GUY RAZ, host:
On the big screen, actor Sam Rockwell's built a career on roles that create static. He played the crusading journalist in last year's "Frost/Nixon," after spending much of his early career playing second fiddle oddballs and hoodlums. But in his latest movie, the sci-fi film "Moon," Sam Rockwell is the leading man, in fact, the only actor.
NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.
NEDA ULABY: In "Moon," Sam Rockwell plays a lonesome mine technician working in outer space. He's struggling to maintain his sanity long enough to get home. His sole companion is a robot, Gerty.
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): (As Gerty) Sam, it might help you to talk about it.
Mr. SAM ROCKWELL (Actor): (As Sam Bell) Gerty, have you heard anything new about anyone fixing lunar (unintelligible)?
Mr. SPACEY: (As Gerty) No, Sam. What I understand is it's fairly low on the company's priority list right now.
Mr. ROCKWELL: (As Sam Bell) I've only got two weeks, but it's not fair to whoever is coming up here next.
ULABY: Forty-year-old Sam Rockwell is handsome in a humble kind of way, with squinty hazel eyes and a mobile face. He brings a sense of history to his roles. Sam Rockwell thought he'd made it when he was 17 years old and cast in the movie "Last Exit to Brooklyn."
(Soundbite of movie, "Last Exit to Brooklyn")
ULABY: Rockwell played a vicious little thug committing a hate crime.
Mr. ROCKWELL: We were throwing knives, switchblades, at a transvestite. It was a fun thing to be a part of. It was a hot summer in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Red Hook was really a ghetto, you know? We were out there doing this crazy movie, and we all thought it was going to be like the next "Raging Bull."
ULABY: Instead, Rockwell ended up delivering burritos, still waiting for his big break. He racked up starring roles in little indie films, like "Box of Moonlight" and "Lawn Dogs." George Clooney later fought to cast him as a mentally imbalanced game show host in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind."
Mr. ROCKWELL: I have to be careful. I mean, I've done a lot of bad guys. For some reason, people remember me from that stuff.
ULABY: It would be hard to forget Sam Rockwell as a freaky child killer in the prison movie "The Green Mile," or in "Charlie's Angels" as the slick, seductive baddie.
(Sound bite of movie, "Charlie's Angel")
Mr. ROCKWELL: (as Eric Knox) Mwah.
Unidentified Woman: No. No. No.
Mr. ROCKWELL: (as Eric Knox) Bad news, baby. There you go, torture and kill your boss.
ULABY: So, when director Duncan Jones offered Rockwell the chance to play another villain, Rockwell turned him down. But then their conversation turned geeky.
Mr. ROCKWELL: Our mutual love of science fiction came up, particularly this period of films from the late '70s and early '80s. And we talked about the acting in movies like "Alien" or John Carpenter's "The Thing," and that the acting was so kitchen-sink real.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Thing")
Unidentified Man #4: You guys going to listen to Garry? You're going to let him give the orders? I mean, he can be one of things.
Mr. ROCKWELL: Instead of casting a bunch of, like, very pretty people in a science fiction movie, like they kind of do now some times, they were these regular blue-collar people in space with a monster, you got sucked into that reality much quicker.
ULABY: Based on this one conversation, director Duncan 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.
Mr. ROCKWELL: Then he called the character Sam, and he made it such an actor's piece that I couldn't resist.
ULABY: An actor's piece that involved being on set all by himself, channeling emotions like confusion, desperation, fear. The month-long shoot, Rockwell says, was one of the most difficult and isolating he's ever experienced. He's the movie's only actor, not counting Gerty the computer.
Mr. ROCKWELL: (As Sam Bell) Gerty, if you don't let me go outside, we can't fix this leak.
Mr. SPACEY: (As Gerty) I'm not permitted to let you go outside.
Mr. ROCKWELL: (As Sam Bell) Just - well, we'll keep it between you and me. Okay, pal?
Mr. DUNCAN JONES (Director, "Moon"): "2001" obviously influences pretty much all science fiction. And in our film's case, the character Gerty the robot is obviously influenced by HAL.
ULABY: But director Duncan Jones' vision of technology is far sunnier than Stanley Kubrick's. It's generational, he says. His is the outlook of someone who grew up comfortably using technology and who studied artificial intelligence and ethics at Vanderbilt University's graduate program in philosophy.
Mr. JONES: I think human nature is the thing that changes slowly. Technology changes fast, and we can improve on technology fast. But human nature is the thing which takes a long time to improve.
ULABY: Human nature set and released against technology tells us a lot about ourselves, says Jones, and he explores that in "Moon," with computers and with clones. Jones says conversations about science and art were part of growing up with his dad.
(Soundbite of song, "Ground Control to Major Tom")
Mr. DAVID BOWIE (Singer): (Singing) Ground control to Major Tom.
ULABY: His dad, rock star David Bowie.
Mr. BOWIE: (Singing) Six, commencing countdown, engines on…
Mr. JONES: I mean, obviously, he's covered space in his early career. I was informed by a lot of the same things because I was around at the same time and place when he was working on that stuff.
ULABY: Duncan Jones, aka Zowie Bowie, says if nothing else, the film will please Sam Rockwell fans - it's all him. For his part, Rockwell says those fans will recognize "Moon" as the sort of audacious project that's mainly defined his career.
Mr. ROCKWELL: There has to be a creative element, or I'm not interested. It's like a gag reflex. I literally would be sick if I did something solely for the money and I couldn't find any creative way in.
ULABY: Sam Rockwell's next creative projects includes playing a talking guinea pig in a Disney movie. And he's once again a villain in the "Iron Man" sequel out next year.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
RAZ: If you visit npr.org, you can find a review of "Moon" by our critic Bob Mondello and clips from the film.