Samuel L. Jackson takes to provocative roles with attitude

Many years ago, long before Guinness World Records declared him the "the highest-grossing film actor" of all time, Samuel L. Jackson used to walk around New York by himself, for no reason other than to see if anyone would recognise him.

He had turned 40, and had a wife, a daughter and a cocaine habit that was threatening to get out of hand. His stage contemporaries, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Larry Fishburne​, had graduated to Hollywood. As Sam Jackson, he had played a disc jockey in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, a good part in a great film, but his credits in Coming to America (Hold-Up Man) and Sea of Love (Black Guy) summed up his movie career. Would anyone want his autograph? He couldn't count on it.

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These days, red carpet unrolls beneath his feet. He doesn't take fame for granted, and will pose for a photograph with anyone who asks, as long as they do so courteously and don't interrupt his dinner.

If he is a little more recognisable than he would like, it has nothing to do with celebrity. "I can drive around Beverly Hills all day long and be the only black person that I see, if I look into a mirror," he says.

The character of Major Marquis Warren in The Hateful Eight was written with Samuel L. Jackson in mind.
The character of Major Marquis Warren in The Hateful Eight was written with Samuel L. Jackson in mind. 

The Guinness World Records title is a little misleading. Jackson has been cast in two of the most profitable franchises ever, but he's not in the first rank of stars who can carry a blockbuster. He is six films into a nine-film deal with Marvel to play Avengers leader Nick Fury. As Jedi knight Mace Windu​, he had a secondary role in George Lucas' much-maligned but immensely lucrative Stars Wars prequels.

He is best known, though, as Quentin Tarantino's leading man, ever since his indelible performance as Old Testament-quoting hitman Jules Winnfield​ in Pulp Fiction. The character of Major Marquis Warren in Tarantino's new movie, The Hateful Eight, was written with him in mind, just as murderous gun dealer Ordell Robbie was in Jackie Brown.


Jackson almost didn't get the part that changed his life. His Reservoir Dogs audition was a fiasco, but Tarantino had earmarked the part of Winnfield for him in Pulp Fiction, only to have second thoughts. Jackson was summoned to Los Angeles to compete for the role with Puerto Rican actor Paul Calderon​.

He arrived tired, hungry and angry. After stopping to get a burger and a milkshake, he was greeted by a factotum, who said: "I love your work, Mr Fishburne." He entered the audition in a cold fury, sat down and glared at Tarantino and the producers over his food. When he eventually spoke, he said: "Do you think you're going to give this part to somebody else? I'm going to blow you motherf---ers away."

Samuel L. Jackson with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino had earmarked the part of Jules Winnfield for him.
Samuel L. Jackson with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Quentin Tarantino had earmarked the part of Jules Winnfield for him. Photo: Supplied

On YouTube, there is a three minute video made up exclusively of the more than 100 times Jackson has said motherf---er on film. He clearly relishes the rhythm of it on his lips, tongue and teeth. Depending on how he says it, it can be menacing, awed, amused, incredulous or dismissive.

At The Hateful Eight press promotion in Los Angeles, Jackson's first interview of the day, he walks in wearing a T-shirt and beanie advertising the film, fitted track pants, an unzipped sweatshirt and a pair of Adidas shell toes with a leopard-skin print.

Warren, his character in the film, is a bounty hunter who led a negro regiment in the Civil War and carries a letter from President Abraham Lincoln in the pocket of his navy-blue Union officer's coat. "He has a homicidal tendency that he exercises, but he's found a legal way to do it," Jackson says.

Did he do much research into the lives of African-American soldiers?

He laughs. "No, I grew up in the south. I grew up in Tennessee in the '50s and '60s, so I know what the history of the region is. I was steeped in it, raised in it, grew up in segregation, so I understand what it is."

An only child, he was brought up by his grandparents in Chattanooga​. His father had absconded. His mother lived and worked in Washington, DC, and visited when she could.

Jackson has consistently defended Tarantino's use of the word "nigger" in his scripts. From the opening exchanges, The Hateful Eight's characters, particularly the southerners, employ the epithet gleefully, perhaps even more often than in Django Unchained, Tarantino's epic provocation about the United States' failure to confront the horrors of slavery.

"I always feel like the characters are speaking honestly. I never feel like he's just showing off or throwing it in people's faces," Jackson says. "Quentin's just shining a light on how much attitudes have not changed. People look at people and make a judgment about them because of the colour of their skin, and it's going backwards, instead of going forwards."

He is referring to the wave of anti-Muslim hate speech in the US, stirred up by his old golf buddy, Donald Trump. "All of a sudden, people who are brown in this particular way are looked at differently … Now they have to feel another way about carrying themselves, just like I have always felt about carrying myself around this country."

At Morehouse​ College, in Atlanta, Jackson was radicalised by a group of Vietnam veterans who had returned to university on the G.I. Bill. He joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and acted as an usher at Martin Luther King's funeral. More recently, he challenged celebrities to sing "I can't breathe" to protest against police violence – the last words of Eric Garner, choked to death by police officers in New York as they arrested him for selling black-market cigarettes.

Every so often during the interview, Jackson puffs on a nicotine vaporiser that resembles the tip of a shisha​ pipe. He hasn't had a drink since 1990, when his wife found him unconscious on the kitchen floor with a spoonful of cooked cocaine by his side and gave him an ultimatum: rehabilitation or it's over. The 12 steps stuck, so much that Jackson could play a crack addict in his next film, Lee's Jungle Fever, without succumbing to the urge.

In November, Jackson, Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes presented Lee with a Governor's Award. The director took the opportunity to complain about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, particularly in executive roles, saying: "It's easier to be the president of the United States as a black person than be the head of a studio."

Jackson has been known to lament that the range of parts available to him is narrowing, but he has had quite a year, appearing in Avengers: Age of Ultron and Lee's Chi-Raq in addition to The Hateful Eight, and shooting The Legend of Tarzan and Tim Burton's new film, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiars.

"I don't think my options are fewer," he says. "I'm not an ageing boxer or basketball player who doesn't realise he's lost a step, but things are shifting in a way that I recognise. Your popularity can be judged very specifically."

He recently complained to GQ magazine that he is sometimes mistaken for other black actors of his generation, as if they are somehow interchangeable. "Famous as I am, I'm still Morgan, I'm still Denzel, I'm still Wesley, I'm still somebody else," he said.

After meeting him in person, it's hard to believe this. In his round black spectacles, leaning back in his chair with his feet up, at ease and ever-so-slightly amused, he looks like the last person you could imagine resorting to that classic celebrity line: "Do you know who I am?"