In Conversation With The "Actor"
Meeting cinema’s definitive badass is, for want of a better phrase, shit-scary. Not just because he’s quite possibly the world’s most prolific living actor, with more than 150 films to his name. Nor because he’s easily one of the most iconic movie stars of all time, or even because, like most moviegoers, we’re simply massive fans of his. Those things definitely don’t help with the nerves. But the most terrifying aspect is because of Mr Jackson’s well-publicised recent hobby: tearing apart underprepared journalists.
First, there was the US news anchor who mistook him for fellow black actor Laurence Fishburne. (“We don’t all look alike! I’m the other one...” began his hilarious dismantling.) Then came the hapless young journo who refused to say the N-bomb during a junket for 2012’s Django Unchained. (“‘No’? ‘Nobody’? ‘None’? The word would be...?” Jackson probed.) Both were utterly pulled apart by Samuel L and his razor-sharp wit – much like the poor sod in Pulp Fiction who had his arm shot to bits for saying ‘what’ one too many times. Needless to say, FHM doesn’t want to be next in the firing line…
It comes as a relief that the big man (he’s 6’2, but has the presence of a giant) doesn’t shake our sweaty, trembling hand.
Slouched in a leather chair, his feet resting on the `49,000-a-night hotel room coffee table and a pair of round glasses balanced on his nose, he is the epitome of cool.
“I don’t know why people are nervous when they meet me,” he says, when we come clean, admitting (and somewhat underplaying) that we were a tad anxious about the interview. “I mean, people do associate me with a lot of characters that I play. And most of them tend to be kind of strong, scary, whatever. People tend to think that I’m like those, but I’m not that person.”
Thank God for that. While Samuel’s 150-plus film roles over the past 42 years have been diverse, they all share one common personality trait: attitude. From burger-joint-robber in 1988’s Coming to America to The Avengers’ boss Nick Fury, via movie-stealing roles in everything from Die Hard: With A Vengeance to Jackie Brown, True Romance to Jungle Fever, Samuel L Jackson is unquestionably Hollywood’s go-to badass. No one else even comes close.
The biggest surprise though, when you sift through this glorious back catalogue of cinematic awesomeness, is that he boasts a single major award: a BAFTA for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, for Pulp Fiction which celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. Does that bother him? “It always bothers me when people go ‘Academy Award nominee Samuel L Jackson’. I say, ‘What the hell does that mean? I didn’t win! Nobody cares about who’s nominated!’”
What makes Samuel L Jackson a badass? Is it his coolness under pressure?
Go back 50 years, however, and you’d have met the opposite of the confident, cool character who owns the screen now. You’d have met Samuel Leroy Jackson, the Washington-born, Tennessee-living, very un-badass, fatherless kid, that played the French horn and flute in a marching band, and had his head buried deep in a comic book.
“My mom insisted that, for every five comic books I read, I had to read a classic,” he says. “In the beginning, it was just Superman, Batman and then all of a sudden you had The Flash and Silver Surfer, and I swam a lot so Aquaman was one of my favourites. Then the first book I read was Treasure Island. It gave me this whole ‘I wanna see the world and go on adventures’ kind of thing. And because I liked water so much, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was a really big novel for me too. I thought I was going to be the black Jacques Cousteau.”
A chronic stutter throughout his childhood completed the geeky package. The speech impediment was so debilitating that his Aunt, a performance-arts teacher, enrolled him in speech therapy classes, which gave him the confidence to start acting. But though the stammer has long been overcome, it’s something that’s still important to him, and one that will be brought onto the screen for the first time in his next role as stuttering villain Valentine in next year’s cinema adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic, Kingsman: The Secret Service.
There’s this Samuel L Jackson look. It’s a look we’ve been dreading, and one that makes you want to grab all the words you’ve just blurted out and chew them up in a giant apology. He furrows his brow, turns his head away from you and falls silent for a second, just enough time for you to think, ‘this is it, this is where he wreaks havoc on me for saying something we shouldn’t have.’
“I guess that was my dark age,” he says after a beat. The ‘dark age’ reached its nadir when his wife of more than 40 years, LaTanya Richardson, found him passed out on their kitchen floor before he entered into a recovery programme. “I actually thought about that time in my life when Philip Seymour Hoffman passed. I found out that he’d died when I was in Atlanta, and he was supposed to be there shooting The Hunger Games. I think he and I met, actually, in a recovery room, so it was very interesting to reflect on that period in my life when he died. Why did he go back into that place as opposed to the place he was in? How unhappy was he to go back?”
Jackson kept his demons at bay. Just two weeks after completing treatment for his addiction to booze, coke and crack, he was back in front of the camera, starring as, erm, crack-addict Gator Purify in Spike Lee’s 1991 hit Jungle Fever. “When I was killed in that movie, it was like killing a particular phase in my life and allowing me to step off and be reborn,” he says.
After his first ‘substance-free’ role, things altered dramatically. Jungle Fever earned him a Best Supporting Actor nod at Cannes Film Festival, and all of a sudden scripts started turning up in which he was “no longer the negro that died on page 30.” Samuel L Jackson was indeed reborn. Before that, title credits included ‘Dream Blind Man’ in The Exorcist 3 and the questionable ‘Black Guy’ in Sea Of Love. But once he was clean, everything changed. Following smallish roles in mega blockbusters True Romance and Jurassic Park, Jackson was cast in the role that, to this day, he’s probably still most famous for: that of Afro-haired, gun-toting hitman Jules Winnfield in Tarantino’s 1994 instant classic, Pulp Fiction.
Samuel L Jackson is not an ordinary actor. He’s up for taking on things that others wouldn’t dream of, fuelled perhaps by the confidence that he can work cinematic miracles. After all, who else could take a film with the title Snakes On A Plane and transform it from a near-certain flop into one of the most talked about film of the year and commercial success, raking in over 365 crores?
Unlike his Hollywood peers, Jackson doesn’t fake humility, either. He doesn’t buy into that whole, ‘I never see my own films’ bullshit. “Yeah, I like going to the cinema to see my own films,” he says. “The last time I did it was for Captain America. I mean, the premieres are just a cheap thrill, because people get into the movie for free and they’re going to kiss your ass anyway, so you might as well sit there and listen to them tell you how good it is. But I like to sit in and see the people who paid the money to see the film and go ‘what the fuck is this?’.”
“I get up and play golf every day,” he says. “I’ve got this group of guys I meet at 6.30 every morning. But I haven’t played in like a month and a half because I’m working. Last time was with Mario Balotelli and Michael J Fox. I won. I shot a 78 or something crazy that day.” As the interview draws to an end, it appears we’ve made it unscathed. Until we tell him that we’ve not had a finger up the bum recently, that is…
You heard that correctly. As well as redefining Hollywood, and finding time to get around in with Balotelli, Jackson also works closely with male health charity One For The Boys, and the subject of prostate exams comes up. Telling him we’ve
not had a recent check does not sit well. “Listen, I go in a doctor’s office and let him stick his finger up my ass,” he says, his eyebrows arching. “So if I can do it, you can do it.”