De facto Coolest Man Alive Samuel L Jackson is a rare breed of film star who defines every film he is in, but it is a mantle that belies the personal and social struggle he has faced. Port travels to LA to talk to him about race, mayhem and a Hollywood career spanning five decades
It’s not every day that Spike Lee catapults himself on to you – and expects you to catch him. But not every day is the 91st Academy Awards. Nor is every man who hurls himself on to you overjoyed at winning his first Oscar after having been snubbed by the academy for 30 years. And not every man on the receiving end of 150 pounds of amped-up, blissed-out Spike Lee-turned-projectile is Samuel L Jackson: Bringer of Bad Ass, Preacher of Profundities, Keeper of the Copacetic.
The moment quickly went viral: There’s the 70-year-old Jackson standing like a tuxedoed tree, catching the incoming, purple-suited Lee – at 61 no kid himself – with the ease of flypaper. After a few seconds of dangling with his feet in the air, Lee returns to earth, and the two of them hug it out like newly minted Super Bowl champs. This, however, was not merely one Hollywood celeb congratulating another on a win. This was the merging of two supernovas.
Between them, Samuel L Jackson and Spike Lee represent six decades of struggle against the myopic, genteel, often unacknowledged racism latent in the Hollywood system – all while working within it. Long-time friends, with occasional hiccups of disagreement, they have collaborated on six films, beginning with Do the Right Thing, in 1989.
There were reminders of Oscar night three decades ago, that evening. Moments earlier, Jackson had stood with his Captain Marvel co-star, Brie Larson, both gaping at the news that the controversial Green Book had just won best original screenplay. The story of a black pianist touring the segregated South while shepherded by his white driver, Green Book seemed to reprise the 1989 film Driving Miss Daisy – yet another movie hinting that chauffeur-client camaraderie is all it takes to solve the rebus of racial inequality. When the safe, sentimental Driving Miss Daisy won, over Do the Right Thing, Lee’s paean to black urban life and protest, neither Jackson nor Lee minced words about their ire. “All I know,” Lee said prior to the 2019 ceremony, “is that whenever somebody’s driving somebody else, I lose.”
It was not the first time Jackson had found himself on the losing end of the academy’s penchant for set-pieces of nostalgia. In 1992 he’d hoped to win for his breakout role as drug-addicted Gator Purify in Lee’s Jungle Fever. While the film got mixed reviews, the consensus was that Jackson’s portrayal was a winner. The Cannes Film Festival deemed it so epic that a new best supporting actor category was created just for him. Yet no nomination from the Academy Awards.
By 1995, surely, all would be different. There was every expectation Jackson would win best supporting actor for his iconic portrayal of a mob hitman in Pulp Fiction. When the prize went instead to Martin Landau, as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, Jackson let out an unapologetic, “Shit.”
Unwilling to don the Oscar-rictus of false felicity then, he certainly wasn’t doing so this year. Yet early in the evening something happened to shift his mood. He had been asked to present the best adapted screenplay prize, alongside Brie Larson. When she opened the winning red envelope, Jackson speed-read the contents and thundered, “The H-H HOUSE!”
In other words Lee had won, for BlacKkKlans-man, though the shout-out to Jackson’s and Lee’s shared alma mater likely went over the heads of most of the audience. The House – short for Atlanta’s all-male, historically black Morehouse College – was founded by ex-slaves after the Civil War. Morehouse educated a generation of civil rights leaders, among them Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. After King was assassinated in Memphis, his body was brought back to Atlanta. Jackson, then a Morehouse student, was one of the pallbearers.
But that was more than 50 years ago, when Jackson played the flute, had a stutter and wore a modest afro. Today, shaven-headed and six feet two inches of muscle, Jackson is so preternaturally self-possessed it’s easy to imagine that in some prior life he must have been a sage, mage, high priest, warrior chief or some combination thereof. Given liberties to concoct his own look for a role, he’s been known to use this magnetic shamanistic quality to great advantage.
Quentin Tarantino says Jackson came up with the “mad kung fu priest on the mountain” look he sports in Jackie Brown. For that 1997 thriller, Jackson plays Ordell Robbie, a murderous arms dealer whose long Confucian chin-beard-in-front and ponytail-in-back combo comes off more Shih Tzu than OG. Jackson’s Ordell is smart but not wise, cunning but not careful. He aspires to the sage’s culture of honour, but his lack of a moral centre renders him merely a master of malice. Then there’s Jackson as the DJ Mister Señor Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where his character is part palindromic word mix-master, part Greek oracle warning of the forthcoming heatwave and escalating racial tensions. As Mace Windu in the Star Wars prequels, Jackson’s Jedi master is the ultimate galactic sage, wielder of the only amethyst lightsabre in the galaxy.
Yet it’s his turn as the formidable Nick Fury in Captain Marvel that cemented his reputation as Coolest Man Alive. The role allows Jackson to combine the sexy swagger of his updated Shaft (coming in June) with the gadgetry and super-hero prowess of the Marvel Comics Universe. Not everyone’s likeness becomes so central to a franchise’s foundational character that Marvel gives them a nine-picture deal.
Then again, not everyone is Samuel L Jackson.
I meet up with Jackson at Los Angeles’ Villa Carlotta on the one day a year it rains in LA. From the windows of the suite, we can see the Medi- terranean courtyard replete with Jacarandas and Spanish-style flagstones, but even when the rain finally stops we can’t go out: The hotel staff seem to think we’ll melt.
Besides, post-photo shoot, Jackson’s make-up artist is busy slathering him down with what appears to be the best moisturiser on earth. She begins at the top of his head and kneads the stuff into the entirety of his face, over his eyes and nose and mouth, as if she’s a potter at the wheel, shaping him into existence. When she finishes, he glistens – glows. He looks… oracular.
But once Jackson starts talking, he shifts gears from oracle to sphinx. Before I know it, he’s pelting me with questions. If you’ve ever watched a Samuel L Jackson movie before, you’ve likely witnessed the rapid-fire interrogation, the sizing-up silences, the laser beam of intelligence that won’t shut off.
First come questions about my short stories: Are they thrillers? Love stories? Hate stories? Soft- core porn? Hard-core porn? Then a bit of probing into my writing affiliations: New York Times? New Yorker? New York Times bestseller list? Yes. Yes. Sadly, no. “So you don’t have a niche?” is his summation of my entire writing life. I think about this a little and despair.
Jackson moves on to describing his own reading habits. He consumes at least three papers a day, maintains a strict script-reading schedule, then reads to fall asleep – often kung fu crime novels and comic books. “I do a lot of ‘mayhem reading’.” He laughs, tickled at having coined his own catch-all term for thrillers, spy novels, comic books and other male-driven, adrenaline-charged action lit. “I was really stoked the other day, coz I got the latest instalment of Orphan X, which I’ve been waiting for two years.”
It has always been this way. Jackson reportedly went nearly a year of his southern childhood avoiding humanity, lost in books. Far from the too-cool-for-school type, he was an excellent student consistently at the top of his class. “Reading has always taken me to this place. Being an only child and spending a lot of time at home, reading was my travel. I could go in my head anywhere I wanted to go, I was immersed.”
Jackson traces a straight line from this immersion to his process as an actor. “When I get a character, unless there’s source material, a book or whatever, telling me who that person is, I can do whatever the hell I want. I can sit there and decide how smart he is, how dumb he is, how many brothers and sisters he has. I can decide if he was in the military. I can decide if he talks a lot. What kind of people he likes, or doesn’t. All those things make a difference.”
Jackson crafts full-fledged biographies for all his roles, no matter how small. The result is that once he walks into a scene, he ignites it. In Coming to America, he’s on camera for a mere one-and-a-half minutes, as a drug addict stick-up man, but you can’t forget him: He swings open his trench coat to brandish a sawn-off shotgun – aims one blast to the ceiling to announce his intentions, with a hail of sheetrock crashing to the floor. The setting is a McDonald’s knock-off in the middle of Queens, but you might think you were watching a John Ford-era Western. Except Jackson won’t relegate even a stick-up man to the role of mere villain, or consign a drug addict to villainy.
“Everybody always goes, ‘Well, he’s a junkie.’ (Jackson does a passing imitation of some priggish, judgmental type.) “Well, no! People do things for a lot of different reasons. I wasn’t playing ‘a drug addict’. I was playing a desperate dude that was coming in there with a purpose. There was a kid at home that needed food, and there was a woman at home that was pressurising him,” Jackson says of the backstory he invented. “I could have gone into McDowell’s and just stuck a gun in his face and done whatever. But, for me, dude had a sense of urgency.”
Jackson’s performances can be so realistic that it seems almost too easy. Online comments abound: “I don’t think Samuel L Jackson was acting here,” or “Jackson was born for this role.” He takes these as compliments. “You want people to look at you when you come on screen, and bring a dynamism that makes them remember you. So even if you get bored with the rest of the movie, you say to yourself, ‘I wonder where he is.’”
Jackson is less forgiving of professional critics who underestimate him. “‘He talks loud and he cusses,’” as he describes one frequent put- down, and, “‘You know he plays the same character all the time.’” He adds: “But if you pay close attention, the people all have different speech cadences. They all walk differently, they hold their body differently. The tone of their voices is different, different levels of anger, how they get angry is different.”
The unapologetically black intensity of Samuel L Jackson can be like a hit job on white sensibilities. No wonder detractors associate him with a single emotion: righteous anger. They miss the point. His filmography showcases a semi-chameleon-like ability to play every role imaginable: from Captain Marvel’s badass Nick Fury, to the unctuous womanising father of Eve’s Bayou, to the failed hold-up man in Goodfellas. There’s his turn as an FBI agent in the irresistible cult classic Snakes on a Plane (“I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!”).
As Major Warren, in The Hateful Eight, he is a former army officer who can make a white Confederate blanch at a story about fellatio. He has played a hostage expert in The Negotiator, a computer scientist in Jurassic Park, an avenging father in A Time to Kill. As Elijah Price, aka Mr Glass, in M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, and its sequel Glass, he is the quintessential master- mind, which perhaps comes the closet to capturing the essence of Samuel L Jackson. As Tarantino once said of Jackson’s performance in the final scene of Pulp Fiction: “Who else can be seated and move people like pieces on a chessboard?”
That’s pretty much what Jackson does with a script. “I break it down and see the whole movie in my head,” the actor says. “I go through a whole thing of, ‘This is to move the script from this point to this point, to inform the audience of this thing.’”
Whereas method acting prizes shedding one’s own consciousness to inhabit another, Jackson embodies characters. He studied theatre for years at the Negro Ensemble Company in New York, then worked as a stage actor before moving to Hollywood. In acting-speak, Jackson is less Strasberg – who concentrated on purely psychological techniques for extracting verisimilitude – and more Stanislavski, who believed in a holistic, psycho-physical approach. “I’m not a method actor,” Jackson says, amused by the whole prospect of it. “When they say ‘Cut’, I’m done. Coz I gotta talk on the phone with people or do shit. But that’s why you do homework at home, so when you get to work you don’t have to cage yourself with that bullshit.”
Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant in Rain Man and Daniel Day-Lewis’s quadriplegic Christy Brown in My Left Foot are the sort of roles made for bravura portrayals that border on exhibitionism. Jackson is after a different kind of virtuosic performance: one that opts for resonance. The result is a certain immortality for his characters. When he plays the bad guy, no one wants to see him get his just deserts. When he plays the buffoon, no one wants the joke to be on him. And when Star Wars’ Mace Windu goes to that galaxy far, far away, it’s hard for us to accept that his death is final.
For Pulp Fiction to work, you have to believe that Jules Winnfield will leave his life of crime – not because he’s been caught or regrets having killed others, but because he’s come out of a hail of bullets alive and feels he’s been spared so as to spare others. Pulp Fiction presents Winnfield and his sidekick Vincent Vega (John Travolta) as a kind of hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with Jackson’s character delivering Hamlet-style soliloquies: That requires a great deal of internal consistency to pull off. And if Tarantino is our hipster Shakespeare, then Jackson is his Laurence Olivier.
“Quentin’s dialogue is not easy,” writes Pulp Fiction co-producer Richard Gladstein, “and I have seen very gifted actors stumble in auditions. It’s not the amount of words or length of the scene; it’s a specific cadence that Quentin creates and ultimately demands the actor to discover. And if they do, they seem to fly. And no one flies higher than Sam.” But dialogue requires somebody to dialogue with. For Jackson, the biggest challenge is often fellow actors.
“Sometimes you meet the person on the other side the day you’re getting ready to shoot. You’ve never seen them before. If they’re not like an A-list actor – not as in good, but [as in] comfortable being on set – they say, ‘Oh my god it’s you!’ and I’m like, ‘Come on man, we’re here to work.’”
With Jackson, working always wins out over stardom. “I remember I was doing Sphere with Dustin Hoffman. We finally had our big scene where we’re face to face. ‘Stop, stop,’ he says, ‘I see it in your face.’ And I’m like, ’What’re you talking about?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh my god, it’s the Dustin Hoffman look on your face.’ And I’m like, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’” He laughs. “And we’d been working together for months by then so it’s like, ‘Dude, I am not impressed by you.’”
Jackson has acted in more than 120 films, so he has a few ideas about directors. His favourites are those who come closest to reproducing the exacting stage conditions he knew as a theatre actor. “Quentin rehearses,” he says, “so when we did Pulp Fiction, for instance, we rehearsed to the point that, by the time we started shooting, we knew how many steps there were from the car to the front door of the apartment, the front door to the elevator, and back. We rehearsed that scene around the table. That’s a luxury; that’s a rarity.”
To continue reading the full interview, order issue 24, out 8th May
Words ZZ Packer
Photography Ryan Pfluger
Creative direction and styling Dan May
Photographic director Max Ferguson
Hair and makeup Autumn Moultrie at The Wall Group
Shot at Villa Carlotta, Los Angeles
Special thanks Brian McGrory
This article is taken from issue 24. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here