Sam Rockwell on Playing Billy Bickle in ‘Seven Psychopaths’
It is so much fun watching Sam Rockwell in Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths.” In the movie he plays Billy Bickle, an unemployed actor and friend to alcoholic screenwriter Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell). In addition, Billy is also a part-time dog thief who, along with his partner Hans (Christopher Walken), kidnaps dogs and then returns them to their owners who offer them a generous reward for their return. But Billy’s criminal deeds come back to haunt him when he steals a Shih Tzu which belongs to the vicious gangster Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), and Charlie will stop at nothing to get his beloved dog back.
Rockwell described the screenplay for “Seven Psychopaths” as great and said the part of Billy was “amazing.” You couldn’t agree with him more as this role gave him the opportunity to really chew up the scenery. Throughout, Billy fools around with his friend, unveils parts of his psyche which we do not see coming, and he eventually comes up with what he believes to be the mother of all action movie climaxes.
It’s also no mistake how Billy Bickle shares the same last name with Robert De Niro’s famous character of Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” However, it was another De Niro character which came to inform Billy more for Rockwell.
“Johnny Boy (from ‘Mean Streets’) is definitely a template for Billy, probably more than Travis Bickle I think,” said Rockwell. That kind of flamboyance that De Niro has in that and also in ‘New York, New York’ and ‘Midnight Run.’ He has a kind of flamboyance that is particular to those films.”
Other characters which inspired Rockwell’s performance in “Seven Psychopaths” were Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates) in “Misery,” and Timothy Treadwell who was the subject of Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary “Grizzly Man.”
In regards to the friendship between Billy and Marty, Rockwell remarked he found inspiration through the performances of Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in “The Fisher King” as well as the work of Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn in “Hurlyburly.”
“There are many examples of that kind of codependent, male-bonding relationship. Alpha-beta and beta-alpha switching,” Rockwell said of the above movies.
When it came to fleshing out the relationships of the characters played by Rockwell, Farrell and Walken, Rockwell said they all took the time to form a bond before shooting began. To that effect, they rented a house near Joshua Tree Park which is where the last half of “Seven Psychopaths” takes place. As for the bear hat Rockwell wears, Farrell ended up picking it out after finding it at a rest stop.
Many will come out of “Seven Psychopaths” saying Rockwell’s best scene comes when he discusses his idea for an action movie climax in a cemetery. In his best roles, Rockwell has such an unpredictable energy which continually makes him so fascinating to watch. It makes one wonder how much of this scene was scripted and what parts of it were improvised. Hearing Rockwell explain it is very interesting.
“It has to be in the writing or you can’t do it,” Rockwell said. “But certainly, all actors want to be spontaneous that’s the trick of acting, to be truthful under imaginary circumstances. You want it to be truthful, meaning it has to be fresh, it has to be spontaneous, so you have to trick yourself that it’s happening for the first time and trust this actor’s faith, so to speak.”
“I think that’s the little kid part of acting. Being with a kid is like hanging out with a drunken person or schizophrenic,” Rockwell continued. “One moment they’re crying and they’re sad, then they’re like hitting things, and that’s what actors have to do. They have to manipulate their emotions. You just got to really go back to that place of spontaneity and no boundaries.”
Watching “Seven Psychopaths” makes you realize just how much fun these actors had playing their roles. This is especially the case when you watch Sam Rockwell here, and his performance as Billy Bickle is another reminder of just how endlessly creative he is. To hear him talk about it, this was clearly one of his best experiences he has had so far in his career.
“What’s memorable for me is the experience that we had on the film. It was such a great experience,” Rockwell said. “We took our jobs very seriously, but we also had a lot of fun, and that’s what is really memorable for me. Of course, we want the movie to be a smash hit, but who knows what’s going to happen. I have memories of films that nobody ever saw, that I was very proud of, and those are still great memories. It would be great, if people saw this movie. It’s a cool movie.”
Steven M. Paquin, “Exclusive Interview: Martin McDonagh and Sam Rockwell talk ‘Seven Psychopaths’ and Writing for Women, Psychos, and More,” Just Press Play, October 12, 2012.
Christina Radish, “Sam Rockwell and Christopher Walken Talk ‘Seven Psychopaths,’ What Inspired Their Performances, Memorable Moments, and More,” Collider, October 11, 2012.