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Lucky Star Samuel L. Jackson

Lucky Star Samuel L. Jackson

Articles - Cover Story

With Bruce Willis in Die
Hard with a Vengeance
(1995).

ASK SAMUEL L. JACKSON what his middle initial
stands for, and he’ll happily tell you it stands for "Lucky." Not
the luck of the draw, like in the lottery, but the kind of
luck that occurs when preparation meets opportunity.

For my interview with Jackson, I headed to a converted
food processing plant in Pasadena that was doubling as the production
offices and soundstage for the new Kevin Reynolds film, 187, being
produced by Warner Brothers. I was politely informed that Mr. Jackson
was in makeup and that I’d have to wait about an hour and a half
to talk with him. Welcome to Hollywood.

When Jackson came out to introduce himself, I couldn’t
understand the lengthy delay. His face showed nary a trace of makeup.
It wasn’t until he extended his hand to shake mine that I saw the
nasty prosthetic knife wounds across his right hand. They looked
so realistic I was hesitant to shake his hand too firmly.

Samuel L. Jackson the actor can be menacing, imposing
and volatile all in the same moment. I found Sam Jackson the man
to be gentle, good-natured and intelligent, not to mention uproariously
funny. His acting technique is so rich in craft that in one moment
he’ll be breaking up the crew with witty barbs, and in the next
he’ll be settled, serious and intensely focused, waiting for the
director to yell, "Action!" Mr. Jackson spoke freely
and without restraint on a variety of topics from the living room
area of his spacious trailer.

Erich Leon Harris (ELH): Tell us a bit about
187 and how you came to be in it.

Samuel L. Jackson (SLJ): I got the script
while I was shooting The Long Kiss Goodnight in Canada. It’s a
really nice psychological study of a teacher. This guy has wanted
to be a teacher since he was a kid. He’s in the school system in
New York City, and he fails a kid who needs to pass a class to
get off probation, but he doesn’t know it. This kid ends up stabbing
the guy twelve times and almost kills him. The teacher leaves New
York, moves to L.A. and goes back into the school system. He’s
trying to regain that love for teaching that he had, and to get
over his fear of being in the classroom. But he’s thrown into a
school that has all these gang kids. They start to harass him,
and he begins to unravel. It’s a study of how this guy becomes
unglued through the system.

ELH: Someone described it as To Sir with Love
meets Blackboard Jungle meets Blade Runner.

In Spike Lee’s Jungle
Fever
(1991).

SLJ: Yeah, these kids are pretty dangerous.
It was an interesting kind of struggle, trying to get hold of this
film, because the character was not written as an African-American.
Initially there was some resistance from the studio because they
didn’t see how the story would work any other way. In my mind it
was a much more interesting story putting an African-American in
that situation, rather than putting in a Caucasian teacher.

ELH: The key thing that stands out in the
minds of people who know your work is that you are a chameleon.
You never play the same guy twice. Many people don’t know that
you were Mr. Señor Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right
Thing
, and the Captain in Patriot Games, as well as Jules in Pulp
Fiction
. Even if you were to see those three characters side-by-side
in a photo, you might not know that they were all Sam Jackson.

SLJ: I hope not.

ELH: A lot of actors are said to be, in essence,
playing themselves. Is it important for you not to do that?

In Boaz Yakin’s Fresh (1994).

SLJ: I don’t want to reinvent myself. That’s
easy to do, to walk out there and do the same guy over and over,
or guys very close to me. To grab hold of the craft of acting the
way I did in theater, you weren’t cast as yourself. The characters
in plays tend to be very different kinds of guys. To be able to
be them is what acting is; not to pretend to be something that
is so close to you that you don’t have a chance to stretch. I’m
constantly trying to find ways to challenge myself as an actor
and as a human being. To see how someone else lives. To inhabit
another person. To feel the things that they feel. To think the
way they think. To explore the human condition.

ELH: You went to Moorehouse College. How did
your parents react to your decision to study theater?

SLJ: When I told my mother that I had changed
my major to acting, she wanted to know what I was going to do for
a living.

ELH: That’s not an announcement that would
go over very well in a black home.

SLJ: It’s not something they see as a viable
career choice–until your first commercial. Then my mom’s friends
would say, "Oh I saw Sam on television." She would get
proud and say, "Oh, yes. Well, you know, he’s an actor." But
for a long time I was just doing theater, and that wasn’t flying
with them.

A Time to Kill (1996).

ELH: Were you making a living doing theater?

SLJ: Oh, yeah, definitely. I was paying my
bills and having a good time.

ELH: We just saw a scene between you and Kanna
Arroyave, in which she is upset about flunking out of school. It
was a very emotional scene; she was weeping and carrying on. Her
method of acting was very method-like, and I’m certain at the end
of the day she’ll be wrung out. Do you ascribe to any particular
acting method?

SLJ: No, I never studied any of those things.
I have a plan. I know what the plan is, and I know how to reach
emotional points inside the time they give me to do them. When
somebody says "Cut!" I let it go. I can’t walk around
with all that baggage. I have enough baggage of my own. Who knows,
the phone may ring and I may have to talk to an agent and try to
make a deal. I can’t have Trevor Garfield [Jackson’s character
in 187] trying to make a deal for Sam Jackson. (laughs). I’ve got
to deal with that.

ELH: How do you feel about competing against
other actors for roles?

SLJ: I only do the jobs that I am supposed
to do. I can’t do every job that’s out there. The jobs that come
my way are the jobs that are supposed to be mine. I don’t look
at other actors and say, "You took my job!" Actors say
that a lot. "That was my job!" Oh? I didn’t know you
got fired from that job. They’ll say, "I never got the job,
I auditioned for it." Oh, well it wasn’t your job. I don’t
see myself as having competition, and acting is not a competition.
There are certain projects that I was considered for that I either
turned down or passed on or whatever, because that wasn’t the job
that I was supposed to do. I know that I am going to work for someone.
I’ve always known that. Even in the days when I was doing theater,
going to five or six auditions a week, I knew that if I did that,
then I was going to get a job.

ELH: One criticism of A Time to Kill was that
your character didn’t have enough to do. Do you agree with that
critique?

With Geena Davis in The Long
Kiss Goodnight
(1996).

SLJ: I shot more stuff, and for whatever reason,
it’s not in the film. There were more scenes, but then you’d have
a four-hour movie. Everybody shot more stuff, but Joel [Schumacher]
had to keep what he needed to keep. He was trying to move the story
in a very specific way. Sure, there are things that I did that
I would have loved to see in the movie. One of my favorite moments
is not in the film. But there is nothing I can do about that. Maybe
one of these days when they do the laserdisc version, Joel will
put it all in there and there it will be.

ELH: In the scene that moved me most, you
spoke no words. It was the scene when you surrendered to the Sheriff,
played by Charles Dutton. Is that acting without acting?

SLJ: Yeah. You know, Charles is an immaculate
theater actor. We’ve done some of the same plays. It’s very easy
to come out and do a scene with someone like Charles. That was
one change I wanted to make. In that, I saw Carl Lee as a very
touching, and hugging, family kind of guy. So he would have brought
his family together and already told them, "I’ve got to go
to jail for a while. I know that I will be out." I’d have
told the kids that they are now the men of the house, take care
of your mother and your sister when she gets out of the hospital.
Everybody has strength, everybody has faith. We hugged and let
it go. He knows that he’s going to jail, but he’s going with somebody
he’s known all of his life. No need for cuffs or any of that.

ELH: Tell me about The Long Kiss Goodnight,
which is a Renny Harlin film staring you and Geena Davis.

With Halle Berry in Losing
Isaiah
(1995).

SLJ: It’s a Shane Black script. One of the
first three- or four-million dollar scripts that sold in Hollywood
after a huge bidding war. The story centers on the Geena Davis
character, who is a schoolteacher who’s had amnesia for eight years.
She’s hired a series of private eyes to find out who she is. Now
she’s down to hiring cheap private eyes. I’m the last private eye
she hires, a guy by the name of Mitch Hennessy. We end up taking
a road trip together, all the while being chased down by the government.
It’s pretty exciting stuff.

ELH: The list of directors you’ve worked with
reads like the great and near-great of new American Cinema. As I
say some names, tell me what comes to mind.

SLJ: Word association? Okay, I’ll play.

ELH: Boaz Yakim?

SLJ: Talented. Great storyteller. Very compassionate.

ELH: Joel Schumacher?

In his first feature, Ragtime (1981).

SLJ: Joyous. Happy. Free.

ELH: Spike Lee?

SLJ: (laughs) Angry. Controversial. Marketing
genius.

ELH: Everyone says that about Spike. I think
Carl Franklin used those exact words. Quentin Tarantino?

SLJ: Mad. Genius. Mad-genius. He’s the perfect
cocktail of theater and cinema.

ELH: Oliver Stone?

SLJ: I never worked with Oliver! I auditioned
for Oliver. I had two chances to work with him, but he never hired
me.

ELH: You said Gator from Jungle Fever as one
of your favorite characters. An argument could be made that Gator
was a stereotypical character. The same could be said for Morgan
Freeman’s pimp in Street Smart. In both cases you guys brought
a freshness and humanity to the roles. How do you respond to politically
correct African-American actors who object to being depicted in
certain ways?

SLJ: Well, that’s their problem. We’ve been
given a lot of stock roles over the years. The pimp is one of them,
the drug addict another. Criminals, bank robbers, rapists… When
you get those roles, people will ask, "Why did you take a
role like that?" Well, number one, I needed the job. Number
two, when you get a role like that, the first thing you do is not
make him common and not play him as a stock character.

ELH: Earlier this year, Wallace Terry in Parade
magazine wrote, "Samuel L. Jackson’s searing portrayal of
a crack addict was a turning point in his career. One reason he
was so convincing was that he had been a drug abuser himself." Without
going into the story too deeply, I wonder if you have some message
for people who have not yet come out of the other side like you
have?

In Kiss of Death (1995).

SLJ: There is no message in that, besides
the fact that it was my life and how it worked. I don’t go around
preaching to people about drugs, and not to use, because that was
my story. Truth be told, for twenty-three years I thought that
I was having a great time. I was doing my job. I was making money.
I was going to work every day. I was still developing a great reputation
as an actor. And I was on a substance all the time. Alcohol, drugs
or something. I was still doing the things I needed to do. I thought
that was how it was done. All the great ones were substance abusers.
The Burtons of the world were drinkers. I thought all of that was
okay, as long as we performed. So when that started to get in the
way of what I was doing, then it was time to stop. Being able to
do Gator was cathartic. When Ossie [Davis] shot Gator, I killed
that guy off for good. My new drug is golf. It’s my drug of choice.
I also think that if I go back to using, all of this will go away.
(laughs) I’d rather have my big trailer.

ELH: The success, the fame, the money, the
critical acclaim, versus doing your best work. Are those things
in conflict with each other? Or simply by-products?

SLJ: Well, I know that I’m doing this film
because the people at Warner Brothers saw A Time To Kill and said, "Okay,
that’s a chance we can take." I did Die Hard because I did
Pulp Fiction. Yes, some of those things go together. Now I don’t
have to go to auditions and read with a dozen other people. Even
on this short "A-list" of black actors, a lot of the
scripts that I get don’t have the fingerprints of other people
on them anymore. I don’t have those kinds of problems. Fame? I
don’t know. I knew what I was getting into when I got into this
business. I don’t stop people from taking my picture when I’m walking
down the street. I make people say please when asking me for an
autograph, but I don’t say no. I don’t walk around with bodyguards.
I don’t run from people, because they made us who we are. It’s
not the Motion Picture Academy. It’s not the press or the Golden
Globes. It’s those people who go out and spend that seven-fifty
that make us who we are.

In Jurassic Park (1992).

ELH: Let’s talk about your Academy Award nomination.
I had the opportunity to read the Pulp Fiction screenplay three
months before the movie opened. I knew then it was the best thing
I’d read in a long time.

SLJ: So did I, the first time I picked it
up. I also knew that when they opened that envelope they would
say, "The Oscar goes to Martin Landau." I had been to
enough of those dinners and parties and other award ceremonies
to know. Just for a fleeting moment, when they started reading
the nominations and they said my name, I may have thought, "Maybe
the law of averages is going to catch up with him. He won all of
the little ones, I’m going to win the big one. Nah." I can’t
fool myself. I’m pretty pragmatic.

ELH: So you just enjoyed the ride?

SLJ: I don’t know that I enjoyed it. I had
a good time with the people who knew me, and the people who were
in my camp. Pulp Fiction stands as what it is. The role of Jules
will always be there for people to look at. To me, the criterion
for winning an award should be: number one, Did that role serve
the film well? and number two, Was it a dynamic and challenging
role that audiences were moved by? I watched Ed Wood to see what
I was up against, and when I woke up I didn’t know. It’s just that
simple for me. Like Martin Landau said when he accepted the award, "Thank
you and all fifteen people who paid to see this movie." If
that’s the case, then he didn’t fulfill the criterion for even
being eligible for the award, let alone winning. Martin is a fine
actor. Everyone kept telling me, "Well, he’s been nominated
several times and he’s old now." Well, Morgan [Freeman] has
been nominated four times and he’s old, so where’s his Oscar? Nobody
wants to talk about that.

ELH: I thought the honor was in just being
nominated.

SLJ: I’m not going to be a party to the "it’s
just an honor to be nominated" bullshit. If I’m in a contest,
then dammit I want to win! It’s like playing basketball or football.
You don’t go to a contest to lose. There is no silver fucking Oscar,
or bronze. If it’s going to be a contest, then I want to win. What
do I have to do? I’ve done my part, now what? It’s funny, because
everyone I talked to said they voted for me. So who voted for Martin?

ELH: There’s talk again of an Oscar nomination
for you.

SLJ: Yeah? Well, the Oscars are in March,
and that’s a long way off. A lot of films coming out between now
and December. One of them happens to be mine.

ELH: How do you feel about your chances?

SLJ: I think that the role of Carl Lee fulfills
the criterion that I have for being nominated. It’s early yet.

ELH: So what’s your great ambition now?

SLJ: Eight or ten years back, when Sir Laurence
Olivier died, they did a tribute to him on the Oscars. They put
his face on the screen. As they talked about him, his face morphed
into all of these different characters that he’d done in all of
these films. You could sit there and look at this great body of
work and be awestruck at his range. That’s the ambition. To have
this body of work that people could look at and be moved by. There’s
a whole gamut of films I’m associated with. People can always say
that I gave them their money’s worth, and I was the kind of actor
they enjoyed watching. Hopefully that will allow Hollywood to say, "There’s
got to be another Sam Jackson out there somewhere, let’s find him."

ELH: Do you project ahead, saying, My next
three projects are this; or do you wait to see what comes along?

SLJ: I’d like for that to be the case. I could
tell you what Bruce Willis’s next four movies are, and he makes
a lot more money than I do. Yet and still, I know what my next
movie is. After that I have a huge window, from November until
the rest of my life. I have no idea what my next film is at that
point. I have had years where I knew what I was going to do for
the next six or seven months. A lot of times things just come up.
I’m reading a lot of stuff, a lot of bad stuff. I’ve turned down
enough stuff to have had a job. But I haven’t read something that
leaps out at me. Well I have read it, but they haven’t green-lit
it because they have to get a star first.

ELH: You are the star of this picture, 187.
Do you feel the pressures or responsibilities are different, in
terms of carrying a film as opposed to being a supporting player?

SLJ: I try not to think of it in that way.
My job is to give them an honest portrayal of Trevor Garfield.
It is Kevin’s job to cut this thing together and make it the story
I read. A lot of times that doesn’t happen. You do a film and you
go and see it and it’s not the film that you saw on the page. Sometimes
the actor gets blamed for that, sometimes not.

ELH: There are a lot of young actors who look
at you and say, "I want to be where Sam is." What do
you say to them?

SLJ: Somebody once told me that luck is the
perfect meeting of preparation and opportunity. I would say: Always
be prepared. The thing they don’t teach you in acting class is
that it takes a lot of luck for this to happen. You have to be
good enough, then be in the right place at the right time. Then
be in the right project, seen by the right people, or have the
right things said about you, to make this happen. MM

Erich Leon Harris is author of the just-published
book African-American Screenwriters Now–Conversations with Hollywood’s
Black Pack. He lives and writes from his home in Los Angeles.

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