass in order to cast the younger actor as a mentally unbalanced game show host in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

So when director Duncan Jones offered Rockwell the chance to play yet another villain in his debut feature, Rockwell turned him down. But their conversation unexpectedly turned to their mutual love of science fiction, particularly movies from the '70s and '80s, such as Alien and John Carpenter's The Thing.

"The acting was so kitchen-sink real," Rockwell marvels. "They were regular blue-collar people — in space, with a monster."

Based on this one conversation, Jones dropped his original project to make a movie specifically starring Rockwell. It's about a working-class stiff of an astronaut, alone in space on a three-year mining contract. The character is named Sam, after the actor who inspired it.

"And he made [the film] such an actor's piece, I couldn't resist," Rockwell admits.

But Jones also wanted the film to explore some of his ideas about human relationships with technology. He studied artificial intelligence and ethics as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. And though elements of the film are clearly intended as homage to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jones' outlook on technology is much sunnier.

"Technology changes fast, and we can improve on technology fast," he says. "Human nature is the thing that takes a long time to improve."

Jones — aka Zowie Bowie — also cops to the influence of his father. Rock star David Bowie wrote the song "Kooks" for his son, who began going by the name Duncan Jones as a teenager. The young director admits to parallels between his film and his father's concept albums, such as Ziggy Stardust, but he says it makes sense that their interests overlap.

"I was around in the same time and place when he was working on that stuff," he points out.

If nothing else, says Jones, the film will delight Sam Rockwell fans — it's all him. For his part, Rockwell says those fans will recognize Moon as the sort of audacious project that has mainly defined his career.

"There has to be a creative element, or I'm not interested," he says. "I literally would be sick if I did something solely for the money and I couldn't find any creative way in."

Rockwell's next creative project? Playing a talking guinea pig in a Disney movie. And he'll be a villain again too, in the Iron Man sequel scheduled for release next year.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.