FROM PULP TO POPCORN
Samuel L. Jackson is comfortable leaping between popular fare and standouttandout roles, writes s Kevin Maher
It is known to fans of blockbuster entertainment as the Samuel L. Jackson moment. A dramatic high point, the action stops, the camera swoops in on Jackson and the veteran of more than 100 movies boldly unleashes a showpiece line. In Pulp Fiction it was: “Oh, I’m sorry, did I break your concentration?” And in Snakes on a Plane it was: “I have had it with these motherf..king snakes on this motherf..king plane.”
In Jackson’s latest release, Kong: Skull Island, the 68-year-old actor, playing a marine lieutenant on the trail of the monster monkey, is spoilt for choice. Early on he gets the self-aggrandising “I am the cavalry”. Later, moments from a confrontation with Kong: “It’s time to show Kong that man is king.”
“I call them T-shirt lines and I’ve got a lot of them,” he says. “I look at the script and I go, ‘That’s a T-shirt. That’s a T-shirt. And that’s a T-shirt.’ And sometimes they’re so corny … But my job is to say them so they sound natural.”
Jackson is good humoured and phlegmatic; the only time his mood darkens slightly is when I mention that he once played golf with Donald Trump. “Yeah,” he sighs, unimpressed. “Years ago.” Jackson claimed last year that Trump had cheated, while Trump claimed not to remember the game. Is there anyone with whom he won’t play golf? He pauses, thinks and says, “Him, now.” But it’s said that as his term continues, Trump is becoming more presidential. “No he’s not,” he snaps. “It’s the same thing, just quieter. It’s the same lies, the same exaggerations, the same me, me, me.” He sighs and says: “I dunno. Everybody makes mistakes, but we made a big one here.”
Jackson is strong on politics. He was a civil rights activist in his college days and is often quick to comment on Twitter, where he has more than six million followers, on American racial flashpoints (this month he tweeted that Ben Carson, Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was a “muthaf*kka” for suggesting that the slaves shipped to America were “immigrants”). He has also narrated the civil rights documentary I Am Not Your Negro, released next month. It’s a brilliant and excoriating analysis of American racial inequality that is built upon the words of the novelist and playwright James Baldwin, which are spoken by Jackson in hushed, gravel-throated tones.
Jackson says Baldwin was a key influence in his college days and he loved the way the documentary examined the propaganda value of classic Hollywood movies. I Am Not Your Negro is one of Jackson’s most muted roles of recent years, but also his most effective and moving; the voice at times seems close to tears. Where Kong is disposable, I Am Not Your Negro is profound. Yet the sheer range displayed between the two projects is another reminder of Jackson’s ability to bounce between popcorn fare and standout roles in Oscarfriendly material for Quentin Tarantino — he nabbed a best supporting actor nomination for Pulp Fiction, yet was unfairly overlooked for Jackie Brown, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight.
The Oscars are something of a pet peeve for Jackson. “I don’t do Oscar bait,” he says. “Every year people are like [voice drops to whisper], ‘Oh my God, you have to do this movie. This is the one that’s going to get you an Oscar.’ And I watch certain actors, every year, at that time, do a movie with that in mind. And the movie comes out and you’re supposed to go, ‘ Oh my god!’ But I go, ‘ Oh come on, man. That’s just Oscar bait. Why are you doing that? Let it go.’ ”
He says his Oscar scepticism started in 1991 with his standout role as Gator the crack addict in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. That performance, a riot of fearsome dance moves and tender twitches, was universally adored, earned him a best supporting actor award at Cannes and beyond, yet was ignored at the Oscars.
“Everyone told me I was going to get a nomination, but when they came out they had given them to these people from Bugsy (Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley). And so my wife and I went to see Bugsy, and she came out crying, like, ‘ What the f..k?’ And I was like, ‘Really? Those are the performances?’ So I just decided right there that Oscars are not going to define my career.” His one metric for success is populism. “The Oscars should have a category called ‘movie that made the most money this year’,” he says. “And that’s pretty much the best movie of the year. What could be wrong with that?”
Jackson’s love of blockbusters comes from his childhood and a yearning to see movies that allowed him “to escape whatever life I was living and to fantasise about something that was greater than me”. That life was the segregated south in the 1950s. He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised by his mother and grandparents. He took drama courses at Morehouse College in Atlanta and joined the Black Power movement, attending rallies until, in 1969, the FBI warned his mother that Jackson needed to leave Atlanta or he might be killed.
He moved to Los Angeles briefly, then to New York, where he acted on stage and developed a drug habit that lasted until a stint in rehab in 1990. He found fame the next year, at the age of 43, in Jungle Fever. Does he wish he had sorted himself out at a younger age? “No. I was in my own way for a long time, yes, but if it had happened earlier I would’ve had access to everything I was addicted to. I was desperate at the time to scrape my money together to get a gram of cocaine. All of a sudden you get famous and people are giving you an ounce of cocaine. It happened when it was supposed to.”
Jackson appeared in Jurassic Park in 1993 and Pulp Fiction in 1994, and the rest is history happily repeating itself until finally, in 2009, Guinness World Records declared him the world’s highest-grossing actor. He has been married to the producer LaTanya Richardson for 36 years.
The secret to his youthful looks, however, is far more prosaic. “I do Pilates three times a week, weight training three times a week and massage and acupuncture two times a week. I take care of myself.” He says he lives modestly, doesn’t travel with bodyguards, drives a Range Rover, but otherwise, thanks to his star power, he has few remaining material needs. “People say: ‘What’s the best thing about being a movie star?’ You know the answer? Free shit. Things I used to buy, now I don’t have to. Designer suits. Hundreds of pairs of trainers. Whatever. You make a phone call and you can pretty much get what you need.”
He always likes to know the next three movies that he’s doing, and these include a Brie Larson indie ( Unicorn Store) and a Ryan Reynolds action movie ( The Hitman’s Bodyguard). He is not sure if he’s in the next Avengers instalments, but he’s aware that he “owes them a couple of movies” on his nine-picture deal. And if it seems, in the shadow of Kong and Avengers and his popular franchise fixation, that he’s doing too much, well he’s just doing as much as he can.
“I take every opportunity that I can because there’s a finite window in terms of how much acting you are actually able to do,” he says, tongue nowhere near cheek. “And right now I have an awesome job. I am an artist. And I crave acting. Why wouldn’t I go and do it?”
THE OSCARS ARE SOMETHING OF A PET PEEVE FOR JACKSON. ‘I DON’T DO OSCAR BAIT,’ HE SAYS