PLAYBOY: What’s the one thing you wouldn’t do onscreen, even for Tarantino?
JACKSON: Probably dress up as a woman and kiss another guy. I don’t think people want to see me do that. He hasn’t asked me, but you know what? If it’s done right and the story is good, I might.
PLAYBOY: Which of your movies would you choose as your signature, your legacy?
JACKSON: If there were one movie I wanted people to look at, it would be A Time to Kill.
PLAYBOY: That’s the 1996 Joel Schumacher–directed movie with Sandra Bullock and Matthew McConaughey, based on a John Grisham novel, in which you play a man on trial for murdering the men who raped his 10-year-old daughter. Why that one?
JACKSON: It’s an American story and a very Southern story. I’d like people to look at that one and say, “Oh my God.”
PLAYBOY: Moviegoers know you best today as a smart, larger-than-life, potentially explosive, sometimes funny and usually likable badass. Did you show any childhood signs of some of the personality traits that have made you famous as an actor, let alone a star?
JACKSON: I play a lot of characters that aren’t that way at all, but those aren’t the ones people remember. If audiences see those qualities in my work, it’s about comfortableness, confidence, success in what I’ve done. But oh hell no, I was not the cool guy growing up. I was bookish. I had a stutter. I wasn’t in the streets with all the other kids. I didn’t dress cool or do cool shit. I played the trumpet, flute and French horn in the marching band and had great style on the field when we performed, but that wasn’t the cool thing to do. I was popular because I was funny. I definitely didn’t have the hot chicks. The atmosphere in the house was one of love, with a lot of joy, but I also had discipline—and a curfew.
PLAYBOY: Did you and your family butt heads over their rules and discipline?
JACKSON: Looking back, I love the South so much, even though there was a time when I didn’t feel so proud of being from there. The sense of community there is unheard of in this day and age. The idea that it takes a village to raise a child—it works, because wherever I was in town, somebody always knew. My teachers had taught my mom and her brothers and sisters. The teachers knew the expectations my family had of me. If I was fucking up in school, somebody was like, “Stay away from those people. Sit down, read.” Outside school, if other kids were getting ready to do some shit that was going to get everybody in trouble or might get me in trouble, I went home. The one thing my family insisted on was, don’t embarrass us. Don’t make us come to jail, because though we will come to see you, we’re going to leave you there. It just wasn’t an option for me. I was more afraid of the people I lived with than the people I ran with.
PLAYBOY: Living in a segregated environment, what were some other useful survival tools your family gave you?
JACKSON: There were certain things you necessarily had to be told as a child—things that would keep you alive and out of harm’s way. My family would point out this or that person as a Klansman or a grand wizard and tell me who specifically those men had killed and gotten away with it just because they’d said that black person was doing this or that. You could not look suspicious, because when people can accuse you of anything, there’s nothing you can say. They’d tell me not to get in a car with this or that policeman, saying, “I don’t care what happens, you run and run till you get here, and then we’ll deal with it here.”
PLAYBOY: When did girls come into the picture for you?
JACKSON: I was always noticing girls. As a kid, I spent summers on my grandfather’s sister’s farm down in Georgia, with her cows, chickens and all her kids and me running up and down dirt roads, feeling all that freedom. I saw things fucking from the time I was three, four years old.
PLAYBOY: When was the first time you did what comes naturally in the barnyard?
JACKSON: In Georgia there was a family of girls who lived through the woods from us, and we all used to meet at this creek and swim naked. I was about 10 or 11. I think two of the girls were about 14, 15, so that’s when it happened. Girls were interesting to me, period. They could be fat, skinny, tall, short, ugly, beautiful—as long as they were willing to do that thing.
PLAYBOY: How did acting enter the picture?
JACKSON: When I was a small child, my aunt Edna, a fourth-grade teacher and performing arts major, taught dance at home, so I took tap with her and other crazy classes. When she did plays and pageants, she never had boys available, so she was always putting me in shit. I did a lot of acting against my will for a long time. I acted my way right through junior high and high school.
PLAYBOY: Did moviegoing influence your eventual decision to become an actor?
JACKSON: Before we even had a television, I listened to a lot of radio drama as a kid, hearing how people’s voices can tell stories. Every Saturday I spent all day in one of Chattanooga’s two black theaters, the Liberty and the Grand, seeing Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lash LaRue, Westerns, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Francis the Talking Mule. Books had more to offer than movies. My mom’s rule was that for every five comic books I read, I had to read a classic. I read Shakespeare and Beowulf while other kids were learning how to diagram sentences and learning to conjugate so they could fill out job applications. My fantasies weren’t inspired by John Wayne but by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Dumas’s The Three Musketeers. When I was in the room by myself reading, I would stand in front of the mirror pretending to be all those people in the books. I was acting for myself before I ever did it for anybody else.
PLAYBOY: What about sports?
JACKSON: I had all kinds of shit going on. It was crazy. I had track scholarships but didn’t use them. By my senior year in high school I was a candidate for Annapolis, and I had also applied to UCLA, Cal Berkeley, the University of Hawaii. As much as I love the South, the one given was that I was not going to live in Chattanooga. I had read too many books about the world, and I wanted to see it. I had actually signed myself out on a merchant ship, but my mother found out and she was like, “Oh hell no, that’s not happening.” My mom had it in her mind that I was going to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and that’s where I went.
PLAYBOY: What was your major?
JACKSON: I wanted to be a marine biologist. That was the influence of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Even today, when they keep talking about doing a new 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I would kill to play Captain Nemo. I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs as a kid too, and I was going to do a new Tarzan movie with Alexander Skarsgård, but it got canceled.
PLAYBOY: Did you act at Morehouse?
JACKSON: I took a public-speaking class to help with my stuttering, and all of a sudden I found myself being part of a theater group. It was like, click—this is where I should’ve been all along. Not to mention that when I showed up, six of the nine guys were gay, so I saw all these girls, they saw me and it was like, bing! So shit kind of changed for me in that way.
PLAYBOY: What was college about for you? Your studies? Partying? Acting? Women?
JACKSON: I was a militant revolutionary dude. I went to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta after his assassination, and I joined a march for equal rights down in Memphis. In 1969 I got kicked out of college because a bunch of us had issues with the curriculum and the way the school was run. We asked to meet with the board of trustees. They said they didn’t have time for us. They had chains on the walkway. We took the chains off, went to the hardware store, bought a padlock, went inside the building, chained the doors and it was like, “Got time for us now?” The first time I actually saw and recognized LaTanya, my wife-to-be, she was in the building where we had those people locked up. She was at Spelman College and was part of the movement too. In college, a lot of people knew me as that militant dude; other people knew me as an actor or as that guy who hung out on the corner and drank wine and got high all the time. I had a whole other set of people, women, around me in different circles.
PLAYBOY: Did those circles intersect?
JACKSON: Like every sport has its own set of groupies, those circles have their own groupies. There were the militant chicks, the theater girls, the girls who were druggies and the party girls. I had different sets of people I could randomly select from.