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“I believe movies should be entertaining,” says Samuel L. Jackson, the actor whose films collectively have grossed more money than any other actor’s in history — some $7.42 billion — as we sit down to tape an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “If you want to learn something, watch a doc. I go to the movies to escape. That’s what I did when I was a kid. I went to the movies to forget who I was and to experience something that I didn’t normally experience.”
(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde, Benicio Del Toro and Dan Rather.)
Jackson, who turned 67 last week, has, in many respects, traveled a remarkably far distance from his childhood in the segregated South — while, in other respects, it appears to be as central to his worldview today as it ever was.
Indeed, the actor can now be seen in two movies, directed by the two filmmakers with whom he’s collaborated most frequently in his career, that center largely around racial tensions: The Hateful Eight, a Western set in the aftermath of the Civil War that was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, with whom he previously made Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012); and Chi-Raq, a musical-dramedy about gang violence in present-day Chicago that was co-written and directed by Spike Lee, with whom he previously made School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991) and Oldboy (2013).
When offers from Tarantino or Lee come along, it’s an automatic “yes” from Jackson. But what of all the rest that he’s made? “There are times that I choose a movie because it’s something I would have gone to see when I was a kid,” he says — think Shaft (2000), Snakes on a Plane (2006), the second Star Wars trilogy (1999, 2002 and 2005) and the Marvel movies (he’s seven into a nine-movie contract). “Sometimes I choose a film because I want to work with a specific director,” he continues. “But generally, more than anything else, it’s about the story.”
Jackson’s own story is rather remarkable. Born and raised in Tennessee, he was brought up by his grandparents and his aunt while his mother worked in Washington, D.C. He suffered from a debilitating stutter — “I actually didn’t talk in school for over a year,” he recalls — which caused him to turn inward, as a voracious reader, before his aunt, a performing arts teacher, began enlisting him in performances that she had organized, which led him to a surprising discovery: “I liked applause,” he says with a laugh.
As much as he liked acting, though, he wanted to get beyond the experiences he had known and see the larger world that he had long read about — so he signed up for the Merchant Marines. “I had this dream of being the black Jacques Cousteau,” he confesses, but his mother caught wind of his plans and squashed them, insisting instead that he continue his education.
At Morehouse College in Atlanta, Jackson led several lives: actor (his favorite classes were in acting and public speaking), activist (he joined the Black Power movement and served as an usher at MLK’s funeral), athlete (he was a champion swimmer) and, in his words, “street thug.” For a while, his activism threatened everything else in his life — in 1969, the FBI warned his mother that if he didn’t get out of Atlanta they could not guarantee his safety, so she forced him to relocate to Los Angeles, where he worked as a social worker. (It didn’t even occur to him to pursue acting at that time: “Theater was more exciting to me and more accessible to me than moviedom,” he says.)
But, he says, when he eventually returned to Morehouse, “Acting became the thing that I fell in love with the most.” Actually, not quite — what he really fell in love with the most was LaTanya Richardson Jackson, a fellow performer and activist whom he began seeing and eventually married in 1980. Together, they joined and started a variety of theater groups. “We were preparing ourselves — getting all of the experiences that we needed — to go into New York and jump into the big actor pool,” he says. It worked: when they arrived in the Big Apple in 1976, she landed a role in the first touring company of For Colored Girls and he began getting work, too — at the Public Theatre, at the Negro Ensemble Company (for which he originated a role in A Soldier’s Play, which won a Pulitzer Prize) and at Yale Rep (originating roles in several August Wilson plays), among other places.
In New York, Jackson befriended many other up-and-coming actors — among them Denzel Washington, Wesley Snipes and Morgan Freeman — but refused to follow them to L.A. until he was “called for.” He would occasionally play small roles in films or TV shows shot on the east coast, and spent a year as Bill Cosby‘s stand-in on The Cosby Show (“I walked around the house with the sweater on”), but a move was out of the question until he knew he was wanted.
New York-based Lee, who had seen Jackson in A Soldier’s Play, told him he wanted to work together. Lee didn’t offer Jackson a part in his directorial debut, She’s Gotta Have It (1986), but from then on, Jackson says, “Every summer I did a Spike Lee job and the jobs got bigger and bigger.” Lee hired him for only a day’s work on School Daze; then cast him in a colorful supporting part in Do the Right Thing; and then gave him the role of his lifetime to that point, as Gator, the crack addict, in Jungle Fever. Jackson got the offer while “in rehab recovering from my cocaine, alcohol, whatever, everything addiction,” which ended up being great preparation. Ultimately, the Cannes Film Festival created a one-off best supporting actor award to recognize Jackson’s performance, which the New York Film Critics Circle also awarded their corresponding prize.
Finally, Jackson got his call to come out to L.A., to do Roger Donaldson‘s White Sands (1992). Around the same time, he crossed paths for the first time with Quentin Tarantino — in a less than positive way. Jackson went in for an audition for Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s directorial debut, and was supposed to read with Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel; instead, two jokesters he’d never seen before read opposite him, causing him to underperform himself. He didn’t get the part and realized only months later, after watching the finished film at the Sundance Film Festival, that the readers had been Tarantino and his producer Lawrence Bender. At Sundance, Jackson congratulated Tarantino, who told him he planned to send him a script, which ultimately proved to be Pulp Fiction. (Jackson notes that the part originally had been offered to and turned down by Laurence Fishburne, and that before starring in Pulp he appeared in True Romance, a film Tarantino wrote but did not direct.)
Pulp Fiction — with its unforgettable monologues (“Ezekiel 25:17” and “Royale with cheese” are fan favorites) — made Jackson, at 46, a movie star and an Oscar nominee. The latter development was something he took with a grain of salt, having felt burned three years earlier with Jungle Fever. “When the Oscar nominations came out that year,” he says, “I didn’t get nominated, but there was like three people from Bugsy, so my wife and I said, ‘Well, let’s go see Bugsy.’ And we’re sitting there, and at the end of it we’re like, ‘Really? Really?’ And she actually cried about it. And I think that was the thing that kind of broke us about the whole Academy Awards milieu and whatever it is.”
He continues, “When I did get nominated, bullshit started immediately. All of a sudden there were these phone calls going, ‘We’re gonna [push] John for best actor and you for best supporting actor because we can’t have both of you in the same category. I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever that means.’ Then, all of a sudden, I start going to these things and people start telling me, ‘You were amazing in that movie and I’d really like to vote for you, but [Ed Wood‘s] Martin Landau‘s been nominated, like, four times, and this might be the last time he has a chance.’ I say, ‘Oh, so it’s an age thing?’ And they go, ‘What?’ And I go, ‘Well, Morgan Freeman’s old, too. Is he gonna win?’ And they go, ‘What?!’ I was already cynical about it at that point, so the more things I went to that I didn’t win, the more I got it. Martin Landau was winning, and then Raul Julia [a nominee in actor in a miniseries or TV movie category, in which Jackson also was a nominee for Against the Wall] died so it was kinda like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s it for the Golden Globe — hang that up.’ “
He adds with a chuckle, “I think I might be the only person that’s ever reacted honestly [at the Oscars] when my name wasn’t called. Even though you know you’re not gonna win, you’re sitting there and you’re saying to yourself, ‘Maybe they’re gonna get it right this time — just maybe they’ll get it right this time.’ And they didn’t. And I didn’t think about the camera — I just went, ‘Aw, shit!’ ” (He can’t help but add: “Still only 13 people have seen fuckin’ Ed Wood!”)
Jackson has learned that the reward is not in any accolades given by others, but in the material, which, from Tarantino, has continued to come to him regularly over the 20-plus years since. “I don’t know anybody else that does that better,” the actor says of his partner. A Tarantino set, he says, is unlike any other — filled with great actors who always bring their A-game to first-rate material, which they take time to rehearse and then get to perform in a collegial way. “It’s a party atmosphere,” Jackson says. “Unbelievably so.”
Working with Tarantino always means courting controversy — about big screen depictions of gun violence, the use of the N-word and the treatment of women — which Jackson doesn’t shy away from. He welcomed the opportunity to play “the most hateful Negro in cinematic history” in Django Unchained, saying, “If I’m the bad guy, I want to piss you off. I want you to go home and want to kill me.” However, he emphasizes that he rejects the notion that seeing or hearing things on the big screen actually leads people to do or say them in the real world — “C’mon,” he shouts, “You gotta have common sense. It’s entertainment!”
The N-word discussion, in particular, gets under his skin, because it’s being employed in art and, in his belief, the race of the artist shouldn’t matter. “It’s bullshit,” he emphasizes, asking, “What word do they want him to use?” He continues, “How do you describe me in a Tarantino movie if there are rednecks?” He emphasizes that Lee and others use the N-word countless times in their films, so why shouldn’t Tarantino, who is not black but possesses a “black consciousness,” having been raised on blaxploitation movies by the neighbor downstairs with whom his mother left him when she went to work? Most pertinently, Jackson feels, is the fact that Tarantino always casts him as intelligent characters — usually the smartest guy in the room — so it’s not like he’s unwittingly the butt of a joke.
Jackson’s character in The Hateful Eight is one such example — spoiler alert: He plays Major Marquis Warren, a Union Army vet-turned-bounty hunter who carries with him a letter from President Abraham Lincoln that may or may not be authentic (in either case, Jackson notes, it’s pretty impressive that it came to be at all) and who uses his smarts and verbal abilities to endure for as long as possible through a snowstorm that leaves him inside a stagecoach and then a mountain pass with people who may wish to kill him. Despite the omnipresence of snow and cold (the film was shot in Telluride, Colorado), “It’s a Western,” Jackson notes. “I’ve been waiting to do one forever.”
Jackson is troubled by the state of things in the real world, which he has some theories about. “We’ve been kind of shielded from what the rest of the world’s been dealing with,” he muses. “I remember the first time I left the country — in 1980 I went to London — I knew a little bit about the Irish and the English and what was happening, and then something blew up around the corner from where I was, and I was kind of like, ‘Woah, what was that?’ And they say, ‘Oh, Irish terrorists.’ It was the first time I’d heard the word ‘terrorists.’ ‘Oh, what do you mean?’ And then I started seeing signs in the tube — ‘Don’t pick up untended packages.’ That was the first, ‘If you see something, say something.’ So I started thinking about it.”
He continues, “And then I looked around at the world and I was kind of like, ‘Okay, that’s the Catholics and the Protestants — that’s sort of the Crusades.’ And then I started looking at the rest of it and said, ‘Oh, they’re still doing that over there, too.’ Now it’s the Protestants and the Muslims. ‘They’re still doing that?’ So we’re still fighting the Crusades. How many thousands of years has this been going on? But we weren’t in it — Americans weren’t in it. We had our race stuff going on, then we had the anti-[Vietnam] War movement and we had all this other stuff, but we still weren’t in that religious fight, you know? We were progressing — we were making advances here, making advances there, you got your cell phone, you got your computer — and then all of a sudden, it’s like [swoosh sound]! This thing connected us to a whole bunch of shit that we had nothing to do with for a long time. All of a sudden, Bush and those guys put us in that fight. And as soon as we drew blood in that war, we became part of something that’s been going on for thousands of years. It’s like, ‘Well, you killed my cousin Akhbar,’ duh-duh-duh, and it’s like, ‘Oh, shit.’ So we’ll never be out of it now because people hold on to grudges in that kind of way — we’re the Hatfields and the McCoys in the world. So that’s happened.”
Transitioning to the conflict between white cops and black youth — a subject that recently got Tarantino in hot water — he says, “In the sixties or whatever, guys went to Vietnam, and they came home and people hated them; they were ‘baby killers’ or whatever, and a lot of them became cops ’cause that was the job — ‘Oh, you have ex-military service? You can become one of the boys in blue.’ And because they were so vilified by everybody outside, they formed this ‘blue wall’ that’s now still a part of what that is, but now it’s kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and now they’ve identified PTSD — but that’s not one of the tests they give for people who put on the uniform. So, consequently, you’ve got people out there who are used to looking at people as ‘the enemy’ ’cause that’s what it was — people were trying to kill them every day. It was like, ‘Oh, my God’ — you see a guy, the guy jumps up, ‘Hold it!’ And young black men are threatening, you know, and it just happens. So all these things snowball and snowball.”
He hastens to add, “Now, not every cop in the world is guilty of that — there’s good cops and there’s bad cops; there’s guys who, you know, misuse their authority, and there are guys who watch ’em do it who want to do something but they can’t because they’ve gotta be part of that blue wall. And until we get somebody policing from the inside out, those things that happen from outside to us are gonna continue to happen. There’s nothing we can do about it, even if they’re wearing body-cams and we can see ’em. That’s why every day you can look online and see somebody else getting shot, you can see somebody else getting killed — not just black people.”
Jackson says he empathizes with innocent Muslim-Americans who have fallen under the veil of suspicion because a few other people who share their religion have committed atrocities against their countrymen: “When that thing happened in France, we were sitting there going, ‘Oh, my God, these terrorists!’ And I can’t even tell you how much that day the thing that happened in San Bernardino — I was in Hawaii — how much I really wanted that to just be another, you know, crazy white dude, and not really some Muslims, because it’s like: ‘Oh, shit. It’s here. And it’s here in another kind of way.’ Now, okay, it happened on an Army base and it happened somewhere else. But now? It’s like they have a legitimate reason now to look at your Muslim neighbor, friend, whatever in another way. And they become the new young black men.”
So how does he reconcile this attitude with the fact that the heavy favorite for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is his occasional golfing buddy Donald Trump? He grants that Trump is running on “hate” but adds, “There’s absolutely nothing I can do. There are some other people that aren’t as open about what he’s saying that are running also, you know, that are just as crazy, that have just as much ill-will toward the common man — and not just the common black man. People who don’t have a certain amount of money don’t mean anything to them.”
He’s already made up his mind about his own vote in 2016: “I’m forever a Democrat, you know, and I’m gonna vote for Hillary. I mean, I love Bernie — Bernie’s a man of the people — but he can’t win. So I gotta cast my vote for a person that can keep those other people from winning, okay? Not to mention, you know, Hillary kinda knows the job, she can hit the ground running. She didn’t have a huge learning-curve like Barack [Obama] had or some other people had. And hopefully she can open up the skeletal files of those do-nothing assholes that go to work, like, four times a year and not vote on things [an apparent reference to Sen. Marco Rubio and other elected officials with poor attendance records] and threaten them with whatever she and Bill [Clinton] uncovered on them years ago and make ’em do something and we can get something done.”
As for himself, he has no plans of stopping, even having reached an age at which many of his contemporaries are retiring. “I grew up in a house of people where, when I woke up every day, everybody was going to work, and I thought that’s what grown people did, and that’s what they do. And they didn’t even have jobs they liked! I got a job I love, you know? Painters get up and paint. Writers get up and write. If [all] actors could get up and go somewhere every day and act, I guarantee you they’d be the happiest people in the world. And I am.”
The Hateful Eight was released by The Weinstein Co. in select theaters on Dec. 25 and will expand nationwide on Jan. 1. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Jackson for best actor.
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