Veteran character actor Sam Rockwell struts his stuff as the wild and crazy President of the Galaxy in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
Sam Rockwell returns to sci-fi six years after his hilarious role as Guy Fleegman in the vastly underrated Galaxy Quest. He plays Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, hard-partying President of the Galaxy in the film adaptation of Douglas Adams' classic novel, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Sam puts on quite a show as Zaphod, mixing Elvis with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and of all people, Vince Vaughn. It's a different take on the character, but die-hard fans should get a kick out of his performance.
Is Zaphod the opposite of Guy Fleegman, your character in Galaxy Quest?
Sam Rockwell: He's sort of an extension of Guy Fleegman, in a way. Guy's just not as cool as Zaphod. He doesn't have that kind of charm. He's the guy that everyone wants to avoid. Zaphod's very Bill Clinton, he's a very charming guy. He has to be, that's what it said in the book, so I had to pull it out of somewhere.
We've heard that you were using 80's heavy metal icons as inspiration for the character.
Sam Rockwell: Yeah, my girlfriend at the time suggested Freddie Mercury. I watched a lot of Queen, that's how I came up with the gold, Excalibur-type of chain mail on his hand. Freddie Mercury had that in some rock video. He had these painted nails, so we did that. Originally he had these heavy boots, but I said we need to make him slicker, fine-tuned; so he can dance, be kind of slippery. We had this gold shirt too. That was really key. We originally had a red shirt, but I wanted something shiny, like Elvis. I kept pushing for the Elvis, Freddie Mercury vibe. Zaphod did have a costume that was kind of set, so there wasn't too much messing around with it. You're dealing with a lineage here. There were certain expectations for Zaphod, but I messed with it a little bit. I got a gun in there. We designed a gun that I could twirl. You only see it in certain scenes.
How did you feel about the way they did your two heads?
Sam Rockwell: We had to come up with something new. It wasn't like the book or the TV series. We had to come up with a whole second personality, because it doesn't have that in the book. That's a new thing, having it inside the chest. For the first read-through I had two different accents, a New York sort of Ratso Rizzo accent for the first head and full throttle Bill Clinton for the other one. It was kinda cool. I liked it, but it was a little out there. We decided the two heads should talk the same but act differently. It distinguishes the characters a bit. One is more dark, like my character in "The Green Mile", but hopefully not that dark. I hope there are some differences in there.
Was there any George W. Bush there as well?
Sam Rockwell: I watched Bush and I watched Clinton. There's definitely some Vince Vaughn in there. Vince does a great Elvis, so I took a lot of his rhythms and his adlibs. I steal from all over the place, like Bill Murray in "Kingpin". He's not as mean as that character. It's really up for interpretation because in the book you can't tell if he's a genius or a moron.
Were you a fan of the books before you auditioned?
Sam Rockwell: No, I wasn't a fan of the books. I read it before the movie. I read the first book. There's some good stuff in there, like when he comes to steal ‘The Heart of Gold'. There are people waiting to see the new president, with baited breath. He just looks at the spaceship and goes "wow", after this long pause. The people have been waiting and waiting for the president of the galaxy and all he says is "wow". They're waiting for something profound. They're great little bits like that in the book, the vocabulary as well. Robbie [Stamp, Executive Producer] helped with that. "Sass that hoopy" or "zarkon frood", what does that mean? It's like another language.
Sci-fi fans are intense. Are you worried about their reaction to your performance?
Sam Rockwell: I think we've already gotten some negative and positive responses to the movie. I haven't had any first-hand contacts with anyone yet. I think that's going to happen in London. It'll be interesting.
Was there a particular scene that blew you away when you finally saw the movie?
Sam Rockwell: That dolphin stuff was great. I thought that was amazing. I loved the Guide graphics. It almost steals the movie. Allan Rickman [voice of Marvin] was great. Warwick [Davis, actor that plays Marvin] was great with the body movements. I just thought the movie was really fun. There's some amazing stuff in there. I think people are going to dig it…I hope. I don't know if America will get it, but it has enough special effect, shits and giggles. It's very British, but I think its universal enough.
You had originally read for Ford Prefect's character?
Sam Rockwell: I read for Ford. That was odd, but then they got Mos [Def]. I heard Will Ferrell or Jack Black was doing Zaphod, then it went away for a long time. Then I heard that I got the part. I sort of did this crap reading for Zaphod. I didn't know what they wanted, so I went in to meet with them again. My girlfriend of the time said I should do that Vince/Elvis thing. I said they'll never go for it. I did it, they said it was cool, but tone down the southern accent a bit. Then I started throwing in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. They went for it. They went for all this crazy stuff, like little gibberish things. Garth [Jennings, the director] had these great ideas. Those aren't like director ideas. They're like actor ideas. That's what makes Garth really special. He really understood. He really keyed me into what Zaphod was all about. Zaphod had to be likeable, that's the key to Zaphod. But being that the second head was more dark, it made Zaphod more benign and affable.
What was it like to work with Mos Def? His casting as Ford Prefect was very controversial.
Sam Rockwell: Is it? I don't know, I think it's cool. I think that Mos is great in the movie. I loved Mos. He's a very charming guy. He's another guy like Garth, hard not to like. That guy could get away with murder. Mos is so charming. He's a great a storyteller. He'll be sitting, telling a story, and all these people would gather around him. Mos is Mr. Cool. He's like Fonzie, Al Green.
What about working with Martin Freeman?
Sam Rockwell: Martin Freeman's a prick! (Laughs) Just kidding! Martin's a really funny, funny guy, very acerbic, very dry. He's incredibly witty in the same way Vince Vaughn is. He's got a quick wit. He's a great film maker. He's fantastic in "The Office". He shows great restraint in his work. It's very sophisticated film acting. I think it comes across in the movie. Although, in the movie he's called upon to do this high stakes stuff. It's bigger than "The Office" but he fulfills it in a very real way. It's much different than the original Arthur Dent. He's more of a regular bloke, like the English Seinfeld. It's much more of a regular guy in a bathrobe going into space.
A question about your career choices, do you always pick characters that are kind of mischievous?
Sam Rockwell: Zaphod's like that. The guy in "Matchstick Men" was a con man. "The Green Mile" guy was all over the place, like a stand-up routine. He wanted to freak out everybody. I love The Green Mile Guy, he just wants to stir it up. He's the guy that shits on the rug…and he does some bad things. I think any chance you get to play that "fuck you" guy it's always fun. That's why bad guys are fun, but I've got to stop playing bad guys. But you get to break the rules, you're given permission to do that, that's always fun.
Has your edginess helped or hurt your career?
Sam Rockwell: It depends on which part you're trying to get. It's hard to not get typed in Hollywood. They really want to type you. I'm trying to avoid that, because I want to do a lot of things. I know what I'm capable of. I forgive them because they don't know. They haven't seen me play Hamlet. They're not going to cast me as an English aristocrat. I'm going to have to prove that on my own. That's okay. That's what you have to fight for if you want to be an artist.
What was the first movie that made an impression on you?
Sam Rockwell: "King Kong", the original 1933 one, and maybe "West World". I identified with King Kong, that whole thing with Fay Wray. He was the unsung hero. He doesn't get the girl, but you want him too…in a weird way.
Dont't forget to also check out: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy