The inspirational story of how Samuel L. Jackson said he’d quite like to be in a Star Wars movie and then wound up in a Star Wars movie. NB: this only works if you are Samuel L. Jackson.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON WEARS HIS heart on his sleeve. Actually, to be more accurate, he wears it on his chest. Over recent months, the star has used his Instagram account to show off T-shirts he owns that celebrate his favourites from the 118 movies he has made to date. In one photo, he’s sporting a natty orange number bearing a cartoon version of Jules Winnfield, Jackson’s indelible enforcer from Pulp Fiction (Instagram caption: “Today’s mood. Might have to cap a muphukaa today”). In another, he’s wearing a white one emblazoned with the funky logo for Jungle Fever, the early-career Spike Lee joint in which he played Gator Purify. Another garment is shark-themed, celebrating his 1999 schlockbuster Deep Blue Sea (caption: “Morning mood, Sharkey! Ready to be deadly & in constant motion”).
And then there’s the T-shirt Jackson donned when he woke up on 4 May. Black, adorned with three phosphorescentpurple stormtroopers in battle position, it was unmistakeable as a piece of Star Wars merch. But if there was any doubt, the actor helpfully posed for the may-the-fourth-be-with-you selfie while gripping the lightsaber he once used as Jedi master Mace Windu. Star Wars is, and has been for some time, something of which Jackson can’t get enough.
Which is why, one lunchtime in early June, he turns up to spend the afternoon with Empire in an LA photo studio, reminiscing about his years as Mace Windu. And why he’s brought along that very same lightsaber. As he points out with a grin, at the top of the hilt are three letters — “BMF” — which he had etched on by the propmasters during the shoot for Attack Of The Clones. They stand for “Bad Motherfucker”. A phrase which fits both Jackson and Windu to a T.
Jackson first went
into space one balmy summer’s day in 1977. His future as a billion-dollar-grossing movie star was a long time ahead, in a town far, far away: that night he was in New York, a struggling, 29-year-old theatre actor who was occasionally managing to bag a bit-part in a movie or TV show. During that period, he played ‘Patrolman’ in an episode of big-rig-trucking serial Movin’ On, and appeared as Sam in interracial romance Black Cream. “That was pretty much it,” he remembers. “I had enough time during the day to catch a movie and then make it to whatever theatre I was working at.”
That afternoon, he decided to hit a picturehouse on 44th Street to check out this new thing everybody was talking about called Star Wars. Jackson was an avid sci-fi fan who had grown up inhaling movies such as The Blob and I Married A Monster From Outer Space. Besides, he had some marijuana on him, so even if it
turned out to be a dud, he could at least lean back and enjoy the effects. “Yeah,
I was high,” Jackson chuckles. “New York was that place then where you went to the theatre with a nickel bag of reefer and a six-pack of beer, and everybody in there would be smoking weed like it was legal. So when they went into hyperspace it was like, ‘WHOOOOOOA!’ I was flying through the stars with them. The whole audience roared.”
The effects were more astonishing than he could have imagined, from the very first shot in which the Imperial Star Destroyer glided and glided and glided across the screen. “We were used to Buck Rogers! A spaceship the size of a room. We’d never seen anything that’s like, shit, 12 blocks long.” But it was the characters that really mesmerised him. Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan were fine, but he was particularly drawn to the edgier ones: the rascally Han Solo, the hair-trigger-tempered Chewbacca, and the menagerie of shady aliens skulking in the backgrounds of scenes. “When they got to that intergalactic bar, I was like, ‘Okay, this is dope,’” says Jackson. “Tentacle people, furry dudes, green people, purple people, polka-dot people. I thought, ‘Space is diverse in this thing. I’m down with it. It’s just like fucking Sunset Boulevard.’”
And so began a lifelong fascination with Jedi and Sith, the ins and outs of lightsabers, and what exactly a Wampa is. Jackson finally saw his career ignite, working with everyone from Steven Spielberg to Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson, but in the back of his mind he always harboured a dream of playing in that toybox. Then, shortly before Christmas in 1996, something happened that would turn that dream into a reality.
It took place in a curious venue: the faux-pub set of Channel 4’s TFI Friday, a rowdy chat show now best remembered for the time Spice Girl Geri Halliwell arm-wrestled Kylie Minogue (then snogged her), questionable regular feature Fat Lookalikes, and Shaun Ryder dropping a forbidden F-bomb while examining host Chris Evans’ shoes. Not necessarily a place where you’d expect cinematic history to unfold. But on 6 December, a Kangol-capped Samuel L. Jackson made a short appearance as “The Hollywood Star We Haven’t Got Time For”, revealing that his middle initial stood for “Living” and that his main ambition was to star in a Star Wars
film, directed by George Lucas.
As unlikely as it may seem that Lucas was an avid viewer of TFI Friday
(perhaps he was a fan of ‘Baby Left Baby Right’, in which a small child was put in a cushion to see which way it would fall), word of Jackson’s off-the-cuff comment somehow reached the King of the Force in his Californian hideaway, Skywalker Ranch. “I was doing another movie, Sphere, in Vallejo,” says Jackson, “when I got a message saying, ‘Come to the ranch. George would like to meet you.’ So I went, and I was looking at all this Norman Rockwell art he has on the walls when he walked up on me. We just had a brief talk. He said, ‘I’m writing a new Star Wars script right now. I don’t know that there’s anything for you aside from the captain of the guard.’ I said, ‘Okay. Cool.’ And then he told me he was writing a book about causes of death. He asked me what killed more people in America than anything else. I was like, ‘Car accidents?’ He went, ‘No, people giving the people the wrong medicine in hospitals.’ It was kind of a strange conversation.”
Months went by. Rumours bubbled up on the internet about whom Jackson might end up playing: Boba Fett, perhaps, or Grando Calrissian (Lando’s dad, apparently), or Yoda’s bodyguard/ chauffeur. “I wasn’t too aware of that stuff,” admits Jackson. “Back then, the internet was there but it wasn’t like a thing that everybody fucked with.” Then his phone rang again. This time he was instructed to head to London, to meet the film’s costume designer. There, the bemused star was handed some robes, a pair of boots, and a three-page scene marked up as “Mace Windu/ Yoda”. Jackson just smiled. “I know I’m not Yoda,” he thought. “So I must be whoever this Mace Windu person is.”
He was about to go flying through the stars once again. And this time there were no narcotics required.
Mace Windu had,
in fact, been born way back in 1973, when Lucas wrote his first outline for what would become Star
Wars. The first line of two pages about ‘Journal Of The Whills, Part I’ read: “This is the story of Mace Windy, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi, as related to us by CJ Thorpe, padawan learner to the famed Jedi.” Both of these characters were dropped as the project clomped at Bantha-speed towards the screen. But Lucas never forgot the unfortunately monickered Windy, reviving him for
The Phantom Menace and giving his name a one-letter tweak.
Jackson was initially thrilled to be playing a Jedi Master, even one who was as far from edgy as you could get: Windu was solemn, earnest and doggedly principled. The main attraction was that he shared all four of his scenes with Yoda. “He was still a puppet then, not CGI. So standing there eyeballing him was crazy. That’s a dream come true.” But when he was finally handed the full Phantom Menace script, that excitement was tempered by a pang of disappointment. “I started to realise I was just going to be sitting in a Jedi Council room with my arms folded,” Jackson says. “I was flicking through the pages like crazy, going, ‘Fight? Fight? Fight? No? Damn!’ But you can’t turn something like that down. You know, it’s the greatest fantasy series ever in the world, and all of a sudden the genie turns up and says, ‘Your wish is granted... but you won’t be the star.’ I was there, but I couldn’t fight.”
When called to set, he sat on some manner of intergalactic easy chair, Yoda to his right and a jellyfish-man named Plo Koon to his left, manfully trying to pep up lines such as, “Queen Amidala is returning home, which will put pressure on the Federation, and could widen the confrontation.” Frankly it wasn’t what he’d hoped for, but unlike co-star Ewan Mcgregor, who moaned to the press about his endless green-screen scenes, Jackson kept his displeasure to himself. “My biggest concern was not to do anything to piss anyone off and get killed!” he laughs. “When I heard Ewan complain, I was like, ‘Dude...’
I had no idea where Mace was going, but I wanted to be in the next one. So I kept bringing George snacks!”
That strategy proved a winning one. He was called back for sequel Attack Of The Clones, which shot in Australia rather than the UK, and found that this time Windu would get to unleash hell, heading up a Jedi strike team to take on
waves of malevolent droids in a sunscorched arena. Jackson rose to the challenge, determined to fight like, well, a bad motherfucker.
“I watched the Baby Cart movies and a lot of Zatoichi movies,” he says. “That move where I kill Boba Fett is straight out of Zatoichi: back spin, spin around, take his head right off, arms outstretched. That was my best move.” He persuaded Lucas to make Windu’s lightsaber purple, rather than the traditional red or green, to make it stand out on screen. The backstory since created by fans has it that the Jedi was “given the purple-shaded Kyber crystal by natives on the planet of Hurikane... The purple blade is a symbol of light and dark side Force techniques”. Jackson just laughs when Empire reads him this explanation. “That’s hilarious. Nah, it was real simple — I wanted to find myself in the big fight.”
As he became increasingly proficient with the weapon, Jackson started winding up Lucas, saying, “C’mon, let me kill Palpatine.” That, of course, couldn’t happen — the Supreme Chancellor goes on to become the original trilogy’s gnarled Emperor — but the director did go on to write a face-off between Windu and Palpatine at the climax of trilogycapper Revenge Of The Sith. It would prove to be the most testing sequence for Jackson, by far. “For Episode III I had to learn, shit, a 99-move fight through three rooms, backwards,” he remembers. “So I was practising like crazy. It was always in my golf bag so I could pull it out, waiting to tee off. I did not want to look awful with my fucking lightsaber. It’s not terrifying until you have to fight in cloak and boots — you’ve really got to find ways to kick it out of your way while you’re backing up, so you don’t step on it and fall over. So yeah, it gets pretty intricate.”
That fight goes badly for Mace, with the chrome-domed Jedi struck by Force-lightning, losing an arm, then flung from a vertiginous window. “I was really the only person they could do something to in the movie to create some turmoil, because everyone else shows up in the original films,” Jackson sighs. “I kept saying to George, ‘You sure about this? I can kill this dude — you know that, right?’”
But no amount of snacks could change Lucas’ mind. Out of the window Windu went.
Since 2003, Mace
Windu has returned in animated form, voiced by Jackson in the Clones Wars film and by Terrence C. Carson in a variety of cartoons and video games. Those stories have all been set before his showdown with Palpatine. But Jackson has never lost hope that the Jedi somehow survived that bruising encounter, and will one day return in live-action. “You know, it’s not that crazy that Jedi can fall from great heights and survive,” he insists. “And how many one-handed people are roaming about in that galaxy? Quite a few.”
Aside from on a very special occasion such as this, his BMF lightsaber remains sealed up in a trophy case in his office (he keeps the stunt hilt, complete with real battle scars, in a closet; that’s the one he lets visitors play with). And one day, Jackson senses, he might just have to reach for it and go into battle once more. “Still got the old Jedi spirit,” he says. “I’m down. If they call me, I’ll show up — hell, I’m hanging around just for that. I’d even show up as a hologram or some shit.”
Jackson willed Mace Windu into existence once; it would be foolish to doubt he can do it again. And the galaxy would be a brighter place for it. The Star Wars prequels have their flaws, but with their overarching theme of dark political forces scheming for supreme power, they’ve also never felt so relevant. Jackson loves the lightsaber-twirling, but even more than that he digs Windu’s inherent, incorruptible goodness. The character is as far from Han Solo as they come, but Jackson has learned to appreciate his distinctly unedgy, black-and-white worldview.
“Mace is the resistance,” he states. “Right now, I’m making a conscious effort not to turn on the news, because I know there’s no way to avoid it, him, them, whatever. What’s great about Mace is he sees the big picture. He has total clarity about what’s going on in the world.”
But with all those endless Jedi Council meetings, does the guy ever just relax? “Oh yeah,” Jackson deadpans. “After hours, he and Yoda kick back, with an elixir of some sort. Maybe something stronger.”
Tuns out even Mace Windu might have a dark side.
Samuel L. Jackson, photographed exclusively for Empire at Quixote Studios, Los Angeles, on 8 June 2018.
Below: Mace Windu in lightsaber action.Bottom: Jackson’s lightsaber hilt, etched with the letters BMF: “Bad Motherfucker”.
Right: Attack Of The Clones: Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) gets on the wrong side of Windu’s ’saber.Below right: The Phantom Menace: Jedi Masters Yoda and Mace.