Samuel L Jackson interview

Violet Wilder

At 71 years old, actor Samuel L Jackson is still one of the coolest cats in Hollywood. He opens up about how success, addiction and inspiration have shaped him

Samuel L Jackson has a ritual that accompanies the release of each of his movies. Call it superstition, label it a debt to karmic alignment… whatever it is, it backbones a professional mantra that, up to this point, has reaped unquestionably winning results.

“I have this rule,” he leans forward in his seat, explaining in that, warm, gravelled purr. “Whenever I have a film opening, I know it’s going to make at least a thousand dollars. I buy $1000 of tickets for my movie and I give them to my church—they give them to the kids or whoever. So I always know it’s going to make at least a thousand dollars.” It’s difficult to imagine Jackson’s Hollywood dealings ever being driven by a need to hit a certain level, particularly in the 26 years since the bebop sermons of Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield created a historic icon of “cool”.

Of course, with over 130 film credits and counting—which, inexplicably, have garnered just one Oscar nomination—Jackson is best known for his countless big screen smash hits. Jurassic Park, the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Marvel’s billion grossing Avengers franchise series have made the actor the highest grossing star at the box office, with his films making nearly $10billion.

Not even hitting the big 7-0 at the end of 2018 has aided the star in quelling his insecurities when it comes to bulk purchase of cinema tickets. That is despite the burgeoning rebirth of the superhero genre having only hastened Jackson’s seemingly unrelenting rise to wherever it is the planet’s highest-grossing film star can ascend to… perhaps he knows.

“I’ve no idea,” he chips back. “I’m just along for the ride.”

 

Certainly, the husband of actress LaTanya Richardson, who has a grown-up daughter, Zoe, is at a breathtakingly fertile point in his career. In 2017, five movie projects—including Kong: Skull Island, The Hitman’s Bodyguard and XxX: Return of Xander Cage—came to fruition. A further four arrived in 2018, including Avengers: Infinity War, the highest grossing movie of all time; and an incredible eight hit the big screen last year, three of which featured him as Nick Fury. He also reprised the role of John Shaft.

"The industry has become such a driver for money, we forget about the importance of art"

Perhaps, though, the most important role of past year was as army veteran Takoda in The Last Full Measure, a film about the darkness of war and the residue it leaves behind.

With his wife of 40 years, LaTanya Richardson at the Shaft premiere

With his success repeating itself with bludgeoning regularity, it’s worth questioning what fuels someone who, some may say, should be reclining into a peaceful retirement.

“It’s not the same stuff that used to fuel me,” he quips.

Indeed, an appreciation of Samuel L Jackson is, ultimately, an appreciation of a number of very different lives intersecting and convening into the point we are at now. When you begin to gather together those various strands of success, excess, fortune (good and bad), it’s a wonder the 71-year-old actor is even here to tell the story.

Jackson is a keen golfer, and once described his hobby as “the perfect sport”

The contradictions are many and varied. Jackson was well into his forties before any sort of creative recognition outside the US, yet his formative years were as a prolific stage performer, albeit one who often found himself cast aside when his productions made it to Broadway.

 

He was a hedonist when it came to relying on substances that would amplify the drama of his stage presence, yet Jackson could also see the damage that alcohol, marijuana, LSD, cocaine and heroin were doing to his career.

"Getting clean was about starting. I had held myself back for years"

“Getting clean was, ultimately, about starting,” Jackson says. “I wouldn’t even say it was restarting—I’d never gotten to the levels I knew I could achieve. I had held myself back for years, mostly on stage, and while I may have been fulfilled performance to performance, I didn’t feel that way about my career.”

That’s not to suppose Jackson’s time treading the boards wasn’t successful. He performed in Pulitzer Prize-winning productions, and the actor doesn’t do faux humility. He admits he produced art that was at times stirring and evolving. His issue with the decades leading up to him getting clean in 1991 was, ultimately, that he knew that at the point his focus became 100 per cent on the hit of the audience rather than the hit of a narcotic, he’d smash through the glass ceiling, never to return. It just took a while to get to that point.

“Those were times in my life when I felt like I needed to validate myself by spending time with other people, drinking excessively or using drugs,” he says.

“It’s quite embarrassing. I was obsessed with my own fame. I would walk around the streets just to see how many people would recognise me. I mean, what kind of person does that? What kind of person feels like they need the attention to prove something to themselves?”

Jackson also admits he’d gaze with jealousy at the attention co-stars would receive. “It sounds absurd but I’d be wondering where my praise was, instead of living in the moment and looking at the bigger picture.”

 

Ultimately, sobriety sparked maturity, and with it, a body of work to rival any other male film star of the past three decades. It makes Jackson’s thousand dollar safety net all the more difficult to fathom, yet he’s clear in his logic.

“There’s a brutal arrogance to success where those who achieve it suddenly assume they are too good for the processes that got them there in the first place.”

Thankfully, Samuel L Jackson is an actor reassuringly unaffected by his status. He still visits his local comic book store twice a month to exact the same escapism he did when growing up as an only child in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He enjoys graphic novels—“Scalped, 100 Bullets, Preacher, I love those”—he has zero interest in celebrating his ego by writing an autobiography, and insists it’s luck that has kept him on top.

It helps, of course, that he is at a point where he doesn’t need success. Indeed, when the aforementioned The Last Full Measure failed spectacularly to equate box office takings with a storyline driven by real life, historical importance and justice, the actor was relieved. “For me, I think it crystallises perfectly the good and the bad of the movie world. The bad is that such a perfectly judged, important, emotional and informative piece of drama perhaps didn’t get the payback it deserved; the good because, despite that, the story was told. And that in itself is infinitely more important than dollar signs.

"Money can wait—let the story come first"

“I think the industry has become such a driver for money that we can sometimes forget about the importance of creating drama and staging art—that in itself is the most important thing. We didn’t all get up on stage for the first time because we wanted to be paid, we did it because we wanted to be heard. And there, right there, is where we need to get back to sometimes. The money can wait a while—let the story come first.

“So in a way I am pleased it was watched by fewer people than it might have been, because at least I know that those people [who did see it] really wanted to be absorbed by this piece of film-making.”

For someone whose roles have frequently been driven by attitude, assertiveness and image, it’s interesting that Jackson’s own icon is a world away from his own roles.

“The thing about Sir Laurence Olivier was the body of work, not necessarily the work itself,” he explains. “As an actor you have to look at what others have invested and think about just how good someone must have been to do that for so long… particularly in theatre, because there’s a take you are repeating time and time again, and every take needs to be as good as the last.

“I remember when Olivier died in 1989. I was watching television and his face came up on screen. As they talked about his life and career, his face sort of morphed into all these different characters he’d played in all these different films.

“And I said to myself, ‘that’s the kind of career you should have.’ People should be able to look at you and remember all these things that you’ve done. Now, I hope I’ve done enough that anyone who sees my face during my obituary will be able to say that they have at least two films they enjoyed… two characters they can look at and say, ‘I remember that film, I remember that guy…’ ”

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