Sam Rockwell is munching cashews over the phone. Jumbo salted roasted cashews, he reads from the can between chews and apologizes.
It's the kind of conversation starter to be expected from Rockwell, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors because he's so dependably surprising. A face that's remembered, if not always his name.
Eating cashews in someone's ear seems ready material for any of Rockwell's affably rude characters: a con artist learning the ropes in Matchstick Men, game show host/CIA killer Chuck Barris in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, or most recently his crazed dog thief in Seven Psychopaths. Too many acting risks paying off to mention.
Rockwell's flair for offbeat characters continues in The Way, Way Back, opening Friday in Tampa Bay theaters. He plays a wisecracking swim park employee named Owen, who takes a shy teenager (Liam James) under his water wing during a summer the kid won't forget.
One reason the movie has a vaguely '80s vibe is Rockwell's performance, written by Oscar winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon with Bill Murray's Meatballs character in mind. Like Murray's camp counselor, Owen has an answer for everything but it'll be a non sequiter, a deadpanned put-on punctuated with a smile. The jokes seldom stop, and never stop being funny. Yet despite Owen's wisecracking confidence, Rockwell's single smartest acting decision is staying quiet, avoiding eye contact, at a pivotal instant late in the story that won't be spoiled here. It's a brief moment telling viewers something new about Owen, after everything we've learned through his dubious double talk.
"It's funny because I'd been talking the whole movie, so my impulse was to keep talking even during that moment," Rockwell said. "Nat, or maybe it was Jim, said just be quiet here, just make your print and stand up for what you believe.
"That's good. That's why you have a third eye watching. You need somebody to be watching what you're doing, other than yourself, you know?"
Actors looking out for each other are a necessity when making a low-budget ensemble piece like The Way, Way Back. You can sense that camaraderie on the screen, even when the characters are in conflict.
"It's a very special thing to be surrounded by people like that," Rockwell said. "Special like Seven Psychopaths when it was Chris Walken, Colin (Farrell), Tom Waits, Woody Harrelson. It's a lot of Elvises in the building. It's good to be a part of something like that, like you're in the Globetrotters or something.
"There's an understanding when you're in an ensemble piece that you have to make each other look good. If that other person doesn't connect the dots it doesn't work. You look better the more generous you are."
In that regard, Rockwell looks great. Readily complimented by co-stars for bringing his A-game, Rockwell may be the best actor of his generation who isn't especially well known. The name Sam Rockwell won't open a movie like Leonardo DiCaprio's but his performances always enhance them, even the lousy ones. Near the end of the interview, it's suggested that he's an actor too good to be a big movie star.
"I thought I WAS a big movie star," he said, with mock indignation. "Wait a minute," he said, sounding surprised and perturbed to a nearby publicist, "Molly, what the hell is going on? Are you telling me now I'm not a big movie star?"
Rockwell chuckled then continued: "Seriously, I'm very lucky with a great body of work and career. Hopefully it keeps on coming, you know? Keep on enriching and getting better. I'm one of the fortunate ones.
"But fame? I don't know. It depends on what you're talking about. If you're talking about Tom Cruise fame, I don't think I want that. Maybe Daniel Day-Lewis fame. That's a kind of cache I'd be happy with."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.