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25th Jan 2018

Sam Rockwell, Gary Oldman and the actors who are so good it harms their careers

Cinema's best kept secrets.

Wil Jones

Both Gary Oldman and Sam Rockwell received Oscar nominations this week, in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories respectively. And while the films they’re nominated for, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Darkest Hour, have both faced some justified criticism, no one is questioning the quality of their individual performances.

And it’s kind of fitting that both of them have been nominated in the same year (Oldman was also nominated in 2012, this is Rockwell’s first nod). I kind of think Rockwell has suffered from something Oldman did for a long time: being so good at disappearing into a role that people don’t recognise them, which actually ends up hurting their career.

The accolades Sam Rockwell is getting for Three Billboards feel almost like a coming out party for him. It’s not like Rockwell doesn’t already has an amazing CV: the mind-bending sci-fi Moon; his hilarious turn in Galaxy Quest; playing gameshow-host-turned-CIA-hitman Chuck Barris in Confessions Of A Dangerous Man; The Way Way Back; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Even in lesser films like Iron Man 2  and The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, he’s usually the best thing in them. He’s been cinema’s best kept secret.

Everyone agrees that Sam Rockwell is great. So why isn’t he one of ‘those’ actors that everyone gets excited about? Why isn’t he Denzel Washington, Tom Hardy, Mark Wahlberg, or Christian Bale?

I think I have the answer: he’s so good, you don’t realise it’s him. You simply don’t click that the guy who plays space hedonist Zaphod Beeblebrox in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is the same guy as the lonely, melancholic astronaut in Moon. Let alone the racist redneck cop on the edge in Three Billboards. Sure, IMDb tells you that it’s him, but your brain doesn’t make the subconscious connection.

And Rockwell does this not with unwieldy prosthetics, or gimmicky weight gain like Christian Bale, or going wildly over the top like DiCaprio. He’s just acting, man.

Think about it. Most superstar actors have their stock-in-trade. Morgan Freeman’s soothing-narration mentors. Ryan Gosling’s laconic cool and twitchy anxiety. Tom Hardy’s hyper-gruffness. Sam Rockwell just plays the character, and somehow becomes unrecognisable (even though he still looks the same). Which means you don’t click that it’s him in the next movie that you see him in. So he doesn’t become a name. He doesn’t become a brand. Being so good at his job has hurt his career. Only now, at the age of 49, is he getting Oscar recognition and being heralded as an A-lister.

For the longest time, it felt like Gary Oldman was suffering the same fate. He was always a very respected actor (and tbf, better known in the UK) – but look at his filmography in the 1980s and ’90s. Unhinged Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy. A football hooligan hiding behind a veil of respectability in The Firm. Dracula in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Beethoven-loving psycho in Léon. Bethoveen himself in Immortal Beloved. The dreadlocked pimp in True Romance. Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. A scenery-chewing terrorist in Air Force One. Many memorable performances, but so diverse and different. It wasn’t really until The Dark Knight movies, and he perfectly brought Frank Miller’s take on Commissioner Gordon to life, that it clicked to me: “Oh, that’s Gary Oldman, they’re all the same guy”. Obviously, I knew it was same actor, but it was so diverse that much like Rockwell, it didn’t feel like a singular body of work. My brain wasn’t having it.

There are others – great actors who’s names you recognise, faces you recognise, but for some reason they don’t click together. The great Brian Cox is one – the first (and best) Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, he’s been in X-Men movies, played real-life characters in Zodiac and Adaptation, and been brilliantly different in all of them. And his reward? Most people still get him mixed up with the celebrity scientist with the same name.

At the age of 29, Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson looks like he’s fallen into the trap – despite his ginger locks and beard seemingly making him stand out, he’s perfectly merged into films as diverse as mother! Star Wars, Dredd, Ex Machina and The Revenant, always being completely believable to the point that I keep forgetting who he is when I see his name on a poster. His Star Wars and Ex Machina co-star Oscar Isaacs seemed to doing the same – the scruffy troubadour of Inside Llewyn Davis, the well-meaning husband of Drive and the douchebag of Ex Machina did not seem to be the same guy – but he seems to have consolidated his brand on being slick space fighter Poe Dameron.

There was even a point where Michael Fassbender felt like this – I just didn’t draw the lines between his breakthrough roles an upperclass WWII soldier in Inglourious Basterds, a charismatic drifter in Fish Tank and a terrorised holidaymaker in Eden Lake.

Hopefully, all this means is we’ll get a few more big movies starring Sam Rockwell. There’s nothing wrong with actors who are “movies stars” first, who essentially alway do the same thing. But it’s great that guys like Rockwell can finally get recognition.