At 69, Samuel L Jackson is looking good. He’s softly spoken for the most part, with a voice that’s instantly recognizable. He’s also, of course, one of the biggest movie stars on earth. But it’s been a long journey to get to this place – his success was hard-fought, coming later in his career than it does for most.
Jackson made his film debut in 1972’s Together For Days, a drama set during the racially charged civil rights movement of the time – a world he was active in. But the general consensus says it wasn’t until 1994’s Pulp Fiction – his 30th film – that he became the big movie star. He laughs at the suggestion.
“Did I? Well, I became a recognizable star after that film, but I don’t know about a big star.” But it must have changed his life, surely?
“Actually, here’s the thing,” he says. “Bruce Willis and I were doing Die Hard with a Vengeance when Pulp Fiction came out and we went to Cannes together to watch Pulp Fiction play for the first time. We both thought, ‘Wow, this is great!’ and Bruce said, ‘Yeah, this is good and this film will make you recognizable, but Die Hard’s going to make you a star. Die Hard will change your life.’ And it’s true. Die Hard with a Vengeance was the highest-grossing film in the world that year. That changed the agenda.”
It’s also the character the related to most. “That was the only time I perceived myself as playing myself, because it was my job to be the audience member on the inside of a Die Hard film reacting to John McClane the way an audience member would react,” he explains. This metanarrative makes you want to watch the film again to see him reacting as you, the viewer. It’s a smarter role than perhaps many people thought and clearly influential in his career.
That change in agenda brought him a run of hit films, with a total worldwide box office tally of more than US $5.1 billion – more than any other actor on earth. He really knows how to pick a hit – although he puts it down to “getting lucky sometimes” – and says not finding success until his mid-40s was probably a good thing. “I was sober when it happened so that helped a lot. If it had happened sooner in my life, I would have found a way to mess it up. Being sober and understanding who I was, and what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to shape the trajectory of my career, was a result of me being more mature, but I always attribute it to my sobriety and not listening to everything people say when they tell you how great you are.”
The road to this point in his life has been hard work. He grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, raised by a single mother, having only ever met his father twice. He attended segregated schools and suffered from a stutter as a child. His frequent swearing was his way of getting past that stutter. He attended the all-male African American liberal arts college Morehouse, where he became involved in the civil rights movement. After the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Jackson attended his funeral. “It was held on the campus of Morehouse, King’s alma mater, so I ended up being an usher,” he says. “I’d been to Spellman College in Atlanta to see the body laying in state, then I went to Memphis to march with the garbage workers, and then we flew back the next day for the funeral.”
A year later, Jackson was suspended from Morehouse for two years and convicted of a second-degree felony when he and several other students held members of the college board of trustees hostage to demand school reform. It’s also been widely reported that in his youth he was a member of the Black Panthers, but he insists it’s not true and has no idea where the story came from. He was, however, part of the fight for equal rights in the Sixties – and he’s not surprised by the US’s apparent turn towards intolerance.
“I don’t see it as some kind of anomaly. People weren’t as open in the past when it was maybe politically incorrect to espouse some of the ideas that they can now say out loud,” he says. “I never thought people stopped thinking it, but now it’s as vocal as it was when I grew up during segregation. If there was a way the country’s leaders could keep certain ethnicities from going to certain things or being in some positions then they would do that, because that seems to be the dynamic right now.
I hear things like ‘make America great again’ and by ‘again,’ they mean going back to the day when a white man held all the power, women were home cooking and having babies, and the rest of the races were subservient in some way. There are a lot of things that can’t and won’t be changed because of the blood and the effort that was put in during the civil rights movement, but there are a lot of dynamics that are trying to be put back into place because of that.”
Is he hopeful for the future? “I’d like to be. The stance that young people are taking on guns and violence in schools is very encouraging. They’ve found their voice. A lot of those young people are going to be of voting age by 2020. They can change the dynamic around the country. Their voices will be heard. They’re registering to vote in record numbers and recognizing that they do have power in numbers and that their actions can be effective in getting rid of the people who are standing in their way.”
He sees this same fight for change in his industry – and also here, it’s the young people leading the charge. “The artist community is forever changing, and young filmmakers are telling stories from different perspectives in terms of a world they grew up in that’s inhabited by all kinds of people. The fact that they have a certain kind of interaction allows them to shape their stories in a different way than it was before, so they can color their stories with all the ethnicities. They don’t perceive all black people to be criminals, they don’t perceive all Mexicans to be laborers, or all Asians to be the smartest people in the room. Young people are the lifeblood of what is about to happen – and they are all telling their stories.”
The recent critical and box office success of Marvel’s Black Panther is being seen as a key moment in the positive portrayal of black people in lead roles, but despite the plaudits, Jackson doesn’t believe it’s quite the watershed moment. “I’m not positive that Black Panther is going to change the dynamic of black stories being told in Hollywood and being accepted all over the world,” he says. “It’s an action-adventure story and a lot of people like those, and they’ll work all over the world forever because everybody loves a hero. But not everybody loves a drama about somebody’s life experience – that’s why awards have a separate category for foreign films; they are perceived as being different. Once we stop perceiving them as different and just see them as good films and they get recognized in the same category, we’ll be laying markers.”
One of the biggest markers in the portrayals of black men on screen was that of Richard Roundtree in Shaft (1971). Jackson played the character’s nephew in the 2000 film of the same name – dressed by Giorgio Armani – and has just finished filming Son of Shaft, the sequel. The importance of the character for black actors is undeniable and he was keen to defend how the character was portrayed. “When we started the film, the producers wanted to make an action comedy, and I told them that you can’t make John Shaft a comedic character,” he says. “He can be funny, but he has to be strong, dynamic, and charismatic in all the ways that he was because he is part of our mythology. Shaft is part of our black film anthology. He was a hero and one of the first people we saw to be that kind of a character.”
Aside from a nomination for best supporting actor for Pulp Fiction, however, Jackson hasn’t really troubled the Academy Awards stage, but has appeared in films that perhaps deserved more credit from the perspective of telling stories about black lives. “Django Unchained was a harder and more detailed exploration of what the slavery experience was than 12 Years a Slave,” he says. “But director Steve McQueen is an artist and since he’s respected for making supposedly art films, it’s held in higher esteem than Django. Because that was basically a blaxploitation movie.”
Django Unchained was one of his many collaborations with writer/director Quentin Tarantino, of whom Jackson is a big fan because he writes “very theatrically” and always gives him great monologues. “All the characters he’s written for me have rounded lives and they express themselves and tell you who they are, they don’t just show you. Movies are a show-me business and the theater is a tell-me business. Quentin has found a way to marry those two things, the show-me and tell-me aspects of who these characters are.”
The line between art and entertainment is usually a blurry one, yet Jackson considers himself an artist, while acknowledging that his movies are entertainment. “I’m not going to work every time to explore the human condition to give people something to chew on. There are times I want to make a film that people can come to escape the drudgery of their everyday lives and take a wild, exciting, and fun ride,” he says. “Putting a smile on people’s faces – I’d rather do that than make them cry.”
He’s definitely not a dreary tortured artist. For one, he likes watching his own films. “Hell, yeah! That’s why we are in this business!” he laughs “It’s a look-at-me business and I sat there my whole life wishing I could be in this kind of movie or that kind of movie, so yes, I watch my movies all the time. I watched Coach Carter just last night.”
But is he able to get on a plane without people mentioning snakes? “No. I. Am. Not… But it’s fine. A lot of people disparaged that film, although that’s exactly the kind of film I would have gone to see when I was a kid. But people at security always ask, “You don’t have any snakes, do you?” I’ve also had a pilot announce, ‘Everybody can feel safe today, if there are any snakes, Mr Jackson is with us.’ But it’s all fine. Some actors go through their whole career and nobody really remembers what they did, they just get people coming up to them saying, ‘Oh, you were in that movie’ and snapping their fingers, trying to remember what it was… but nobody forgets Snakes on a Plane!”
Jackson is now having fun. And for all the challenges he went through growing up, the battles he fought as a young man during the civil rights movement, and the personal struggles he fought with addiction until the early 90s, he has earned his place in life where he can enjoy his work and pick and choose what he does next. “I’m only going to do things that make me happy,” he says with a chuckle. “The last thing you want is to do something just for the money.”