Q&A with Samuel L. Jackson

The star talks about making 'In My Country,' working with Binoche and Boorman, and the process of acting

Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson in 'In My Country'
Samuel L. Jackson in ‘In My Country’

Sometimes meeting a celebrity seems intimidating. Not sure why, but it occasionally does. In the case of Samuel L. Jackson, it was pretty good until he entered the room, and he looked pissed. Suddenly, it seemed like this roundtable session wasn’t going to be particularly fun.

But once he sat down he revealed that he was pretty tired, and after a few minutes he became more relaxed and the interview proved to be far more entertaining than I expected. This roundtable session will be structured differently than the others, because at times it was much more conversational. The questions or statements from the gathered reporters will simply be in bold, while Jackson’s responses won’t be.

Jackson proved to be a rather tall fellow, standing a few inches more than me. He wore a white felt cap that he took off about half way through, to reveal a shaven cranium. The following is a selection of questions and comments from that session, which took place last week:

What inspired you to take the role of Langston in In My Country?

The fact that I kind of knew that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been going on, and there were no real news stories about it. And I had friends in South Africa, and when I was in college I had friends who had been exiled because of things they’d done against apartheid. So I thought it would be interesting for audiences to find out what happened when Mr. Mandela got out of prison and why there wasn’t this bloody civil war that everyone was expecting. And to find out about the process of healing that had gone on in South Africa.

Was the role difficult because of the subject matter compared to some of your other roles?

You know, it was pretty simple to play a reporter. (laugh) But really, in this instance I was not going about the technical business of reporting. Occasionally you’d see me sending in a story or something like that, but mostly I just did a lot of note-taking while I watched the people testify. Essentially my job (in the story) was as a westerner who comes with a sense of western justice to a situation where he’s learning about African justice. And to accept a South African radio journalist as a human being and not as the enemy that he’d already preconceived her to be.

In our interview with John Boorman, he mentioned that Juliette Binoche let you read the research and notes she copied down in her script. What did you learn or take away from that?

I learned that Juliette can write a lot of stuff, some of which is useful, and some of which is not. (laugh) And some of the stuff was a little too personal for me, and I shouldn’t have been looking at it, and I hope that I never reach the point where I start doing things like that (laugh). But she’s engrossing.

Did you learn any inner secrets about Juliette that you can tell us?

Yeah, I did, but I don’t want to talk about them.

What was it like to work with John Boorman?

I had a great time with John. During the rehearsal process we went through a lot of things, we talked about a lot of things. When we got there… you know South Africans have their own rhythm, their own pace of doing things. And John is a very patient man, and he allowed Juliette and I to create things inside the rehearsal structure sometimes that were different then what we actually sort of worked out because we were in another kind of space and it leant itself to something.

How did you prepare for this role?

You know, I didn’t have a lot of time because I’d just finished SWAT, then two days later I had back surgery, then ten days later I was in South Africa. My preparation was knowing the people in South Africa; reading up on the TRC; where they were; how long it took; reading the novel, “Country of my Skull”; meeting with Antjie Krog about what had happened and who this guy was. Was he a real guy, or was he a compilation of several guys. Fortunately we had all these South African extras that had unfortunately lived through apartheid, and fortunately had been a part of the TRC. Naturally, they hadn’t read the script, so they didn’t know what they were coming into. They just knew they had a job, and they had to be in a room. So the first time they had to hear the stories, John just told them to react naturally to whatever they hear. When they heard the stories, they gasped the same ways, they yelled out or spoke out in Xósa or in Zulu, to the things they heard. The first time they broke out into song, we had no idea it was about to happen. All of a sudden it was this one guy who was yelling out something in Zulu, and there was the response. He yelled out something else, there was the response. And all of a sudden they just all broke into song. It was incredible. The authenticity of what they brought to it lends a lot to the film. And being in those particular places puts you into a different mindset. It’s just incredible to be there and feel the energy of a place that is kind of being reborn. Especially a place like Capetown. Johannesburg has another kind of energy. Johannesburg is like New York on crack, because of the new freedoms and all the people being in that particular place, it’s one of the few places where you can read a guide book and it tells you not to stop for red lights if you’re driving at night. Run the light. If someone’s approaching your car, run the lights.

Is that the way it is now?

Yeah. Joburg? Yeah. Joburg is a very dangerous place. Capetown is totally different. You can walk the streets at night, restaurants, great sea food, and great nightlife. There’s a gay community in Capetown. All kinds of stuff. Fabulous golf courses.

Why is Johannesburg so bad?

Joburg’s a city. It’s contained, it’s a lot of people in a small place, like Manhattan. There are millions of people. Capetown isn’t a city, it’s a resort community.

Was there anything in particular that you wanted the audience to walk away with from this film?

Hopefully that the principle of “ubuntu” will kind of strike people, and they’ll get it that what affects me affects you, and affects everybody. Because when you look at the state of the world, that’s pretty much what’s gong on. We’re in this war with Iraq, and that affects me, that affects you, it affects the Iraqi people, and it affects a whole lot of people all around because it’s a ripple effect that goes out. When it was just the Arabs and Israelis, it affected them, it affected us, it affected a lot of other people. And when the British and the Irish were going at it, what little we knew affected them, it affect other people, and it affected us in ways also. So the more we start to realize that there are principals out there that embody understanding, forgiveness and kind of a clean slate and starting over, and if only two or three people get it and they start to use it in their daily lives in some kind of way, it’s a good thing.

Where is America going in terms of racism these days?

You know, America’s ok on racism. There is a certain factor, or faction of people that are always gong to be racist. Because they’re not striving in a particular way, so they think that everybody that does better or gets advancements and they’re not of their own particular ilk, they don’t want people coming into the country. So they don’t like foreigners, they don’t like blacks, they don’t like Asians, they don’t like Hispanics. Even in my business people always say, ‘how is racism in the movie business?’. Ok, well you look at the movie business, and recently you had what, five African American Academy Awards nominees, you had Hispanic nominees, you had Asian nominees. The reflection of the world as we see it is now being reflected in our movie world in terms of the kinds of people that are movie stars, the kind of people that are directors, the kind of people that are behind the scenes creating and writing. The world is being reflected the way we see it, as a multi-cultural palate. And the fact that for the past six weeks the box office number one position has been dominated by African Americans, starting with Coach CarterAre We There YetHitch. So, people are embracing stories and entertainment and not ethnic qualities of films. So, things are better.

Were you excited or surprised by the response of Coach Carter?

No, I actually think that when you give people something that speaks to a specific value system, and it’s presented in a way that they can share it with their kids and enjoy it, it works. I had a lot of people tell me that they watch it with their kids, and they like the movie, and they promise to do better in school and they got the message. The film didn’t beat the kids over the head with a message, and hopefully they will hold on to that and keep those promises. That being a sports star is not the end all and be all to who you can be. And the film opened well in the UK, so while the basketball metaphor is there, people are replacing it with soccer, and cricket and the kinds of sports they play.

Was playing a real life character in Coach Carter more difficult compared to playing a fictional character?

Not really. Ken (Carter) was there, and I met him, and it was important to me that I look at Ken, and see his character, the strength of this determination. The way he carried himself, the way he approached people and looked at them was very direct, and he was very dogmatic about his views. And I wanted to portray that. Other than that, I wasn’t going to try and do any of his physical characteristics or emulate him in any other way. Other than his ties, that’s about it.

How do you pick the roles that you are going to play?

You know what happens: scripts come across my desk and I read them. I find one that intrigues me, the story is interesting, the character on the inside of it is compelling and is going to challenge me as an actor and hopefully I’ll learn something. Grow in a specific kind of a way or go in a different direction that people aren’t expecting me to go. I’ll say I’ll want to do it, and the process will start, and in the meantime I’ll still read scripts. The first one that is ready to go, that’s the one I’ll do. If not, then I’ll do the one right after that. It’s just a matter of logistics in terms of who’s ready to do it and when I’m ready to do it. So it could be like that thestudio film is ready, and the independent film is not, or the independent film is ready, and the studio one is not. So you kind of bounce around to who’s ready, there’s not really a plan. It’s not like I say, ‘ok, I’m going to do three studio films, and two independents’. No, I go with whoever is ready.

Some people seem to be making an issue about this film featuring your first love scene. Is that a big deal to you?

It’s not a big deal, but it’s also not my first love scene. I actually had one in Caveman’s Valentine. So I’ve been naked in a room with another actress before… And it’s not exciting, either.

I don’t know if this is too personal, but have you ever had an interracial romance?

(Jackson smiles) Yes, I have.

(laughter throughout the room)

Were you able to use that in this film?

(more laughter)

Believe me there’s no difference, as much as people might like to think so. Of course, she is French, though. There’s points for that. And it is Juliette Binoche.

John Boorman mentioned that Charlize Theron had been considered for the role at one point. Were you aware of that?

I think she wanted to do it, but I don’t know why the producers didn’t hire her. You’d have to ask John that.

We did.

What’d he say?

That they thought Juliette would be a stronger choice.

Ah, hire a French woman so they’d need to get a dialect coach. That’s cool.

I had a question about the direction. The film was told through the eyes of the Binoche character, and I think had it gone through the eyes of a black person who’d actually experienced apartheid it would have been… better.

Well, yeah, probably. But we’re dealing with the fact that she’s a person who benefited from apartheid in a certain kind of way and didn’t acknowledge what was going on in her name, or to afford her the comforts that she had. So the revelations for her are the details. Like she says, I didn’t know the details. I didn’t know all these things were going on. I didn’t know that my brother was involved. And the story is essentially about Langston and her, and what they find out about each other, and what they find out about themselves. It wouldn’t have been right doing it through someone else’s eyes, plus all those other people that were there, and we’re kind of showing them through either my eyes or her eyes and the reaction of us to what we see, and how it affects us and brings us together.

Do you think that having Boorman as a director who does a lot of rehearsals, aided you in being able to portray the role of Langston?

Rehearsals are valuable to me, because shooting a movie is controlled reality. People who like to go out there and do it spontaneously crack me up, because it’s like, well, how do you know where to put the camera if we haven’t rehearsed it. How are you going to know what’s going to happen or what we’re going to do if we’re doing it spontaneously. It’s okay to be in an improvisational space like Mike Lee is, or theoretically is, when you do something like Vera Drake. I don’t know, I like to rehearse because I’m used to rehearsing because I’m from the theater. I think that rehearsal is valuable, because I’ll know what you’re going to say, you’ll know what I’m going to say. You’ll know when to shut up, I’ll know when to shut up. You’ll know if I’m going to pick something up and throw it at you or not. I don’t want to surprise you with that. So, it has to be controlled in a way, and sometimes you want a director to go, ‘I don’t want you to do that yet’, or ‘I don’t want you to go that high’. So you learn a lot through rehearsal about what’s going to happen and what needs to happen so the story can progress.

Is Quentin Tarantino very different or similar?

No, Quentin rehearses, too. We rehearsed Pulp Fiction so thoroughly it was incredible. I mean, we had tape on the floor for the killing room. We actually knew how many steps it was from the trunk of the car to the front door of the apartment building, to the front door of the building to the elevator, how wide the elevator was. So we never had to look down and we never had to count, we’d just do it. And we did it for like a month. So when we got there it was a piece of cake.

Do you find it difficult to be an actor?

Acting is fun for me. I like the process of creating someone and being in another situation and suspending another reality for there’s. And being able to step into that space safely, and letting go emotionally, and coming back to myself.

Do you also find it a neat thing to be a part of that very unique Star Wars club?

It’s a really great, great, great family to be a part of. Kind of freaky for people on the streets, sometimes there are so many Star Wars religious fanatics out there. In Brazil there were people camped outside my hotel that were the Jedi Council of Rio, and they kept begging me to come out and talk to them. But I’m really proud that I’m finally in something that will be studied, broken down, revered and all kinds of things for the rest of cinematic history. I remember when I was sitting in the theater for the original Star Wars and I wished I could be in something like that, and my wish has come true.

Is it important for you to get an Oscar?

I don’t think getting an Oscar is going to define my career. I think at this point that people kind of respect what I do and I’m kind of okay with the respect I get from my audience members and my peers. And getting an Oscar only means that you were the best that year, not the best forever.

What’s next for you?

Opening next will be XXX 2: State of the Union, and then Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and then The Man, a comedy with Eugene Levy.

Michael Sheridan

Michael Sheridan has written, directed and produced more than a dozen short films under the banner of Maynard Films, and has worked as a writer for more than a decade for websites, magazines and newspapers.

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