Samuel L. Jackson is one of Hollywood’s greatest special effects. Depending on the movie and the role, the actor, who has appeared in more than 100 films since his first in 1972, brilliantly calibrates the required intensity of flash and firepower. As the hit man in Pulp Fiction, he roars his Quentin Tarantino–written rants with electrifying, Old Testament–worthy fury laced with deadpan street talk. In Coach Carter he’s quiet and righteous, a dignified, unshakably good man, never better than when laying down the law to a hardcase basketball team. As the brainy bad guy in Jackie Brown, he’s so caught up rapping about the killing power of AK-47s that he’s oblivious his girlfriend is hot for fellow con man Robert De Niro.
Whether he’s flashing his charismatic mojo in blockbusters (Jurassic Park, the Star Wars prequels, two Iron Man flicks, Captain America, The Avengers), tamping things down in arty indies (Eve’s Bayou, The Red Violin, Black Snake Moan) or rousing cheers from the rafters with profanity-laced tirades in popcorn-munchers (Deep Blue Sea, Snakes on a Plane), no 3-D IMAX CGI light-and-magic show can upstage him. And with an estimated $7.4 billion–plus at the box office—making him the highest-grossing actor in history, according to Guinness World Records—Jackson has an uncanny knack for landing in more hits than misses.
His road to the top wasn’t short or easy. Jackson was born Samuel Leroy Jackson in Washington, D.C. Abandoned as an infant by his alcoholic father, he was raised by his mother, grandfather and grandmother in racially segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. A strong student, musician and athlete, he attended Morehouse College, where he took a public-speaking class to tame a terrible stutter and reconnected with his childhood love of acting. He and fellow students took hostage an entire board of trustees meeting in a 1969 campus protest, which led to his being ejected from Morehouse but also introduced him to his future wife, LaTanya Richardson, a fellow actor. He moved to Harlem in 1976. While in New York, Jackson began to get work in off-Broadway productions, as a stand-in for Bill Cosby during rehearsals for The Cosby Show and in films for then-budding writer-director Spike Lee, including Do the Right Thing, School Daze and Mo’ Better Blues.
But there were problems. Jackson’s spiraling addictions to drugs and alcohol cost him jobs and eventually led to a life-changing 1990 intervention by his family. He worked constantly through the 1980s and early 1990s on TV series such as Law & Order and in small film roles including Gang Member No. 2 in Ragtime and Dream Blind Man in The Exorcist III. He won acting awards from the Cannes Film Festival and the New York Film Critics Circle for his heartbreaking turn as an addict in Jungle Fever, but playing Bible-quoting killer Jules Winnfield in the instant cult classic Pulp Fiction in 1994 gave him his first signature role. Now, at the age of 64, he finds himself as busy as ever, with six movies already completed in 2013.
Playboy sent Contributing Editor Stephen Rebello, who recently interviewed Matt Damon for the magazine, to talk with Jackson at the London hotel in West Hollywood. Says Rebello: “I first interviewed Samuel L. Jackson seven years ago for a 20 Questions feature, and he’d done the Playboy Interview in 1999. Apparently he thought he’d blown our earlier interview, because he told me he’d been wondering why he hadn’t been asked back until now. The thing is, if you want to hang with a smart, well-read, supremely confident guy with a truckload of gusto, passion and a seen-and-done-it-all vibe, then this is your go-to guy. In the space of several hours, he ran the gamut—candid, funny, insightful, explosive, friendly, defensive and politically incorrect—and was deadly accurate. Over soft drinks, he more than lived up to his reputation. Better still, he surpassed it.”
PLAYBOY: You and Spike Lee have reunited for your new movie, Oldboy, Lee’s take on the South Korean–made 2003 vengeance hit. It’s been more than 20 years since you worked together on School Daze, Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever—movies that helped put you on the map. Why such a long gap?
JACKSON: Spike’s wife, Tonya, and my wife, LaTanya, have been good friends for a long time. My wife just acted in a TV film Tonya produced and wrote called The Watsons Go to Birmingham. So our wives would interact often, and we would all end up going to dinner together. Our relationship healed [from a public falling-out] over those dinners and conversations. He told me at dinner he was going to remake Oldboy, and I was like, “Can I be in it?”
PLAYBOY: Why did you want to be in that one in particular?
JACKSON: I watch the original Oldboy eight, nine times a year. Every time I meet someone who hasn’t seen it, I order it and give it to them. Spike told me that, aside from the leading role, I could have any part. I always wanted to be the crazy guy who runs the place where the main guy gets locked up and isolated.
PLAYBOY: Did you two get back into the groove quickly, or did it take some time?
JACKSON: Working with Spike was just like we’d never stopped. He’s very efficient, knows what he wants and doesn’t get in my way artistically—whatever I come with, I come with, and it’s cool.
PLAYBOY: How did you and Josh Brolin, who plays the leading role, get along?
JACKSON: We all do our homework, so beforehand I asked T.L. [Tommy Lee Jones] about Josh because he tolerates no bullshit whatsoever, and he said, “Ah, great kid.” If T.L.’s down with you, you’re good with me. People who come to a movie set angry, bitter and giving people a hard time? It’s like, fuck, this is supposed to be a great place, a playground. Josh is good, and he understands the fun aspect of the job. When they say “Action,” you get serious. “Cut,” boom. There are a few actors who are like that who are really great, like Julianne Moore. When we were doing Freedomland, Julianne was standing there saying, “Sam, do you watch American Idol? Oh, it’s so great.” They call “Action!” and she’s crying her eyes out; they call “Cut!” and she comes right back over: “As I was saying, this American Idol thing….” She’s amazing.
PLAYBOY: Spike Lee said some pretty harsh things last year when you played the controversial role of a conniving house slave in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s racially charged spaghetti Western. Lee complained about Tarantino’s 100-plus uses of the N word in the script, called the movie “disrespectful to my ancestors” and tweeted, “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It was a holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.” Tarantino called Lee’s charges “ridiculous.” Did you hash out any of this while making Oldboy?
JACKSON: We didn’t have that conversation. One thing I’ve learned is that when I’m hired to do the job, that’s what I do. I did a film [Soul Men] with Bernie Mac that was directed by Spike’s cousin that I didn’t have such a great time doing. We didn’t talk about that either, other than my saying, “How’s he doing?” and Spike answering, “Oh, he’s fine. You guys didn’t get along so well, did you?” “No, we didn’t.” Boom—that was the end of it. One thing had nothing to do with the other. Part of the thing that fucks with all those people who criticize Quentin for being a “wigger”—even, I guess, Spike—is that they don’t take into account that Quentin’s mom used to go to work and leave him with this black guy downstairs who would take him to these blaxploitation movies. That’s his formative cinema life. He loves those movies. It’s part of him.
PLAYBOY: Isn’t Lee basically saying that only black artists should tackle black characters and subject matter?
JACKSON: There is this whole thing of “Nobody can tell our story but us,” but that’s apparently not true, because the Jackie Robinson movie finally got made as 42. Spike didn’t make it, but people still went to see it. When Boaz Yakin did Fresh in 1994, all of a sudden it was like, “Who is this Jewish motherfucker telling our stories?” He’s the Jewish motherfucker who wrote the story, that’s who. If you got a story like that in you, tell it. We’ll see when [director] Steve McQueen’s movie 12 Years a Slave comes out, if it’ll be like, “What’s this British motherfucker know about us?” Somebody’s always going to say something.
PLAYBOY: Do you think Lee has substantive issues with Tarantino and his movies?
JACKSON: Spike saying “I’m not going to see Django because it’s an insult to my ancestors”? It’s fine if you think that, but then you have nothing else to say about the movie, period, because you don’t know if Quentin insulted your ancestors or not. On the other hand, Louis Farrakhan, who these blackest of black people say speaks the truth and expresses the vitriol of the angry black man, can look at the movie and go, “Goddamn, that’s a great fucking movie. Quentin Tarantino told the truth.” Dick Gregory’s seen the movie 12 fucking times. I respect what they have to say more than anybody else, because they’ve been through it. They walked the walk with Dr. King. Some of the bullshit criticisms about Django come from people who don’t understand the genre and who didn’t live through that era. They think they need to wave a flag of blackness that they don’t necessarily have the credentials to wave.
PLAYBOY: Do you have other specific people in mind when you say “these blackest of black people”?
JACKSON: W. Kamau Bell’s FX show [Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell] had this whole segment where he was criticizing Django. He’s a young black man with nappy hair and very dark skin, but he also has a very white wife and an interracial child. You can’t tell me you know what people in the South did if you never spent time down there. He can say there had to be words Quentin could use other than nigger. Well, what are they? These 20-somethings can’t turn around and tell me the word nigger is fucked-up in Django yet still listen to Jay Z or whoever else say “nigger, nigger, nigger” throughout the music they listen to. “Oh, that’s okay because that’s dope, that’s down, we all right with that.” Bullshit. You can’t have it one way and not the other. It’s art—you can’t not censor one thing and try to censor the other. Saying Tarantino said “nigger” too many times is like complaining they said “kike” too many times in a movie about Nazis.
PLAYBOY: As painful and uncomfortable as Django can be to watch, did Tarantino’s decision to cut out some of the brutality cost you any big scenes?
JACKSON: Tarantino asked me to play the most hated Negro character in cinema history, but if people think they hate my character, they will really despise him if one day they get to see me torture Django. There are scenes on the cutting-room floor or in Quentin’s house or wherever that one of these days, hopefully, he’ll let people see. He literally could have Kill Billed that movie, because there is enough stuff for two two-and-a-half-hour movies. A Django Western and Django Southern would have been equally entertaining and great. I kept hoping he would do that. People said, “Well, slavery wasn’t a picnic,” and I want to say, “No, motherfucker, slavery wasn’t a picnic,” but nobody was singing songs while picking cotton in the field in that movie either. People got whipped. Dogs got sicced on people. These 20-year-olds and others are always talking about “Where’s my 40 acres and a mule? Where are my reparations?” Well, you wanna act like the government owes us reparations, we gotta show what they owe us for. Here it is, right here onscreen. These stories must be told. Yet they still want to turn around and go, “Fuck Quentin Tarantino, he don’t know shit about it,” but if Spike, the Hughes brothers or Carl Franklin had done it, it would have been right? Look, Quentin has this master storytelling ability, and a lot of criticism from a lot of people is straight bullshit jealousy because they can’t do it themselves.
PLAYBOY: How do you explain the bond between you and Tarantino?
JACKSON: I get the vision of the whole movie when I read his stuff. It’s like you go into his head. I work with a lot of mechanics—you know, the film-school guys. Quentin isn’t like that. He knows what his movies look like before he shoots them and knows how to tell a story with camera movement. I love the same movies he does. We both look at a lot of movies. We’ve read a lot. I also think part of it is the only-childness of both Quentin and me.