FROM PULP TO POP­CORN

Samuel L. Jack­son is com­fort­able leap­ing be­tween pop­u­lar fare and stand­out­tand­out roles, writes s Kevin Ma­her

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile -

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

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