Hey folks, Harry here. One of the unfortunate tasks in being an editor of this little corner of the web is that I sometimes have to make tough choices. The folks over at Paramount seemed to be real happy with that SHAFT review of mine and said... "Hey, I wonder if Harry would interview Sam 'I am the man' Jackson?" They rang me... and to be honest... I saw SHAFT 3 times last weekend and I'm afraid I just would ramble during the 25 minutes they'd give me, so I decided to pick MORIARTY cause... at the time he hadn't even seen SHAFT. Also, he would be less likely to ask the question, "So, did you want to beat the shit out of every single stupid mutherfucker at Warner Brothers from the marketing weasels to Lorenzo for shafting the hell out of 187? And if you ever need someone to operate the blowtorch on those SOBs, then I'm your man!" This would most likely then explode instantly in to Sam covering the receiver while looking at the publicist and saying, "Who the hell is this on my fucking phone!?!?!?!" So, I decided to let a calmer evil genius do the duties, besides he has one of those tape/telephone recordo-stenographying device-doodads that I ain't got. BUT! Anyway... enough of my senseless rambling... Here's Moriarty and Sam Jackson.... damn that's cool...
RUMBLINGS FROM THE LAB: Moriarty Chats With SAMUEL L. JACKSON!!
Hey, Head Geek…
So how's your day been so far?
Me? Well, I rolled out of bed a little bit before eight o'clock, grabbed a Pepsi and some cookies (the breakfast of champions), and took a seat at my computer, tape recorder at the ready.
At 8:00 precisely, the phone rang and a woman said, "Moriarty? I have Samuel L. Jackson for you." And after that briefest of pauses, one of the most recognizable voices in American film today came over the line with a warm and friendly, "Good morning."
I must admit a fair amount of nervous anticipation going into the conversation. I've been a fan of this man's work for quite some time now. We all have quirks as viewers, things that we look for in movies, and I'm a real geek for character actors. I love people who are ninth billed, who add texture and authority to film after film after film without ever being front and center. I love it when you start to recognize a face, realize that you've seen it more than once, and you start to put the puzzle together. And most of all, I love that moment where someone who's been doing it for years breaks through and the audience has no choice but to acknowledge them finally. I love when you see it happen, and everything changes for an actor.
For me, memories of Samuel Jackson begin as far back as COMING TO AMERICA and, more notably, EDDIE MURPHY RAW, where he appears in the wonderful little short film that opens the concert piece. In it, little Eddie Murphy tells a joke for his assembled family. Jackson plays one of Eddie's uncles, and his shocked reaction to Eddie's first joke used to make Harry Lime and I howl over and over. "That boy's got talent!" indeed.
With memorable appearances in DO THE RIGHT THING (as Senor Love Daddy, the DJ whose voice unites the neighborhood) and GOODFELLAS (a guy who ends up dead after the truck hijack job), Jackson burned his name into my memory, and I started to look forward to seeing him in new projects. When Spike Lee released JUNGLE FEVER, I thought the film's main storyline fell flat and never made me invest in the chemistry between Wesley Snipes and Anabella Sciorra. Didn't matter, though. I still dragged people to the theater to see the movie over and over. Harry Lime and I both went nuts for one part of the movie, the same thing that drove the Cannes jury so nuts that summer that they created a special award category just so they could give one to Samuel L. Jackson for his stunning, hypnotic work as Gator Purify, crack-addicted son to Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.
This breakthrough role kicked off an amazing run of films for Jackson. He made 17 of them, some more memorable than others, before the next major plateau in his career was reached. In 1994, he had the double punch of FRESH and PULP FICTION, each one great, both very different. PULP, of course, immediately cemented itself in the popular consciousness, and Jackson was suddenly huge, a movie star, imitated by every suburban white kid in America.
Since then, he's been turning in strong character work, alternating between lead roles and supporting work, between mainstream vehicles like THE NEGOTIATOR or DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE and smaller indie films like HARD EIGHT (or SYDNEY, as director PT Anderson still refers to it) and 187. Despite the magnitude of his body of work, Jackson continues to find fresh, exciting roles and bring new nuance to his performances.
And this brings us to this summer, to the black private dick who's a sex machine with all the chicks, who delivers ten times out of ten, the original bad motherf--
Shut your mouth!
What? Just talking 'bout SHAFT. It opened at number one last weekend, and the film is fun in the same quasi-fascist bash-the-bad-guy way that DIRTY HARRY was when it came out. It's somewhat shocking in a world where the LAPD's Rampart Division is publicly crumbling, where the NYPD fights their own battles against the perception of institutionalized racism, to see a film directed by an African American and starring an African American that seems to endorse a sort of lawless thuggery in the name of justice. At least, it is at first. Then, as the film unfolds, we realize that this isn't a film about a cop at all. Instead, SHAFT is a celebration of all things Sam. He gets to talk shit, kick ass, and he answers to no one. Him being a cop… heck, even him being on the side of right… these are just minor details. What's important is that Shaft gets it done, whatever it is. The joys of SHAFT are many and genuine, first and foremost being the way Jackson and co-star Jeffrey Wright (sensational as Peoples Hernandez) trade chops. These guys are electric together, and every one of their scenes pays off. To get things started, I asked Jackson if he had worked with Wright during his New York theater days.
Well, we worked together in New York theater, and also in JUMPING AT THE BONEYARD.
And now the two of you are at very different places in your careers. Were you excited when you realized you'd be working with him?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Jeffrey was… well, obviously not the first choice, but we are lucky we got him after John [Leguizamo] decided to do that other film, whatever that was. I told them that we were very lucky to get Jeffrey when I first heard that, that this was going to be a whole different experience. He took a one-dimensional character on paper and created a real live human being out of him, which is difficult for most people to do.
What attachment do you have to the original? What are your memories of SHAFT?
Well, you know… being able to sit in a theater and see a character that looked like me, sounded like me, dressed like I wanted to be, who was the hero I'd been seeing in movies all my life, but never saw as myself. He was the guy who was brave, who was fearless, who was the neighborhood legend, who was sexually appealing to women, who lived by his own rules… the way we saw a hero. He was depicted as an anti-hero, yes, but he was the pure hero as we knew it. He just happened to be an African American. That was the brand new thing.
What would you want out of a franchise? Would these be big films, or intimate police thrillers?
I think the character has withstood the test of time, and there are a couple of generations of people now who know who John Shaft is, who respect what he stood for, and we did this film in the spirit of that one. Now, I think, people kind of look at me and say, "Okay, you were the right guy to do this role. You look right, you sound right, you can do all the right things." I would like to do it again just to be as secure in the cinematic history as Richard [Roundtree] was or, say, as Bruce is as John McClane.
The film you've just finished, CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE, was a reunion for you with Kasi Lemmons, who you worked so well with in EVE'S BAYOU. This is a much larger film, and something you were very personally involved in bringing to the screen. How has the experience been, and what can you tell us about the film?
It's the story of a street person… I don't want to say homeless because he doesn't consider himself homeless… who lives in a cave in a park very much like Central Park who discovers a frozen body outside his cave on Valentine's Day, and he starts going about the business of trying to solve the kid's murder. He just happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic ex-concert pianist who's living on the street, and whose daughter just happens to be a cop, and he ends up in the world of high art, trying to solve this crime. It's an interesting kind of mixture of people in the film. I discover the novel, like, five or six years ago, and I asked Jersey Films to buy the rights to it for me because I couldn't afford it myself, and they did, and bought the option, and we finally got a script, and finally got somebody who just got the idea to co-finance it, and Kasi always loved the idea since I gave her the book during the EVE'S BAYOU. She and the original writer  wrote the script together, and it's a wonderful film. It's a winter project. It's cold. I guess some people are going to call it an art film. I just call it a thriller.
It's a remarkable physical transformation, and that's one of the things that marks much of your work. Even as recognizable as you are, you still tend to vanish into roles. Do you ever worry that Samuel L. Jackson will be too big, that being able to open a film like SHAFT means that you won't be able to be a surprise to an audience anymore?
No, not at all. I never played the same guy twice onstage in terms of characters, and I was always trying to make them physically different. I think I have a greater capacity to do that in this medium than even in the theater, and I have great people around me who help me make those transformations, so we all work together and make plans to make those things happen. Like I was telling my managers yesterday, just because I happened to play the lead in this particular film and it's doing so well, that does not mean I'm going to abandon the things I've done before. I'm not primarily going to be the lead actor in any film that I'm in, and I'm not going to not take a role just because it's not the lead. I'll be the second lead or the third lead or whatever, as long as the story intrigues me and the character is challenging in some way. I will continue to do those things because that's what fuels me as an actor, not some need to be the big star.
On CAVEMAN'S VALENTINE, you're working with Anthony Michael Hall in much the same position that Travolta was about the time you did PULP FICTION together. How was he to work with?
It's funny. I actually hadn't seen him since he directed me. I did a movie for him that he directed. HAIL CAESAR. It was funny to look up and go, "Hey, how are you? Where you been?" It was great to be able to work with him in another kind of way, to be acting with him. Even in his film, I was just doing some stuff that he wasn't in. It was good. I had no idea where he had been or what had happened, so it was great to see him, and he did a great job in the film. There are a couple of fascinating actors in this film. There's the guy who plays what most people will perceive as the villain of the film, Colm [Feore], who played the auctioneer in THE RED VIOLIN and who played Glenn Gould in 32 SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD. We were very fortunate to get him, too.
Right now, you're wrapping on UNBREAKABLE, a film where there's a very high level of anticipation, obviously, with Shyamalan coming off SIXTH SENSE and with you and Bruce working together again in the picture. You're playing a very different dynamic here, though. For you, coming off SHAFT, where you play such a strong guy, were you drawn to UNBREAKABLE by the chance to play someone so directly the opposite, someone who is fragile, anything but externally strong?
Absolutely. You always want to find something that's way on the other end of the spectrum, just so you can stretch a little bit, so you know for sure that you're doing a character that is different. I'm really loving playing Elijah. He's a vulnerable guy, and a sensitive guy, and a very intelligent man. It's important that I play smart people sometimes, characters that are noticeably intelligent, so people can look at that and say, "That's right, he can do everything and not just one thing," because no matter what happens, when you look at my characters, they're all going to be black. It's great to play a super-smart black guy.
Well, Elijah's definitely not like any character I've read in a script before…
Oh, you read the script?
Oh… was I not supposed to confess that?
(laughing) It's a great story, isn't it?
I am dying to see how you guys bring it to life. It's the most unusual superhero film I can imagine.
It could possibly get another franchise thing going.
It loans itself to that in a very different way. You think you have a handle on this film, but it's never what it looks like on the surface.
Night is a very special filmmaker.
How was he to work with coming off of such a mammoth hit? Was there pressure on this film that you guys felt to make lightning strike a second time?
No. I'm not conscious of it if there is. I just kind of go to work every day and just try to be as honest as I can be to the material that I have and the character that I portray, and try to give it as much reality as I can. Night definitely has a unique way of working. He knows what he wants to do, and he knows how he wants to do it. He's almost a throwback in terms of his moviemaking. There's a lot of stuff that we do that just doesn't use coverage. He comes in, does one big master, and that's it. We're moving. We're gone. That's just amazing to me because I'm so used to all these new guys, these video guys, coming out of places where they've got to shoot nineteen different sizes of the same shot. He's doing one thing and getting out of there. It's really awesome.
Just looking at a few of the other projects we've seen your name attached to… KING OF THE PARK with Tom Shadyac and Dave Chapelle… is that still something we should look forward to?
I'm not sure. I haven't seen a new version of the script for, I guess, maybe six or seven months now.
I'm intrigued by THE 51ST STATE. Is that happening with Ronny Yu directing?
(surprised) Yeah. Yeah, we're doing that in September.
Ronny Yu is one of those Hong Kong directors who I would love to see connect with some material here in Hollywood.
We'll see, now that he's doing something besides BRIDE FO CHUCKY. Although to be fair, he did a great job with that. I enjoyed that movie a lot more than I thought I would. Anyway, that's in September.
Well, you've got a little something you're doing between now and then. You've done one now. You've got one under your belt. You're a STAR WARS veteran, and now you're going back to it. Are you excited to repeat the experience?
Oh, yeah. Totally. George just kind of let that little pearl out at the MTV Awards about me and the battle scenes. I get to turn my lightsaber on. I can't wait to do that.
Have you started any physical training or any specific combat training for the film?
No, not yet. Not at all. Actually, it's interesting. Nick [Gillard], the stunt coordinator, was actually the stunt coordinator on SHAFT.
Have you had the chance to meet Hayden Christensen yet?
Nope. I've been in Philly, working.
And with that, we wrapped it up for the day, chatting just a bit about my favorite films and moments of his, and it is to Jackson's great credit that I left the encounter at ease, relaxed. He lives up to the rather imposing figure that he casts onscreen, but he's still approachable, personable, without the automatic wall that so many interview subjects can erect, and I look forward to speaking with him again at length as the projects we discussed make their way to screen later this year. I'll have a regular RUMBLINGS ready on Monday for you all. Until then…