Sam Rockwell, and his many dance scenes in the movies

From Moon and Iron Man 2, to Charlie's Angels, we salute the dancing screen work of Mr Sam Rockwell...

This feature contains spoilers for Moon. You should be OK with knowing that Sam Rockwell dances in it, but if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to read the section on Moon later.

“I didn’t dance in Poltergeist. That’s probably progress for me. I’m a big ham. Me and Chris Walken, we’re big hams. We love to dance.”

– Sam Rockwell, to Port Magazine in 2014.

Movie actors are often praised for their chameleonic qualities, particularly around the awards season, but there are certain actors that we love for trademarks. They’re still good actors, but fandom can always be less about their ability to disappear into a role and more about that thing that they always do. Sam Rockwell dances. Blimey, does he dance.

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With a style that seems informed as much by Christopher Walken as James Brown, Rockwell dances in a lot of his movies and most of the time, you can be fairly sure that his character is going to cut a rug at some point or another. Of course, he’s given terrific performances in which he hasn’t danced at all, from The Green Mile to Galaxy Quest, but us Rockwell fans look forward to the dances.

Sometime this year, we’ll see the release of Mr. Right, a romantic comedy in which he plays a contract killer who starts killing the people that hire him (because murder is wrong, duh) through lots of dance-fighting. From that description, we’re hoping for something along the lines of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, which seemed designed as a musical with fights instead of songs, but either way, screenwriter Max Landis has promised that it will be “the Rockwell dance movie”.

Until we find out for sure, here are some of the other times that the actor has been known to bust a move.

Charlie’s Angels

The 2000 big-screen reboot of the 1970s TV series Charlie’s Angels is distinctive by its near-constant soundtrack and sometimes resembles nothing so much as a bunch of music videos strung together by a thin plot – it’s a McG joint from top to bottom. That said, the film is implausibly good fun and that’s due to the sheer amount of awesome on show from the cast, including Rockwell as kidnap victim turned bad guy Eric Knox. His heel turn is heralded by the strains of Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up, shortly after which he shoots Drew Barrymore’s Dylan through a plate glass window. Later and more memorably, he goes full Rockwell to Simon Says by Pharoahe Monch in his island lair. For straight-up villainous dancing, accept no substitutes.

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind

George Clooney’s directorial debut adapted the memoirs of dancing/killing machine Chuck Barris, who claimed to have been worked as an assassin for the CIA while also producing and presenting TV game shows The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. Rockwell gives a powerhouse lead performance, from the hyperactive quickstep in his public persona to the sneakier foxtrot that bears him through the darker, espionage fuelled passages of the film. His screen test famously consisted of him dancing for three solid minutes, so it’s little wonder that his Barris was just as energetic.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

We’ve looked at this much maligned Douglas Adams adaptation in more depth elsewhere and while the film has its under-appreciated merits, Rockwell’s turn as Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the parts that landed a little wide of the mark. Still, his trademark physicality is inevitably a part of a character with an extra limb and an extra head and it’s only natural that the show-boating president of the galaxy dances around a little. Most notably, there’s a whole music video that goes with the film called Vote Beeblebrox, a power ballad cum party political message (“Zaphod Beeblebrox/Has the longest name of any candidate.”) emphatically encouraging voters to elect him. He’s smarter than you, after all.

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Moon

Duncan Jones’ Moon tips into entirely different sci-fi territory around half an hour in – after watching Rockwell potter around on the lunar surface by himself for a stretch, his Sam Bell learns that he has been repeatedly cloned by his corporate paymasters in order to extend his contract, when he unexpectedly comes face to face with one of the duplicate Sams. It’s arguably his best ever performance, especially as he takes on multiple roles and inevitably winds up in a dance-off with his unimpressed other self when he puts Katrina and the Waves on the stereo.

Iron Man 2

Marvel’s first sequel opened with Tony Stark jumping out of a jumbo jet in his Iron Man duds, making a heck of an entrance at his Stark Expo. It’s not until later that we meet Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, a rival industrialist to Tony who desperately wants to be as cool as him but clearly has none of the panache. This is never more evident than when Hammer delivers his own presentation at Stark Expo near the end of the film, intended as the coup de grace in a plot to steal Tony’s own technology from him and repackage it for the military.

His entrance is correspondingly pathetic, but it does give Rockwell another opportunity to strut his stuff, to Average White Band’s Pick Up The Pieces. You wish you wanted anything as much as Hammer wants to be Tony Stark, but then we’ve never seen Robert Downey Jr. dance in these movies.

Conviction

This one was a rare bit of levity in a much more serious film about Betty Anne Walters (Hilary Swank), a single mother who became a lawyer in order to exonerate her wrongly convicted brother. Kenny has a knack for getting into trouble, as seen in an early scene where he gets into a drunken fight over a stray comment by a stranger while he dances with his infant daughter at a bar. The violence punctures the sweetness of Kenny to his daughter and foreshadows what’s to come, but typically, it’s immediately followed by him Rockwelling away to My Sharona. These dancing scenes are never quite as random as they seem and in this case, it purposefully informs Kenny’s personality and sets him up for a fall later on.

The Way Way Back

In this funny coming-of-age tale, Water Wizz park employee Owen serves as a mentor to the introverted Duncan, (Liam James) a 14-year-old who’s spending the summer with his mum and her obnoxious boyfriend. As is only right for any mentee of a Rockwell character, Duncan earns the nickname Pop ‘N’ Lock in a break-dancing competition with some other patrons of the water park and Owen hoofs it a little at a staff party later on too. With the influence of Bill Murray’s camp councillor in Meatballs looming large, this is Rockwell at his most likeable.

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Flight Facilities – Down To Earth

With all of this in mind, it was really only a matter of time before somebody got him to dance in a music video, and last year, he featured in the video to Flight Facilities’ track Down To Earth. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, he sits down in a diner and dreams of dancing over the counter and through the kitchen in a three-piece suit with lights out. Performance-wise, it’s like a spiritual B-side to Christopher Walken’s super cool turn in Spike Jonze’s video for Fatboy Slim’s Weapon Of Choice and in its own right, it’s pretty much guaranteed to put a smile on your face for four minutes. Perhaps it’s not quite as cool as Walken’s turn (and what is?) but in lieu of gravity-defying dancing, he does have a bit where he literally pulls the lasso move on the camera, which is as cool as that move will ever look.

He may consider his more static turn in the Poltergeist remake to be progress, but we kinda need Rockwell dancing in movies. Tom Cruise runs, Brad Pitt chews and Sam Rockwell dances his socks off- as trademarks go, it’s to be expected from one of the most energetic character actors working today.