PLAYBOY: Because of your involvement in the protest at school you were convicted for unlawful confinement. What did your family think of your evolving politics and budding involvement with the black power movement?
JACKSON: They actually got my militancy. They just didn’t want me to get killed running around, chanting with my fists in the air. But I was in Atlanta doing that anyway. One time, I had come home from school to Tennessee. From the time I was an infant, my grandmother had been buying all these bullshit life insurance and burial policies, and every week this insurance guy, Mr. Venable, came to collect his nickel premiums. I had my hair braided and was sitting on the porch, and he walked up and said, “Hi, Sam, is Pearl here?” I said, “Motherfucker, why you calling my grandmother, a woman three times your age, Pearl?” I was cursing and yelling, babbling at him, and before I knew it, my grandmother was out the door and had me by the hair, going, “What the hell is wrong with you?” It was the first time in his life Mr. Venable thought he might have been wrong, and he felt bad, saying, “I don’t call anybody else older than me by their first name.” But my grandmother kicked my ass after he left. She still thought that he was going to call somebody and have me hanged.
PLAYBOY: Do you find yourself dealing with many Mr. Venables today?
JACKSON: The other day I’m watching this white guy talking to black people on TV, and all of a sudden he’s saying stuff like “Pump your brakes” and “I got you,” these new politically cool terms that kind of came out of hip-hop and blackness. I’m thinking, We do still speak English, right? Though sometimes I wonder. So yeah, it still happens. But the whole language and culture are different now. I’ll be reading scripts and the screenwriter mistakes “your” for “you’re.” On Twitter someone will write, “Your an idiot,” and I’ll go, “No, you’re an idiot,” and all my Twitterphiles will go, “Hey, Sam Jackson, he’s the grammar police.” I’ll take that. Somebody needs to be. I mean, we have newscasters who don’t even know how to conjugate verbs, something Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow never had problems with. How the fuck did we become a society where mediocrity is acceptable?
PLAYBOY: Or a society that views graduating from college or grad school as elitist, or one in which President Obama or other highly educated Americans consciously drop gs off the ends of words to sound like Joe Average?
JACKSON: First of all, we know it ain’t because of his blackness, so I say stop trying to “relate.” Be a leader. Be fucking presidential. Look, I grew up in a society where I could say “It ain’t” or “What it be” to my friends. But when I’m out presenting myself to the world as me, who graduated from college, who had family who cared about me, who has a well-read background, I fucking conjugate.
PLAYBOY: With your and your wife’s militant revolutionary background, how political are you today, especially having told Ebony magazine in 2012 that you wanted President Obama to “get scary”?
JACKSON: He got a little heated about the kids getting killed in Newtown and about the gun law. He’s still a safe dude. But with those Republicans, we’re now in a situation where even if he said, “I want to give you motherfuckers a raise,” they’d go, “Fuck you! We don’t want a raise!” I don’t know how we fix this bullshit. How do we fix the fact that politicians aren’t trying to serve the people, they’re just trying to serve their party and their closed ideals? How do we find a way to say, “You motherfuckers are fired because you’re not doing shit about taking care of the country”? If Hillary Clinton decides to run, she’s going to kick their fucking asses, and those motherfuckers would rather see the country go down in flames than let the times change. But as I tell my daughter, there was a time we would be in the streets about this shit.
PLAYBOY: You mean instead of signing petitions on Facebook and Twitter?
JACKSON: You need to have your physical body out there in the streets and let these people—and the rest of the world—know. When our antiwar movement led the world, it was because people could see us in the streets, see our faces, hear the protest music. You can’t do that shit blogging in a room. I can’t see you on your keyboard. I can’t see you sitting there in the dark. Things happen when people get out in the street.
PLAYBOY: Your daughter, Zoe, is 31. Is she politically active?
JACKSON: She understands our backgrounds as revolutionaries and about being in the street because I put her out there. She’s done some protesting, even though I laughed at her when she went down to Occupy Wall Street because she and Anne Hathaway are good friends. I went, “Wait, you went to Occupy Wall Street—with Annie Hathaway?” But see, we also understand the complacency and how we’ve changed Zoe’s life to a point where she sees things differently because she’s gone to racially diverse schools like Manhattan Country and Oakwood in Los Angeles and Vassar. Her mother and I would say shit and Zoe would go, “You guys are so racist.” When we talked about racism, she said, “That’s just some old shit,” until she had her own experiences that made her understand.
PLAYBOY: So back in the day, there you were, a militant revolutionary, a budding actor, kicked out of college—and a good grammarian. How did you get hooked up in the off-Broadway New York theater scene, where you really got your start?
JACKSON: First, after I got kicked out of school, I came to Los Angeles for a year and worked as a county social worker, an eligibility worker, for the city.
PLAYBOY: Were you hungry for a Hollywood career?
JACKSON: I never wanted to come to California and be an actor or movie star unless I was being sought out. I had so many friends who were good actors who came out to Los Angeles and I never saw them on-screen, never saw them doing anything. Some I never saw until I got to L.A. myself and saw them at a party or something.
PLAYBOY: In the 1970s and 1980s, when you and your wife were touring the country or working in theater in New York, you encountered your father, who had been gone from your life since you were an infant.
JACKSON: Once, when we were performing in Topeka, Kansas, my wife, my three-month-old daughter and I went to see my other grandmother, and it just so happened my father was living in her house again. I was in my 30s, and there was this woman and this older lady, and then this teenage girl comes downstairs with a little baby in her arms as young as my daughter. He’s like, “Hey, I want you to meet your sister.” I think he’s talking about the girl, but he’s talking about the fucking baby. I’m like, “You’re a grown-ass, old-ass man doing this shit?” Then the older lady’s like, “So when’s the last time you saw your dad?” And it was like, “I haven’t seen this motherfucker since I was three months old.” We go outside and he gets angry, going, “Why’d you have to tell her that?” I said, “Do you want me to tell her we hang out, that you’ve been taking care of me all these years? You’re not my father; you’re just a guy who happened to be my mom’s sperm donor. I’m here to see your mother, not you.”
PLAYBOY: Did you ever see him again?
JACKSON: He passed not long after that. He was an alcoholic with cirrhosis and all that other shit. They had called me from the hospital: “Mr. Jackson, your father’s really ill now. If we have to take drastic measures, do you want us to keep him alive?” I said, “Are you calling to ask if I want you to put him on life support, or are you calling to see if I’m going to be responsible for his medical bill?” They’re like, “Well….” I said, “He’s got a sister in Kansas City—you should call her.” Click. [laughs] It’s done.
PLAYBOY: By the 1980s, to your substances of choice, booze and pot, you had added heroin and cocaine. The roles you originated at Yale Repertory Theatre in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Two Trains Running were cast with other actors when those landmark plays transferred to Broadway in 1987 and 1990, respectively. How did your addictions mess with your career and personal life?
JACKSON: I was always doing a play. I paid my bills. I didn’t steal shit to sell out of my brownstone. I didn’t steal my daughter’s toys. I didn’t steal my wife’s money out of her purse. I could go to the ATM and get money for cocaine. I just kept spending money and finding people to get high with.
PLAYBOY: When was enough finally enough?
JACKSON: In 1990 my wife said, “Look, you’re going to rehab,” and the very next day I was in rehab. I didn’t go kicking and screaming. I was tired, burned-out and at that low point of like, What the fuck is going on with me?
PLAYBOY: Did seeing some of your co-stars and acting peers become more successful affect your drug use?
JACKSON: They ask you in rehab to take an assessment of how you got to the point you’re at, and I said, “I guess I could have gone to that audition without my eyes red, without smelling like the beer I had or the weed I’d smoked.” I never blamed anybody else for not being successful or not getting to the places I saw everybody else I worked with, like Wesley Snipes, get to. I had no problem doing roles like Black Guy in Sea of Love or Hold-Up Man in Coming to America or going to Boston once a year to get killed on Spenser: For Hire or A Man Called Hawk. LaTanya asked, “Why are you doing these piddly-ass jobs?” I told her, “Well, this or that guy I worked with is probably going to be something somewhere down the line.” I always left an impression in an audition. I was memorable. In rehab I saw that I owed it to myself to see things another way and try it the other way. I opened my mind to what was being said.
PLAYBOY: So rehab took?
JACKSON: Like the petals were closed and, all of a sudden, the sun hit the flower and opened it up. People looked at it and it smelled great, it looked great to them. I’m like, Oh Jesus, this is not bad at all. I wondered whether I was going to be as much fun as I used to be, wondered whether people were going to think I was as good an actor. But the clarity and professional satisfaction that came with sobriety—couldn’t beat it.