As cool characters go, Samual L Jackson brings them to life with seeming ease. He makes his characters cool, even though perhaps they shouldn’t be.
Who else could get away with wearing a ponytail and a plaited goatee beard (as Ordell in Jackie Brown)? Or a floor-length leather coat and a big old afro as Mr Glass in Unbreakable, or even Jheri curls and a sculpted beard as Jules in Pulp Fiction? And how come when he appeared in Star Wars alongside Neimoidians, Snivvans and an army of silly-haired Jedi, did he still manage to look completely normal and cool? “I have no idea!” says Mr Jackson laughing. “That was George’s [Lucas] thing. I was willing to be anything to get in that movie; I didn’t care. He could have put me in make-up for three hours, and I’d still do the movie. I guess George just decided he wanted me to look like a human being, to be one of the Jedi Council’s regular humans. And that was cool.”
“But my other looks, generally, are created by me.” he continues. “The only one that somebody specifically gave me was the Unbreakable look. And people tend to give me more credit for that than anything else. The hairstyle was not my choice, it was Night’s [Shyamalan] choice. I mean, everything in a Night Shyamalan movie he’s visualized somewhere already, so you just kind of come in and do it. But that’s basically the only look I can think of that wasn’t created between me, my make-up artist and my hairdresser.”
As he chats to you, Sam Jackson has a habit of staring. He’s friendly and attentive, listens patiently and thoughtfully, and is terrific company. But he tends to stare. And that’s OK if you haven’t watched many of his movies, but if you’ve seen him staring and quoting “some cold-blooded shit” from Ezekiel 25:17, it can be very scary!”
“I have this habit of being able to stare unblinkingly at you until you break,” he says slowly, staring at me. I break. He continues. “I did that a lot as Mr Glass. It used to amaze Night, and he’d go, ‘But you didn’t blink.’ And I’m like, ‘No, did you want me to? I hadn’t thought about it, but I was like, ‘If you want me to blink, I’ll blink.’ I guess it’s just one of those things I was interested in doing as a kid. We used to play that game where the first kid to blink lost. I always won that game.”
Born in December 1948 and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by his mother and grandmother, young Sam may have been the king at stare-downs, but he wasn’t the super-confident guy he is today. He suffered from a stutter at a young age and says he still has it if he talks too fast. He’s not embarrassed by it, but when he talks about growing up, it’s clear he was in a hurry to get out and make his mark on the world. It may sound shocking, but Samual L. Jackson wasn’t born cool.
“I was pretty… square. Nerdy, I guess,” he says, sounding almost sorry for the kid he was back at school. “I didn’t peak too soon. I was a bookworm. I lived in a world that was in my head or that was in the books that I read. Growing up in pretty much a working-class city, I was constantly trying to find a way to get out of that, to expand past the future that someone had predicted for me – of working in a factory somewhere. At a very early age, I knew I wasn’t going to spend my life in Chattanooga.”
Escaping from home is something many small-town kids dream of, but it seems to mean something to Sam Jackson. Breaking away, spreading his wings, making it big. That was all that seemed to matter. To satisfy his artistic needs, he played the french horn and the trumpet – he still has a trumpet, but he doesn’t play much – and he was also a cheerleader. “With a megaphone,” he says quickly and without much humour, “guys don’t have pompoms.”
He only supported the football and basketball teams from the sidelines so he could travel to their away games and “see the world”.
Hardworking and intelligent, he was offered a place at Atlanta’s Morehouse College as an architecture student. Growing in confidence, he sought out a speech therapist who encouraged him to audition for a part in a college musical to help conquer his impediment.
Then, at the age of 19, Sam Jackson had what alcoholics call “a moment of clarity”, and he knew what he wanted to do with his life. He told his mother he was going to become an actor. “She wanted to know what I was going to do for a living,” he says, smiling fondly at the moment he made his announcement. “And she said, ‘Well, maybe you should get a teaching degree, so you’ve got something to fall back on.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t want a full-back career! I don’t want some safety net there. I’m just doing this!”
Like all mothers, Mrs Jackson worried about her son making a living on stage. She felt better when he appeared on TV. “I made a commercial!” he says proudly. “It was for Krystal hamburgers, and that was the first time my mom could be validated in my career choice. And so her friends would see it, and they would be like, ‘Oh, I saw Sam on TV.’ And my mom was like, ‘Oh, he’s an actor, you know.” He bursts out laughing at the thought of how proud his mum must have been and starts re-enacting his big moment. “Yeah, my line was: ‘It’s probably the little cooked onions.’ The ad went: ‘What makes Krystal hamburgers so great!’ And I open my eyes and say, ‘It’s probably the little cooked onions.” He laughs again.
So was it a buzz seeing yourself on TV? “Of course! You always want to watch yourself. These actors that say, ‘Oh, I can’t stand to watch myself on screen. ‘Come one, that’s bullshit. We’re in this business ‘cos we want people to look at us. It’s a ‘look at me’ business. If I’m channel-surfing and I see a movie of mine, that’s one; I’m watching it!”
After graduating in 1972 – despite being briefly expelled for participating in a Civil Rights demonstration – Jackson moved to New York. He began to make a reputation for himself in theatre with the Negro Ensemble Company, he picked up a little TV work and spent a few years entertaining the audience between breaks on The Cosby Show, but that big break eluded him.
Making only $150 a week, he even considered giving up acting, that is, until he appeared in what he called the “right play”, A Soldier’s Play, in 1981. For the first time, the acting mattered, not what the role might lead to. And it certainly didn’t do any harm that in the audience one night was a young wannabe director named Spike Lee.
Lee was so impressed with Jackson’s performance that he cast him as a crack cocaine addict in Jungle Fever. Something Jackson had experienced first-hand.
As a stage performer throughout the Eighties, he had developed some seriously bad habits, but when he lost a Broadway role in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, he knew the time had come to get straight.
He went into rehab, phoning Spike Lee from the hospital to assure him he would be on set and ready to play Gator when the cameras roll. Ask Jackson about it now, and he’s just as frank and open as he is about everything we’ve discussed.
When I ask him tentatively if his doing drugs was just a sociable thing, he doesn’t hesitate to put me straight.
“No, it was a lifestyle. A life choice,” he says unflinchingly. “It’s what I did every day. That was my daily routine. I woke up, smoked a joint, drank some beer, maybe ate some cereal, and then I went on about the rest of my day, smoking, drinking, snorting, popping or whatever. And it wasn’t until I got clean – and Jungle Fever was the first thing I ever did without a substance in my body, amazingly – that my life changed. So when people ask me that question, maybe about Robert Downey Jr, back in the day or someone, like how come I go into rehab once and get it, and someone else keeps going in and out… well, for me, it’s because of the change in my life after I got clean. I can understand the blessing I have now and the blessing I didn’t have then.”
“When I was using, yeah, I was moderately successful, I was a very good actor, and I had a great reputation on stage. But when I stopped using and got in touch with ‘me’, I became a better actor,” he says.
“So I became much better at what I did than I had been before, and my life changed in such a real way that I understood the difference it made. I was clearer in my life and work, and I knew that if I went back to the other place… it would be much worse. I like this place much better.”
After Jungle Fever, a performance that won Jackson a special prize at Cannes for Best Supporting Actor – a category that had never existed before – the roles started coming in thick and fast, culminating in a call from Mr Tarantino.
The follow-up to Reservoir Dogs and the performance that saw Jackson blow John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Harvey Keitel and Uma Thurman off the screen, earning him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination – Jules in Pulp Fiction.
Watching his performance is terrifying, hilarious, powerful and, of course, unbelievably cool. So is he like Jules at all? He thinks for a minute as though this is a question he has often asked himself.
“Well, I have a spiritual side, you know. I believe in God, and I believe things happen for a reason,” he says. “But I also try and take heed of things, and when opportunity knocks and some people are in the bathroom or on the phone, I want to answer the door. Pulp Fiction was an opportunity for me, and I took advantage of it.”
“Getting Oscar nominated puts you in a different category, and that means something to the people in Hollywood. And when you get into that position, it allows you to do some interesting things. And you can either go in that interesting way, or you can go laterally, or you can flop. So everyone was sending me the next Jules role that never turned out to be the next Jules role, and I was smart enough not to do ’em. I wanted to do something else.”
So was there a lack of good roles out there?
“Yeah, man, it’s really difficult to find a decent script. I go to movies all the time like everybody else, and sometimes I’m sitting there asking myself, ‘Who the fuck greenlit this?’ Or ‘What did they think this was going to be that would make it OK to spend that much money on?'”
“The thing is, something happened to storytelling. People don’t tell stories in the visual way they used to. They don’t develop the characters on the inside so that the audience can relate to them. I hate going to a movie and sitting there watching it and not caring about anybody in it. And then I leave and go: ‘Oh, that was a waste. What was that? Not only was the story strange, but there is nothing in that movie that I want to talk about aside from telling people don’t go see it!”
Today, Samual L Jackson is one of the most widely recognized actors of his generation, the films in which he has appeared have collectively grossed over $27 billion worldwide, making him the second highest-grossing actor of all time. His tireless work in the film industry saw him receive the Honorary Academy Award at the 2022 Oscars. His charity work to raise money to fight Alzheimer’s disease and testicular cancer also shows what kind of man Sam is today. Still cool as fuck.