Sam Rockwell Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Sam Rockwell is that rare kind of actor who never lets the viewer down. Who could ever forget him as the eminently snide Charley Ford in The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford; the sex-addicted conman Victor Mancini in Choke; the lone astronaut Sam Bell in Moon, or the egomaniacal Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2?

For his latest picture, the based-on-fact drama Conviction, Rockwell plays Kenny Waters, a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and served 18 years in prison, while his high-school drop-out sister, Betty Anne Waters (Hilary Swank), fought for his freedom.

Naturally, Rockwell is astonishing, delivering a performance that has left him strongly tipped for an Oscar. Chris Sullivan talked to him about the role…

CS: When this amazing story dropped on your doorstep, what did you think?
SR: “I thought it was a beautiful story. I’d always wanted to play a character like that and it’s a great love story, so that was exciting. Hilary is such a powerhouse actress, it was always going to be good.”

It’s an unbelievable story. Did it take you aback?
“Yes it did. She’s [Betty Anne] a pretty amazing woman and the thing I find about her that is unique and amazing is that you’d easily underestimate her because she’s so nice. You can’t see the steeliness to her – there’s ferocity behind that sweet side.”

Have you had experience in prison cells before?
“I’ve been in a few non-operational prisons before and played the psycho inmate in The Green Mile. I visited a few friends in prison and talked with a couple of friends of mine who said that it’d hard for me to imagine but somehow you kind of have to go there.”

Did Conviction make you question the American legal system or did you always?
“Yeah. Sure. I think I was a bit naive and put a lot of faith in the system. There’s a lot of innocent people [in prisons], and I think the system is flawed – there’s a lot of cracks in the armour.”  

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Looking back on Conviction are you pleased?
“Yeah I am pleased.”

Is that a privilege?
“Yeah, because you’re not always pleased. You can look back sometimes and see that you don’t always hit the right note.”

How would you like to see yourself in the future?
“I really don’t know because I never know what’s coming. And you know what they say: ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans’.”

What would you say is the book or film that helped you the most?
“A documentary called Scared Straight, a kind of a reality show about prison. There were books, such as In The Belly Of The Beast, and movies like Dead Man Walking and In The Name Of The Father.”

Did you want to be an actor when you were a kid?
“My parents were actors so I grew up with it, but my dad quit to get a job to raise me when they were separated. My mom continued acting in New York and I was in San Fran with my dad. He needed to get a regular job, but I would visit my mom in the summer. They ended up throwing me in a play with her when I was 10 but I didn’t take it seriously. After high school, I went to New York to become an actor but still wasn’t taking it seriously. I was just chasing girls. Then it all clicked somehow and I trained properly.”

Conviction is on general release now

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