Samuel L Jackson
The Observer, Oct 2002
Play it Again Samuel: Hollywood’s coolest dude talks about his journey from alcoholic to workaholic.
Also at The Observer
There’s a scene in Changing Lanes that conjures all kinds of memories for its star, Samuel L Jackson. He plays the struggling everyman Doyle Gipson, an insurance salesman fighting a booze problem, whose life rapidly falls apart after a crash with a cocky young lawyer played by Ben Affleck. Instead of swapping details, the preppy Affleck speeds off – he’s in a rush to swindle a charitable trust – leaving Jackson in the rain, late for his custody hearing. And so a day of escalating retribution begins between the two, a high-stakes crescendo of vengeance and remorse. We’re rooting for Jackson but by lunchtime our man is facing bankruptcy and the loss of his house and family. Angry and desperate, he finds a bar and seeks solace in a whisky.
‘They were yelling in the cinemas in New York, “Don’t do it Doyle, don’t take that sip,”‘ says Jackson with a smile.
He likes to watch himself on the big screen and will often sneak into a seat at the back of the theatre. ‘They cheered when he didn’t, too. But that scene, when we were filming I could smell the bourbon coming up out of the glass and it made me think I didn’t want it, but I hadn’t been that close to a drink in a very long time. Particularly in those circumstances: alone in a small bar in the middle of the day.’
Jackson is a straight-talking celebrity, unafraid to speak frankly about drink and drugs, subjects he knows well. He has spoken openly about indulging in everything from angel dust to crack, how he would arrive at auditions reeking of drink yet somehow maintained a moderately successful career – for 23 years – and how his experience wasn’t a ‘My Drugs Hell’ one. In fact, he was quite enjoying himself.
The turning point came in 1988 when he turned 40. His wife, the actress LaTanya Richardson, found him passed out under the kitchen table with a rock of crack clutched in his hand. ‘I was tired,’ he has said, ‘and about the only thing I hadn’t tried was sobriety.’
So he took his wife’s advice, went into rehab and – just like in a Hollywood movie – sobriety turns out to be the promised land. The pre-rehab Jackson was a hard-working theatre actor from New York who did the occasional burger commercial and forgettable movie spot. The post-rehab Jackson is a billboard movie star with a mansion, a golf habit and a string of major movie credits including Pulp Fiction, Star Wars and Shaft.
‘Oh, I’m still an alcoholic,’ he says. ‘I still go to meetings, both NA and AA. It’s when people get well, that’s when they slip.’
Today Jackson is cheerfully munching fruit and crisps in a suite at the hip W hotel in west Los Angeles. His presence is commanding. A rangy 6ft 3in, topped with a trademark Kangol cap, he has a broad smile and the natural authority of a veteran, which at 53 he certainly is, although he could pass for 15 years younger. After the interview I can hear him laugh from the hotel lift.
He is not as cool as his screen personae might suggest – more like a kid enthused about his day’s adventures. ‘We were at the police academy shooting assault rifles all day,’ he says, beaming. ‘Pow! Pow! Paper targets, you know.’
He’s soon to play a Los Angeles lieutenant opposite Colin Farrell’s drug kingpin in SWAT, and the training is clearly a joy. He’s waving an imaginary gun around, shooting at everything in the hotel room. ‘Tomorrow I think we’re going on the range where the targets pop up. Just so we look cool when we’re shooting on film.’
He chuckles. ‘I come from Tennessee, I grew up in a house full of guns. We had rifles for hunting and pistols for whatever. In case someone comes round you don’t want to come round.’
Since he moved to LA golf, rather than guns, has been Jackson’s primary distraction – it is said he has even negotiated a clause in his contract which allows for golf breaks on location shoots. He is so prolific, though, that it is a wonder he finds time for the nine iron. During 1993 and 1994 he made 12 films, including True Romance, Menace To Society and Pulp Fiction. Since then he has eased up a little, starring in three per year over the last three years.
He is so busy, indeed, that you might think he is making up for lost time. ‘I am!’ he gleams. ‘I didn’t start when I was 20 years old – I’ve got to make up some ground.’
There’s pride in his voice when he reels off his schedule for 2002. ‘Let me see – there’s Basic [an army thriller with John Travolta], and xXx which is out, and Blackout with Ashley [Judd] … erm, a couple of days on Kill Bill [the new Tarantino film due next year, starring Uma Thurman]…’
Not to mention SWAT.
‘Not to mention SWAT. But I take a break now and then too. I was off for about a week last week.’
Unlike many actors, Jackson has no directorial projects or production companies to attend to. ‘I’m pretty passionate about acting right now – I’ve got no plans to direct just yet,’ he says. And he rarely plays the lead in most of his films. In fact, he occasionally demands that his name not be used in the marketing of a film so that audiences can discover him for themselves.
He is well aware of his expertise at the support role, as with Jules in Pulp Fiction or Augustus Gibbon in xXx. ‘I know I make people look good,’ he says. ‘I’ve got supporting actor awards all over my walls at home!’ Nevertheless, why work so hard? What’s the motivation?
‘Well, it’s not like I’m digging ditches – the majority of my day is laying around in a trailer watching TV. Come on! The reality is that acting opportunities are rare, 90 per cent of actors aren’t working. Everyone’s phone stops ringing eventually.’
This ‘make hay’ work ethic stems from his theatre days in New York where as a young actor he had no choice but to work hard and take whatever was available. ‘Most jobs paid like $50 for a four-week run. That’s barely train fare. So I was always forcing it enough to keep jobs stacked up – performing one play, rehearsing another and auditioning for the next.’
His years on the stage instilled in him the conviction that when it comes to casting, there is something right about people who work regularly and something wrong about people who don’t. ‘So, if my resume says showcase after showcase, at least I’m not waiting tables. But if I did one showcase a year and I wait tables every night, I’m a waiter, not an actor.’
Jackson’s passion for what he calls a ‘kinda interesting job’ is further stoked by the luxury of choosing projects that excite him. While you can criticise some of his choices – Die Hard With A Vengeance, Deep Blue Sea or the chaotic 51st State, which saw him tearing around the north of England in a kilt – Jackson isn’t fishing for awards. ‘I ain’t looking for my Gone With The Wind,’ he says.
When he rips through the six or seven scripts that come his way each week – and he always reads them to the end – he’s looking for ‘interesting characters, something I haven’t done before. Sometimes I’ll read a script and say, “I don’t want the lead, but I’ll do this other guy if you can do it in 10 days.”‘
For a while Jackson’s gift of investing caricature with character put him in danger of playing an array of stereotypes. ‘I was offered a lot of parts that were, you know, snappy and cool, but naturally I rejected them,’ he says. Only Shaft seems to have crept through, and he doesn’t mind if you admit you didn’t like it. ‘Shaft is as close as I ever got to being a hero,’ he says, eyes sparkling. ‘The toughest, the strongest, the fastest, the best shot. The guy that when the smoke clears, he’s the one standing in the middle of the street. He’s supposed to get the girl too, but they left that part out.’
Changing Lanes, on the other hand, is more successful. It’s a measure of how effectively Jackson has avoided typecasting that his character needn’t necessarily even be black. One of the interesting things about the film is the way class trumps colour in the Jackson-Affleck feud, the issue of race is only garnish to the economic and social gulf between them. ‘The thing about that movie,’ says Jackson, ‘is I could be either guy.’
His transition from ‘black actor’ to ‘actor’ is the culmination of a long journey for the Sixties radical. In 1969, when he was a student at the black, all-male Morehouse liberal arts college in Atlanta, he took several members of the board of trustees hostage in protest at the lack of a black studies programme. The institution, whose alumni include Spike Lee and Martin Luther King Jr, rewarded him with a brief suspension. Today, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry win acting Oscars, it seems that Hollywood, at least, has turned a corner.
‘No, not really,’ shrugs Jackson. ‘It was just one of those times when they reward the performances, which is a good thing. There wasn’t anything token about it. I don’t think there’s any racial profiling going on.’
Still, Jackson’s own Oscar bid must beckon now more than ever. He got a supporting actor nomination for Pulp Fiction – and famously cursed on camera when the award went to Martin Landau – but that was a decade ago, when Jackson’s star was still climbing. ‘Back then I used to only get mentioned with Denzel, Wesley and Fishburne. Now I get talked about in the same sentence as Mel Gibson, which is pretty interesting.’
‘But you know what?’ He grins. ‘When people yell at me in the street, you know what I get? “Matrix, dude!” “Love The Matrix.”‘ He cracks up laughing. It was Laurence Fishburne who starred in The Matrix, not Jackson.