Samuel L. Jackson


Now that his name has started to appear above the title of his movies, rather than simply at the top of the cast-list, it was only a matter of time before Samuel L. Jackson was invited to join Hollywood’s rather nebulous campaign to talk to the nation’s schoolchildren about drugs.
But in Jackson’s case, as he says, “that would be, like a really bad idea.”

In theory, he is the ideal candidate. For a start he is probably not only the best supporting actor in the world, but currently the coolest star in Hollywood.
With directors, actors and audience alike, Jackson is Sam is The Man: young tyros like Depp, Ben Affleck, Vince Vaughn, or contemporaries like Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes don’t even come close to the kudos he has.
Also, Jackson is articulate and naturally candid about using drugs.
He is has been clean from both drink and drugs for the best part of eight years, and is a committed advocate for NA meetings, although AA less so, complaining “everybody there is pissed off because they can’t drink.”
His experience of the way crack cocaine is vivid and sobering to hear as he describes the way “it brought me to my knees.”
“God knows what he’s doing, you know ?” Samuel L. Jackson smiles. “I used to say, ‘when I become a movie-star and get my first million dollar cheque, I’m gon’ fly me and all my boys to Brazil, get a kilo of cocaine and just kick it, be slammin’ in some hotel fo’ a weekend’, haha !”
His knowing laughter could still fool you into thinking part of him still thinks it sounds pretty good.
“And if God heard that,” he screeches, laughing even harder, “he’d be like (one quizzical eyebrow raised, considering the idea), ‘mmmmh… I don’t think you’ll be doing that !'”
Regarding the years in which he was habitually taking everything from marijuana and speed to acid, angel dust, and heroin, his position is “for 23 years, I was havin’ a GOOD time ! There’s no way I can tell kids ‘it’s awful, don’t do it.'”
It sounds like denial, but Jackson insists he was “using drugs successfully for years. Life was good ! I was goin’ to work every day, money in the bank, makin’ movies and playin’ on Broadway. I did things on stage that were phenomenal. August Wilson, Charles Fuller. The Piano Lesson… I was bombed every night.”
Any mention of the (rather priggish) conventional wisdoms that he was using drugs to escape his responsiblities or problems are met with raucous laughter.
“Unhappy ? No, I wasn’t unhappy,” he yells with a grin as dazzling as a diamond. “I was happy. Hell, I was very happy. For a long time, heh-heh-heh. I didn’t get unhappy til the end when I started smoking cocaine.”
Hollywood’s anti-drug crusaders would contend that confessional openness and honesty is all very well, but, to paraphrase Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, this is a little more information than some people need to know.
Straight talking though is one of the more unusual and admirable traits of Samuel Leroy Jackson’s rise to fame.
Jackson is so easy-going, he will tell you how much he got paid for a movie and how much he thinks a white star of his status would have made.
He has often criticised the way his films have turned out – from the first National Lampoon’s Lethal Weapon film to this year’s Sphere – and even has no qualms in mentioning he was practically the only black guy on the set of Scorsese’s Good Fellas.
“The only people who talked to me in 6 weeks were Ray Liotta, Joe Pesci and a guy named Johnny No-Speak.”
As you can sense from his flair for long, flamboyant speeches in movies, Samuel L. Jackson likes talking – so much so, you wonder if he actually relishes being indiscreet, casually telling tales on directors as powerful as Joel Schumacher and Barry Levinson, while his digs at Spike Lee have escalated into an all-out feud.
He refused to work on Malcolm X for scale, while he said Lee was making enough money for a house in Martha’s Vineyard, dismissing Lee’s attack on Jackie Brown as a result of his jealousy that Tarantino had made “a good, interesting black movie” – something “he hasn’t done in some time.”
Even when playing it all down, and saying he doesn’t know whether they will work together again, he can’t help mentioning slyly that nowadays, he “might be out of Spike’s price range.”
His attitudes confirm Samuel Jackson doesn’t conform to any of the stereotypes usually associated with either drugs or acting. For one thing, reformed addicts are not encouraged to reminisce about drugs with quite so much vigour.
If it’s true that you can learn alot about someone’s personality from the way they take their drugs, then, in Samuel Jackson’s case we’re persuaded he has a somewhat erratic sense of humour and is the sort of exuberant, animated character who probably expects to be the centre of attention, so he would take twice as much as everyone else and niggle away at people’s peace of mind, to get there.
“I have a great sense of humour,” he says casually. “I can be very cynical or just happy-go-lucky about stuff. I tend to find ways of enjoying myself. So when people are around me, they either get infected by it or they get away from me.”
In his drug-taking days, he was fond of messing with his cohorts’ heads during an acid trip by sending them out of the room to get something and moving the furniture round or changing all the clocks, and then tell them they’d been gone hours.
Drugs to him, seemed to be a way of making his life like Toy Story, especially when he would buy huge multi-packs of chewing gum, lace a couple of sticks with acid and then replace them, then wait until “as time progressed, I would run up on one of those sticks. So I could just be walkin’ down the street and go ‘Hey ! HEY ! Surprise ! It’s on.”
His viewpoint is, virtually that it was nothing personal, arguing that in the Sixties in his circles, “drugs were just one of those things. It was a part of what I did every day. There was something wrong with people who DIDN’T take drugs.”
He got into heroin almost half-heartedly, for the simple reason that when all the marijuana and other drugs were taken off the streets in 69/70 (“to defuse the black revolution”), heroin was all that was left.
“Heroin never became a problem for me cos I used to OD alot. Plus I didn’t like being depressed. I like bein’ AWAKE. And havin’ FUN. It all depends on your state of mind and your attitude when you do it. But with my personality, I don’t do things halfway.”
Whilst others like singer James Brown had serious emotional and judicial difficulties as a result of smoking angel dust, Samuel Jackson’s personality is such that when the ground started growing and his arms and legs started shrinking, he just thought it was a blast.
“I loved that stuff. See, I always knew it was a drug. I liked to see things happen. I liked to sit in a room and watch people’s eyes roll off their face or just melt out of the chair. Just wave my hands in front of my face and see like trails of fire. Or drive down the street and watch the cars melt into the pavement. I never had a bad trip in my life.”
But anyone who thinks this means he doesn’t take the subject or the ramifications of drugs seriously is falling for the sort of stereotype you can never really apply to him.
The credit for making Jackson’s career is invariably given to Spike Lee (who cast Jackson in School Daze, Do The Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues before Jungle Fever) or Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) but actually his big break was really rehab.
“If I was making the kind of money I’m making now, with the kind of appetite I had then,” he states, “you would not be sittin’ here talkin’ to me now. You’d have written my obituary years ago.”
Having started by beginning his days with a beer and a joint, he eventual ended up turning up for auditions smelling of drink; smoking crack between acts.
He went into rehab when his wife and daughter found him slumped over the kitchen table, passed out, with a rock of cocaine still in his hand ready to smoke. One month in rehab and, in career terms, he “took off”, as if his talent and appetite had finally been let off the leash.
“Yeah I’ve thought about that,” he says sombrely. “I was in my own way for a very long time.”

The more you listen to him talk, the stronger the feeling you get that whatever the personal or professional lows of his life, Samuel L. Jackson always knew he was going to get there eventually.
Meeting him, the self-confidence that exudes from the screen in virtually all his performances is evident the moment he walks in the room.
The bigger the part, like Jules in Pulp Fiction, or Ordell in Jackie Brown, the action heroes in The Long Kiss Goodnight and Die Hard III, the more confident he seems.
Self-doubt is not something you can associate him with. Maybe that’s why he never saw his drug use as a problem.
Certainly, the question of his own talent never seemed to be in doubt, even in the early days when, having waited in vain for TV work, he ended up taking a commercial for the local fast-food chain, answering the question: “What makes Krystal hamburgers so good ?” with “it’s probably the little cooked onions.”
You get the impression that even when he was in things like the TV series Spenser: For Hire, or getting screen credits like “gang member no.2” in Ragtime or “Black Guy” in Sea of Love (less than ten years ago), he thought it was just a matter of time.
Sure enough, in the last five years, he has appeared alongside John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Robert de Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone, and out-shone them all, while his performance in Jungle Fever was so good the Cannes jury created a special prize for him.
It’s hard to think of many actors who have the kind of cult cool Samuel Jackson has earned from a string of quality independents and can still command their own big studio vehicle.
With the careers of Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne and Wesley Snipes stalling somewhat, it won’t be long before he’s challenging his former theatre mentor, Morgan Freeman, for the honour of the world’s most highly-paid serious black actor.
Since Pulp Fiction, he has been catching them up fast and is arguably more popular than all of them put together.
Ask people what the secret of his success is and, besides sheer acting talent, most of them will say his cool; his charm.
Charm is one of the few things you can’t fake, no matter how good you are. As someone once said, “you’ve either got it or you haven’t. If you haven’t got charm, you can’t get it. And if you HAVE got it, you don’t need anything else.”
He is Sam The Man; what Tarantino would call “ too cool for school.”
His latest role, a small town doctor and ladies man, in Eve’s Bayou, the most successful independent film in America last year, which he also co-produced, is a breeze as he has every woman in the town succumbing to his smooth-talking.
All of which means we tend to ignore the sheer drive or determination it must have taken Samuel L. Jackson to get here; to get through rehab first time; to keep going through fast-food commercials and Spenser: For Hire into bit parts in movies like Raw or Ragtime, on to Pulp Fiction and Die Hard III. As recently as 1991 after he had finished Jungle Fever, a piece in Time magazine had him “filing for unemployment and looking for work.”
The determination involved first struck me watching Jackie Brown, when, in the car near the end, he turns his dead, red-eyed stare on Robert Forest; a look of total blinkered intent.
I get another sight of it as we’re hiding from the hounding LA heat down an alleyway behind his agent’s office on Rodeo Drive.
When I ask him to name one role he would have liked to have played, with a flash of the same ruthless determination as de Niro, he doesn’t hesitate: Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.
The implication he could maybe improve on it is noted.

The temptation to see Samuel Jackson as being as cool as his most famous characters inevitably proves too strong.
Mostly it’s in the voice, a languid, lilting drawl tinged with the light twang of Tennessee that could charm the birds out of the trees.
Six foot three, as slim as a willow, his lean, angular face is handsome and assured, topped off when we meet by a cream Kangol cap and grey goatee, with stylish, studious-looking glasses. His dry, sceptical humour is invariably followed by wild, excitable howls of laughter.
An only child, he was born in Washington and grew up in Chattanooga (of choo-choo fame) raised by his grandparents, his aunts and his mother, after his father, who’s now deceased, deserted them.
There are echoes of his childhood growing up in Tennessee in the film, Eve’s Bayou, a touching, wonderfully acted rites of passage tale about family, infidelity and voodoo told through the eyes of a young child, a la To Kill A Mockingbird/Stand By Me, with an unusually ambiguous twist in the tale.
As the big city charmer constrained in a small town, rather than coasting through his part, as he so easily could have, Jackson makes Louis Batiste unlike any character he’s played before, cleverly intimating the fact he likes being a rascal, and that this is somehow irresistible to everyone, including his own wife and daughter.
The way the women in Louis’s life (his mother, his wife, his daughter) compete for his attention is one, he says, he’s used to at home himself – “coming home and constantly bein’ in that tug of war. ‘OK go to your corners, rest a minute and come out fighting.'”
After years of trying, the project only got the green light once Jackson attached to his name to it, thus raising the $3million budget (“$ 3 million ?” he smiles, “is that all I’m
worth ?”), and his pride at getting a film about the life of an ordinary, black family rather than about Black Life or Black Issues, made is obvious, though he’s not expecting its success to start a rush.
Jackson thinks the largely feminine environment he grew up in saved him from “having constantly to prove myself” and is mostly responsible for giving him his self-confidence.
Was he extroverted as a kid ?
“Hell yeah !” he says, enjoying one of his favourite phrases. “I was mad. I lived in a sort of fantasy world, inside books and TV. I could sit in front of the TV for hours and nobody ever told me it was pollutin’ my mind. or corruptin’ my values. I still did good school work. Being an only child, probably taught me how to use my sense of humour to, like, Defuse a situation I was in cos I had no brothers and sisters to back me up. There was always no one else to blame. No dog, no cat. Anything got broken and they didn’t break it ? It was me.”
He gets his looks, he says, from his mother.
“I guess I wouldn’t have particularly thought so then, but I can look back at my photos now and I wasn’t so bad-looking. Girls paid attention to me,” he admits with not that much reluctance.
Jackson is most associated with characters like the charming but ruthless crooks in the Tarantino films, the slick, sleazy, hustler in Hard Eight, the dope dealer/dude in Menace II Society, or low-rent PI in The Long Kiss Goodnight, though just how misleading this is testament to just how good an actor he really is.
Even his fans forget he has been just as good as doctors, teachers, lawyers or policemen in films like Eve’s Bayou, 187, Losing Isaiah and Kiss of Death and that these are probably closer to home.
The truth is, Samuel L. Jackson is approaching 50, celebrating his 17th year of marriage, and does the carpool at his 15 year-old daughter’s school.
The day we meet, rather than start the day with a joint and a tequila he had a trip to the dermatologist and went shopping with his wife on Rodeo Drive.
In PR terms, he is as professional as any star that now commands millions would be. Since Pulp Fiction his fee has soared, so that he is made $ 5m for A Time To Kill.
He moved from New York to the San Fernando Valley 6 years ago, mainly, I would guess to push his career along and because, he says, of the weather, which enables him to play 54 holes of golf a day.
Music-wise, he says, “at the moment, I’m revisiting my Led Zeppelin collection. I listen to Dark Side… at least once a month” – another case of more information than we really want to know.
People never look at him this way.
As a veteran of theatre, he can probably be just as much of a luvvie about his profession as Kenneth Branagh, even with his attitude towards his fellow (lesser) professionals – he has turned down several films because he didn’t see why he should legitimise or jump-start the acting career of “some rapper or basketball star.”
Simply regarding him as being down, some cool dude who’s somehow slick enough to do what he does, only demeans him and what he’s achieved.
Besides, as he points out, he never really used to be that cool. Rather than Sam The Man, his nickname was Jacks or “more likely to be Sam The Dork…I dressed pretty much the way my mom wanted me to dress.”
Ask him to sum up what he was like as a child, and he gives a casual shrug as if he’s not really interested, then still pretty effortlessly manages to sum it up.
“Well, you know…” he says languidly, “I was always kinda memorable. ”

Memorable, of course is something to be.
As good as he is in star roles he has done, Jackson has avoided what he calls “standard studio fare – where you do the same thing over and over again” – even turning down roles in films with De Niro and Pacino and been happy to build a career through minor roles in good quality, non-commercial films instead, safe in the knowledge that he was always memorable.
Besides Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and True Romance, and the Spike Lee quartet, he has had less noted roles in Trees Lounge, Hard Eight, Juice, Menace II Society, Fresh, Johnny Suede, and a mean two-minute cameo in the acclaimed up-coming Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight.
More importantly, he was just as memorable in major pictures like Patriot Games, Jurassic Park, Sea of Love, Good Fellas and Eddie Murphy’s Coming To America.
‘I’m always tryin’ to pick an interestin’ character, that I haven’t seen before…”
The pivotal role in his life was his truly desolate performance as the shambling, charming crack-addict, Gator, which, coming two weeks after he left rehab, was, not surprisingly, a role his counsellors strongly advised him to reject.
“My attitude was, ‘if I never see you people again for the rest of my life, it’ll be too soon,’ he drawls with quiet menace.
In fact, as it turned out, he maintains that the moment Gator’s father (played by Ossie Davis) shot him, “that person, that junkie I used to be, was dead to me.”
When Oprah Winfrey saw his performance in Jungle Fever she says her first thought was: “how the hell did they get a crack addict to turn up for work every day ?”
The detail in the performance (the jacket he wears with the sleeves rolled up, the angle of his baseball cap, the rhythm of his speech and the agitated dance he does as he talks to people) is about as good as you will ever see.
“I never think about directors – they just kinda of come with the project, so, nah, I ain’t interested in seeing them ‘in action’. What the hell does that mean ?”
His only criteria for what makes a good director seems to be whether they watch his scenes with their own eyes (like Tarantino does) or on the monitor that shows what the camera’s shot (like most others).
He says the first thing he does with a script is scratch all the stage directions, so all the styling was pretty much his.
“Some writers can write but most of them can’t act, so why are they giving me stage directions ?” he asks pointedly. “In the script it just said “dances”, but we didn’t know what the dance was. Spike kinda depends on the actors to come in and do what we do. He does his camera stuff. He doesn’t sit down and have long conversations about characters,” he adds disparagingly.
Despite the award at Cannes, he lost out to Martin Landau for an Oscar, famously muttering “Shit !” on the TV close-ups when it was announced and refusing to be magnanimous about it ever since.
“Yeah well, I’ve seen Ed Wood, so don’t bullshit me alright?” he mutters, still nursing the grudge.
By contrast, he says Pulp Fiction was “95% all in the script. Quentin had that thing nailed.”
Having auditioned for the undercover cop who coaches Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction more than made up for it, although he still mentions it in interviews, becoming the one film he will always be associated with.
He seems actively aggrieved that, even in LA/Hollywood, the thing people shout out to him, when they recognise him is: ‘you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in Europe ?’ – which is not even his line. It’s Travolta’s.
“Not ome person has got it when I say ‘no what ?’ which is my line. In fact, they get kinda pissed off and say ‘come on, you must do !'”
Jules, Ordell and Jimmy in Hard Eight are three of the genuinely, quietly menacing characters on film, and, his favourites
“There are certain actors who want to be liked in every film they’re in. I don’t particularly care ’bout that,” he shrugs. “I don’t think I have to be Hollywood good-lookin’ all the time. I hate seein’ that thing when the character wakes up in the morning and their hair looks the same as the night before and you know their mouth tastes the same as when they went to sleep.”
His action movies, The Long Kiss Goodnight and Die Hard III, are also amongst his favourites, not least because you suspect because of what he got paid. As for the third, he says of Sphere, “I prefer my monster movies to have monsters in – but that’s just me.”
“Action films are great – playing cops and robbers, doin’ all this stuff that you did as kids except I’m shootin’ people and their chests are blowin’ up and their heads are blowin’ up and, you’ll be like, ‘damn ! nobody’s sayin’ ‘you missed me’.”
His next project is another Renny Harlin movie, Deep Blue Sea, “about fucken sharks and shit.”
Most recently, he has talked to Stanley Tong about making one of his beloved kung-fu movies and will continue to take smaller projects but he has The Negotiator coming up later this year, with Kevin Spacey and gets to say: “May the Force be with you” in Star Wars.
He is not, despite the current vogue, interested in directing himself (“hell no”) and his attitude towards the idea of working with any directors in particular once again suggests that he believes he doesn’t need any help.
“If I read something I like, my agents and managers tend to know they work for ME and I’m gonna do it.”
As for what Samuel L. Jackson wants for the rest of his career, he says: “I don’t know if I can be any more famous than I am now. I can make more money but I don’t know if I can be more famous…” which seems either naive or just disingenuous given that besides The Negotiator, and the Renny Harlin movie, he is also in Star Wars.
On the table, a book called Celebrities Favourite Rooms includes his buddy Travolta inside his Lear jet.
Jackson likes to point out, when he’s in New York, he still takes the subway. The difference is, of course people like Travolta and Cruise don’t want to go on the subway.
That, it many ways, is that their fame is for – a means of not having to.
“I have a real life. I don’t want to create a spectacle of myself by jumping out of a limousine with eight people around me. I’m self-confident enough to go where I want. People say ‘hi’ to me, I’ll say ‘how are you ?’ back. If they want an autograph… well, I’ve been signing my name for 30 something years,” he says, with rather artful emphasis, “I sign it real quick.”
As he says, the next step up, in to the higher oxygen inhabited by the likes Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson et al, will greatly depend on whether his name can open The Negotiator with the kind of box office numbers they would.
His nervousness that if it doesn’t, his name will be the one to “to be punished” rather than Kevin Spacey’s (“he has his Academy Award”) suggests it matters to him more than he might want to admit.
This desire has not tempered his easy way of mentioning issues like Hollywood’s difficulties in actors like himself having love scenes with actresses like Geena Davis, and scripts which were originally meant for white actors (like The Long Kiss Goodnight and 187) being changed accordingly.
This type of issue was complicated further when Denzel Washington was criticised for a love scene with white actress Milla Jovovich in Spike Lee’s last film ‘He Got Game.
In the case of A Time To Kill, Jackson also talked openly about how he felt when the director took his most powerful speech away in the edit and gave it to his (white) co-star and supposedly hot-shot, Matthew McConaughey – even if the director was Joel Schumacher, one of the Hollywood’s most powerful players.
Like the rest of us, Hollywood would be wise not to think of Samuel Jackson as being too cool to be interested in settling for less or resting on the laurels of Pulp Fiction.
He says he is now at the stage where he “looks at stuff they offer Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford that they don’t want to do. Everybody sends their script to Tom Cruise, no matter the story is so, I’m sure Tom’s fingerprints are probably on everything at a certain point. So I will see the things he’s turned down, but not before some guy like Matt Damon, or whoever’s moment it is.”
When I wonder how many of these roles he reckons he doesn’t get because he’s black, he quickly points out, “first of all, nobody would ever tell me it was because I was black,” which rather goes without saying.
As for the answer, he thinks about it and then says: “Out of all the things I read, roles that I would want… maybe 25-30%.”
He doesn’t make anything out of it.
But I would say these are the roles Samuel L. Jackson really wants. The roles that, in the end, I bet he gets.