Published in The Times
There’s an awkward moment, for me at least, near the beginning of my meeting with Samuel L. Jackson in a hotel bar in Atlanta, Georgia, when I ask him for his opinion on 12 Years a Slave and he leans back in his leather chair, strokes his grey cashmere beanie hat and responds, “Are you asking me that because it is a frontrunner for the Oscars, or because I am black?”
I actually blush. While I’m asking him simply because his opinion matters (having starred in more than 100 films since 1972, which have taken in more than a reported $9 billion at the box office, he’s officially the highest-grossing actor in history according toGuinness World Records), and because we Brits are forever obsessed with how we’ll do in the Oscars (“Yeah, I know,” he will say about this later, rolling his eyes), I suppose I am also asking him because he’s black.
More specifically, because he is one of the most successful black actors of his generation, one of the few (alongside Denzel Washington and Will Smith) who has managed to build a career in roles where race is irrelevant to the story. And I’ve just begun saying sorry, adding an apology for making one of my first questions about a film he doesn’t even appear in, when he laughs out loud. He’s just teasing. “They were just coming in to film 12 Years when we were coming out of filming Django Unchained[Quentin Tarantino’s western in which he plays Stephen, a scheming house slave]. We shot on the same plantations. I recognised a whole bunch of the same stuff in it.” A pause. “What did I think of it? Well…”
It becomes evident over the course of the following answer, and over the course of the subsequent two hours, that you don’t need to tiptoe around Samuel L. Jackson. He is routinely referred to as “the coolest man alive” on the basis, I suspect, of certain jive-talking, streetwise performances in Quentin Tarantino films, but in the flesh he is cool for a different reason: his complete lack of uptightness.
Dispatching his two black male assistants as soon as he arrives, he cheerfully goes off topic (we are meeting, supposedly, to talk aboutRoboCop, but soon after describing it as “more than just a guy in a metal suit killing guys”, he says, “I don’t know what to say about it” and gives up), curses like a trucker (someone recently analysed his Twitter feed and found that he spelt the word “motherf***er” in 57 ways), is delightfully un-PC (when I ask him for advice on what to do in Atlanta he recommends a strip club – “You haven’t lived until you have been to Magic City”), and, sure enough, he has no problem proffering views on other people’s films.
“Look, I’m glad 12 Years got made and it’s wonderful that people are seeing it, and there is another view of what happened in America. But I’m not real sure why Steve McQueen wanted to tackle that particular thing.”
The subject of the slave trade? “I would think that if an African-American director went into a studio and pitched that particular film, they would be like, ‘No, no, no.’ ” Why? “It is a film about African-Americans, a dark period of history that they don’t like to explore in that particular way. But because it’s Steve and he has this reputation for doing all these art films, as opposed to the visceral way an African-American director would tell it…”
He orders tonic water from a waiter who has been hovering and continues. “Take, for instance, the difference between 12 Years and a film like Fruitvale Station, which deals with racism in America now [it is based on events leading to the death of Oscar Grant, a young man killed by a police officer]. It explains things like the shooting of Trayvon Martin [the black teenager killed in 2012 by a neighbourhood-watch guard], the problems with stop and search, and is just more poignant. America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past. We freed the slaves! It’s all good!” He waves his hands in mock celebration. “But to say, ‘We are still unnecessarily killing black men – let’s have a conversation about that.’ ”
So he thinks the fuss about 12 Years is just a way to avoid the real issues? “Exactly.”
This is far from the last thing Samuel Leroy Jackson has to say about race. After revealing that he was at Michelle Obama’s 50th birthday party over the weekend, and that he made arrangements to play golf with the President while there (“He said, ‘When we gonna play?’; I said, ‘When is your day off?’ ”), we get on to: his disenchantment with a political system he considers “jacked” (“I wouldn’t ever have imagined a black man becoming president, but equally I wouldn’t have imagined a group of people willing to let the country go to hell rather than help him”); Republicans (“When they see the words ‘food stamps’ they see a black woman with three kids coming into a welfare office, when the fact is they are also cutting food stamps to our servicemen who fought in Afghanistan”); the difficulty of raising a daughter, now 31, in such privileged circumstances that she grew up thinking racism didn’t exist (“All we could do is give her the armour, and say one of these days someone is gonna call you a nigger, and sure enough they did”); the dangers faced by black women (“Young black men are meant to be dangerous, but drunk young white men rape black girls all the time and get away with it”); the financing of black films (“Is Hollywood racist? The place doesn’t operate on a race level. But black films have got to be made for a certain price”); his frustrations with the fact that just 2 per cent of Oscars voters are black (“They say they are trying to make the Academy more racially diverse, but it is still a closed shop. My wife and I have put people forward to be members who have been refused. Apparently the ‘criteria are not right’. What the hell are they talking about?”).
When I add that I find it enraging that Brits are patting themselves on the back for having made a successful black film in the form of12 Years when the British industry itself employs very little black talent, and British black actors are having to emigrate to America for roles, he adds: “At least you guys sound alike, and black and Asian and white people can take each other’s roles over there. Over here, black and white people sound different.”
Is Britain more racially enlightened?
“You were for a while. But I was there when riots were happening. I remember calling an actress friend to see if she was OK, a young black woman, and she was terrified in her apartment. I said, ‘Why you afraid? You are black! You can go outside! What, you scared cos you are light-skinned?’ Race pops up everywhere, and then you have racism within black communities, too – dark people versus light people. There is always a way for the dominant society to keep people at each other’s throats so they don’t see the bigger problems.”
He points at a copy of The Atlanta Journal Constitution lying on the table in front of us. It has a front-page story about how 12 Years actress Lupita Nyong’o has won a Screen Actors Guild award. “Look at this girl. She is beautiful; she could be the next Bond girl. Why shouldn’t she be? That shouldn’t even be a question. But there is this thing about dark skin colour.” He sips his tonic water, winces, and sends it back for actually being soda water, complaining, “One has quinine in it, one doesn’t have quinine in it.” Returning, I think, to the subject, he adds: “It’s just a bunch of s***.”
There’s a reason why Samuel L. Jackson’s opinions on these topics matter beyond his fame and position. Born in 1948 in Washington, DC, abandoned as a child by an alcoholic father whom he only ever met twice in his life, he was raised by his mother and grandparents in racially segregated Tennessee and was involved in the early battles for racial equality in America. He was an usher at Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. In 1969, he was charged and convicted for his involvement in a protest at the college he was attending, suspended for two years, and subsequently got involved with the Black Power movement. And he would have continued had the FBI not visited his mother and warned her that his life was at risk.
“I actually think it is amazing I am still here,” he says of her decision to send him to Los Angeles. Does he think he was damaged, or held back, by having grown up in a segregated world? “Course not. No. I am very aware of how the world works because of it. It made me understand a lot about white people. Number one, that they were very dangerous and very protective of what they have. I also learnt how to negotiate two worlds. And it gave me a desire to get out, away from those stupid segregationists.”
Jackson’s escape came through acting. There is a story on his Wikipedia page of how he conquered his stammer “by developing an affinity for the use of the curse word, motherf***er, in his vocabulary”. But he says that he “never had a bunch of ‘m’ problems. I have ‘t’ issues sometimes. And a lot of ‘w’ issues.” And actually, it was public-speaking classes that helped him with his stutter, which, in turn, led to an interest in acting. Having switched from marine biology to architecture to drama after returning to college after his suspension, he began taking roles in plays off Broadway, taking bit parts in TV shows and movies like Coming to America, once even appearing in the credits of 1989’s Sea of Loveas “black guy”, and working as a stand-in for Bill Cosby on The Cosby Show.
Unfortunately, he also developed a predilection for booze, cocaine and heroin, and overdosed on several occasions. Eventually, at the behest of his wife, actress LaTanya Richardson, he entered rehab. His first job after getting out? Playing a crack addict in Spike Lee’sJungle Fever. It was deeply ironic, but critics raved about the performance; he won a Cannes Film Festival Award and his life changed.
“For me there is a direct correlation between getting clean and success. People say relapse is part of recovery – that is bulls***. Since I got clean, I have access to better drugs and better alcohol. I’ve been places where they have pounds of cocaine on the table. But I’ve never even had one beer. The thing is, I don’t know how to stop.” Does he go to AA? “I go to NA sometimes.”
He lights, if that is the word, an electronic cigarette, blowing the vapour in the direction of a group of airline staff who have been mouthing, “OMG, it’s Samuel L. Jackson” at each other for about half an hour. “AA is sort of miserable, cos everybody in there still wanna drink. But with NA, you were a drug addict, you are a lot happier cos you are not stealing people’s s*** or in pain.”
In turn, he credits his role in Jungle Fever for catching the eye of Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the part of Gospel-citing killer Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction especially for him. It was Jackson’s 31st movie, but elevated him to the A-list, with his spectacular performance earning him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. In the end, Jackson lost out to Martin Landau, for his part in Ed Wood, memorably dismissing the convention of polite applause by mouthing, “Aww, s***” in front of the cameras.
When I say no one ever talks about Ed Wood nowadays, whereasPulp Fiction has become a classic, he responds with a sarcastic, “Really?” His dry humour is almost as unexpected as his svelte physique – having switched to a vegan diet last August, eating “nothing with a face or a mother” to try to deal with a “plaque issue” in an artery, the 65-year-old has recently dropped three trouser sizes. “It’s not like a lot of people haven’t said to me, ‘You should have won an Oscar.’ ”
Right. I mention two other complaints people have made on his behalf and are often used as examples of Hollywood’s latent racism: that John Travolta got put forward for Best Actor in Pulp Fiction even though Jackson was on screen for the same amount of time; and Travolta went on to be offered $20 million a role, whereas Jackson got a fraction for his subsequent movies.
“In terms of categories, Harvey Weinstein won’t have his own people running against each other. Harvey gets what Harvey wants.” Another electronic drag. “As for the money, people wanted to pay John what they thought he was worth for their film. I can’t be angry about things I have no control over. So I got to make four times as many movies for the same money? The thing is I want to make four times as many movies.”
Jackson, who actually makes five to six films a year, is open about having replaced drug addictions with compulsive work, and has so much going on that it’s hard to keep track. We were originally due to meet in the UK, where he has recently been shooting an adaptation of Mark Millar’s comic series The Secret Service. In Atlanta, he is rehearsing and shooting the apocalyptic thriller Cell, based on the novel by Stephen King, as well as promotingRoboCop, in which he plays a “Rush Limbaugh-type newscaster dude who’s campaigning for automated policing”. Soon, he will return to London to start filming the latest Avengers instalment, but when it comes to his nine-picture contract with Marvel Studios to play Nick Fury, he struggles to recall how many he has done already. “Seven? I think.”
Although I guess we should be sparing with the sympathy, for, as well as the massive pay cheques, he admits he has a clause in his contracts that allows him to play his beloved golf twice a week while filming. And some might say that he should actually be more discriminating in the roles he agrees to, given that despite being brilliant in The 51st State and Jackie Brown and Coach Carter, he has also appeared in his fair share of turkeys: Kiss of Death, The Great White Hype and others.
I work up to the question: is it true he didn’t know which character he was playing in Star Wars Episode I: the Phantom Menace until he was fitted for a costume? “Yes.” Is it true he accepted the lead inSnakes on a Plane on the basis of the title? “Yes. I saw it in the trades; a friend was directing it. I said, ‘Is it about snakes on an aeroplane? I wanna be in it!’ ”
Would he concede he has a rather relaxed approach to choosing roles? “It is not a relaxed attitude.” He adjusts his designer spectacles and brushes the lapel of his smart grey blazer. “What you gotta understand is that I spent a lot of time in the movies as a kid. I used to go on a weekend, nine in the morning, and wouldn’t come home till nine at night. Some movies I take because they are the kind I would have watched as a kid – like Snakes on a Plane. I always wanted to run away from something dangerous and scream and all that stuff.” He laughs. I suppose he was proved right in that case, I say, for it has become something of a cult classic. “It’s a better movie than the title suggests. But it didn’t make as much money as it should have.”
Money is a recurring theme with Jackson. About being in Guinness World Records, he says: “Nothing comes with it, except the knowledge I made a lot of money for a bunch of people and I don’t even have 10 per cent of it.” About his rare success as a black actor, he says: “Hollywood operates on the basis of money, so when you say to me I’m colourless or whatever, it just means I’ve created a space within that context.” About 12 Years, he adds: “Was the story worth telling? Yeah. Financially? The last count here was moderately OK.”
I suspect this unromantic approach to his art is just a reflection of his dry character. His wife of 33 years has complained that he is “emotionally disconnected”, and will not even say, “I miss you” when she calls him on set. “But I like talking to her,” he protests. “I call her every day.” I also suspect that his realistic approach helps make him popular with the studios. That, combined with the fact that he has few artistic pretensions (“I don’t direct. I don’t enjoy putting puzzles together, I wouldn’t enjoy the cutting room”), has no desire to retire (“For what? Sit around and wait to die? I want to keep chugging along, like Michael Caine”) and, having once been a bookish child, with a stutter, can’t quite believe where he has ended up.
Indeed, his enthusiasm for even what are normally considered the downsides of acting is almost as striking as his frankness. It turns out he actually enjoys the Horse & Hound junkets that are part and parcel of promoting blockbusters – “Travel, all those amazing hotels and nice food – what’s not to like?” He likes seeing his own films – “I dig watching my work.” And he enjoys the fame, going as far as collecting the action figures of the characters he plays in movies, pulling up to tourist buses in LA and saying, “Hey, you seen anyone famous yet?”, and walking around without a bodyguard. “People ignore me when I’m by myself; if people speak, I speak back. You see, I am an only child. I have been a human being longer than I have been a movie star. I’ve always looked after myself.”
Are there any negatives to celebrity? “You don’t have a lot of privacy.” Long pause. “People want more from you than the average person on the street. And I don’t take photographs.” Although, immediately after saying this, he agrees, as we depart, to a photo with one member of that airline crew. “I don’t deny the fact that being who I am is a great thing. If I am having a low day in my head for whatever reason, I just leave my house, people recognise me and it makes me feel better. I walk around and get reassured that, you know, life is not so bad.” He laughs. “I am Samuel L. Jackson!”