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ROCKWELL, SAM : Lawn Dogs

LAWNMOWER MAN
After being sacked from the studio movie, G.I. Jane, Sam Rockwell won the Best Actor prize at the Montreal Film Festival for his performance in Australian director John Duigan's Lawn Dogs, one of three films featuring Rockwell at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. It was there that Rockwell talked to PAUL FISCHER for this, his only Australian interview.

Sam Rockwell may not be a huge name, but there's a buzz about this extraordinary actor who seems to fit in any role he assumes. But then, Rockwell's passion remains with the theatre. "Stage is where it really happens for an actor because it makes full use of whatever you have to give," Rockwell explains in the noisy bar adjoining the Sundance Film Festival's Hospitality Suite. But at the moment, the 30-year old actor is receiving considerable attention for his deeply moving performance on screen in the critically acclaimed Lawn Dogs, directed by John Duigan.

"Let me tell you, that was pretty heavy-duty" on learning to ride a lawn mower

Set in the heart of class-conscious Kentucky, Rockwell is Trent Burns, who makes ends meet by mowing lawns in the rich Louisville suburb of Camelot Gardens. But, his reception in the community is less than cordial. He is the victim of verbal abuse from Sean (Eric Mabius) and Bret (David Barry Gray), two college boys with nothing to do than cause him trouble. Trent is also under the close scrutiny of the neighbourhood security man, Nash (Bruce McGill), who is quick to blame him for acts of petty vandalism and theft in the area. Ten-year-old Devon Stockard (Mischa Barton) is new to Camelot Gardens. She has no friends, and busies herself with tales of the evil witch Baba Yaga. She is sent by her parents to sell cookies for the Young Rangers. Although they tell her "not to go beyond the wall" and to sell more cookies than any other Ranger so she will get her photo in the newspaper, Devon promptly leaves the subdivision, intentionally dropping bags of cookies from her red wagon, and heads towards the forest.

There she discovers a mobile home that’s no longer mobile, and decides that this is the house of Baba Yaga. It turns out to be Trent's home, however, and he catches her exploring. Devon takes a liking to him and, despite his protests, becomes a frequent visitor. The film explores the complex relationship between the pair, a relationship that is ultimately misunderstood.

"He's incredible, and one of the most nurturing and encouraging directors I've ever worked with," on director John Duigan

Rockwell felt that Trent was an easy character to relate to. "I think everybody can identify with the loneliness of this guy, the feeling that you have when you're in a fancy restaurant, you're not dressed right and they treat you like an insect, is what Trent goes through every day." That feeling of being treated as someone inferior was something Rockwell drew from his own life. "I was a bus boy and had pretty negative feelings towards yuppies for a long time. People in perceived positions of power can be very cruel." To prepare for the part of this working-class Southern character, Rockwell did some intense reserach. "Firstly, I had one of the best dialect coaches in the country, who got my ear attuned to the dialect. In addition to that, I had this truck driver, a teamster from Kentucky, tape all my lines, in between mouthfuls of beer. I hung out with the teamsters a lot, who are all these local Kentucky boys." And finally, Rockwell had to learn how to ride a lawn mower "which involved a two-week course. Let me tell you, that was pretty heavy-duty."

One of the most remarkable aspects of Lawn Dogs is the performance of 10-year old Mischa Barton who plays the tough and complex Devon. Rockwell first met the youngster when they were undergoing final call-back auditions, and he has nothing but praise for his young co-star. "She's a consummate professional and could find her marks even faster than I could, and I've done 20 movies. While I was so busy trying to muster up some horrible self-deprecation for my character, spending a lot of time alone, SHE was on the money; she just came in, and did her job." But they never hung out together. "We'd get together, do our scene, then she'd go off and do her thing, while I did mine. I mean we dug each other, but we didn't spend THAT much time together." Rockwell has equal praise for his director, Australia's John Duigan. "He's incredible, and one of the most nurturing and encouraging directors I've ever worked with," he says with genuine enthusiasm. "He's such a great guy and so talented. I made a point of watching his early stuff, and I just LOVED Year My Voice Broke and Flirting." He admits to some parallels between Lawn Dogs and those early classics. "Duigan was the perfect director for this movie, the way it dealt with young people and the theme of outsiders." He says after this experience, and given his clear passion for Australian cinema, that he’d like to work with some more Australian directors.

"I just see myself as a character actor"

Though set in America's suburban south, it's clear that Lawn Dogs has a degree of universality. Rockwell defines the film "as being one about friendship and trust. And the ending of this movie still blows me away."

As for G.I. Jane, he had to quit after refusing to participate in key scuba diving scenes "which were never part of my contract. It's a pity, because I was looking forward to working with Ridley Scott."

Rockwell remains coy about the hype beginning to build around him. "I just see myself as a character actor. I'd like to be a star in the same way as Gary Oldman or John Malkovich are famous, who get to do character pieces and not act like movie stars."

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Sam Rockwell

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See our REVIEWS
of Lawn Dogs.

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See Paul Fischer's interview with director
JOHN DUIGAN

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