Urban Cinefile  
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Thursday July 12, 2018 
Help/Contact

L. JACKSON, SAMUEL : 187

USING THE DOWNTIME
Samuel L. Jackson may well be one of Hollywood’s biggest stars these days, but the Oscar nominee’s life hasn’t all been fancy cars and cool characters. Crack and booze almost destroyed him, but now he’s enjoying Act 2 of an extraordinary career. He talks exclusively to PAUL FISCHER.

The first thing you notice about Samuel L. Jackson is that he’s the coolest dude you’re ever likely to meet. The chic beret, the dark glasses, and the laid back stylish demeanour says it all. When we met, Jackson was far from Hollywood in Toronto, where one of his latest films, the exquisite Eve’s Bayou, was receiving considerable attention at the fiercely competitive Toronto Film Festival. The part of the unapologetic philandering doctor in the deep south seemed far removed from the vengeful school teacher in Kevin Reynold’s powerful 187, a film whose commercial failure in the US remains a major disappointment for the actor. "The studio back-pedalled on this film for a number of reasons. Firstly, they thought we were going to make Dangerous Minds 2, and we didn’t. So suddenly, they had a film that they didn’t quite know how to market, or what the audience is, and as usual, they want the audience to be the 15-22 year old disposable income males who are going backwards and forwards to the same movie on the weekends.

"I don’t know how to be alone, as that guy is."

"There’s no way you can sell them on this movie: the people that really need to see it are the adults who understand the plight of this teacher and what’s going on in the American school system right now. It’s sad that they backed away from it, but it will hopefully enjoy a new life in Europe and Australia."

Jackson plays committed teacher Trevor Garfield who, after seeing 187 scrawled throughout the pages of his teaching text, is stabbed in the hallway of his tough New York high school. When we next see him, 18 months later, he’s living in South Central Los Angeles and working as a casual teacher, and his spark is gone. But those three troublesome digits are not. Jackson sees Garfield "as someone whose once very rich life was taken away from him." He’s not the easiest person for the actor to identify with either. "I’m more gregarious than he is, and I don’t know how to be alone, as that guy is. I love my friends and I enjoy being around them, hanging out and doing stuff." Preparing for the film, Jackson went to a number of different schools "to find out what the teacher/student dynamic really was.

"In the worst case scenario it’s pretty exact."

The film is a tough exploration of the teaching profession in impoverished inner-city American schools. Jackson says it’s an honest portrayal. "In the worst case scenario it’s pretty exact. The kids who were the extras in the classroom were like the kids they portrayed in the film, and that was quite a shock to me."

Before emerging as a star with his performance as a Jherri-Curled, Bible-thumping hit man in Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackson had immersed himself so completely in his thirty previous roles that moviegoers rarely recognised him from one film to the next. Jackson had bopped from back-alley thug (Mo’ Better Blues, 1990) to computer dweeb (Jurassic Park, 1993) to dope-dealing dad (Menace II Society, 1993) and had achieved only the merest hint of name or face recognition. But in 1994, when Quentin Tarantino plucked Jackson from the ranks of the semi-obscure and cast him in Pulp Fiction, his turn as a burger-munching tough guy earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and some long-deserved notoriety.

Raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by his no-nonsense mother and grandmother, Jackson took school seriously and was accepted at Atlanta’s Morehouse College as a marine biology student. Jackson, who had struggled with a stutter since childhood, followed a speech therapist’s advice and auditioned for a college musical. He landed a part, found he enjoyed performing enough to pursue further acting gigs, and eventually switched his major to drama. Jackson’s family, however, remained unconvinced of the professional merits of his new vocation until a Southern fast-food chain, Krystal Hamburgers, cast him in a television commercial in which he smacked his lips while eating an onion burger. His first actor’s salary was in the bank. Jackson graduated from college in 1972 (despite a temporary expulsion for participating in a student demonstration), and moved to New York to ply his craft in more serious projects.

"It’s definitely a blessing to be able to do something that you love so much"

During his first decade in the Big Apple, Jackson distinguished himself among the city’s community of not-quite-starving actors as a diligent, disciplined Thespian with capable performances at the Negro Ensemble Company and at the New York Shakespeare Festival. Jackson’s second turning point was losing the lead in a Broadway production of August Wilson’s Two Trains Running—a role that he had originated off-Broadway—because, as he puts it, he was "showing up to too many auditions with red eyes and smelling of beer." Realising he had blown a huge career opportunity, Jackson set about kicking his addictions to crack cocaine and alcohol. Jackson’s star has since risen – but before that, there was a lot of down-time for the actor to live through. He now feels blessed to have achieved what he has. "We all would like to think that we’re here for some greater purpose, and I’m blessed in that I was able to gather a lot of information during that downtime, hold onto it and get a lot of stuff out of it. Now I’m able to use those things for my own benefit and for the good of the people who watch me do what I do. It’s definitely a blessing to be able to do something that you love so much, that allows you a certain kind of lifestyle and also gives you so much satisfaction."

Ironically, Jackson’s first post-sobriety gig was as Wesley Snipes’ crack-addicted brother in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991). His relatively brief performance was so authentic that the Cannes Film Festival jury bestowed upon him a Supporting Actor award—a category of acting it had never honoured in the past. Nineteen years after beginning his journey, Jackson had finally broken away from the pack and onto every casting director’s hot list. He seized the moment and became one of Hollywood’s hardest-working supporting actors: already, he has rounded out the casts of more than thirty films since the beginning of the decade.

"I got to be a producer because I finally got to be a big enough name to attach myself and get it financed."

At this point in his career, Jackson has managed to take advantage of his stardom, by putting his name to low-budget projects such as Eve’s Bayou, which was one of the most critically lauded triumphs at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival. Set in the heart of America’s lush southern Bayou country, the film tells of a philandering small-town doctor and his relationship with Eve, his mystical young daughter. It’s not the kind of mainstream Hollywood film associated with stars of Jackson’s stature, but it was the kind of film the actor was keen to become a part of, as both a producer and actor. "I got to be a producer because I finally got to be a big enough name to attach myself and get it financed. The script came to me about three years ago, and I just loved that character, plus the story was pretty great." It’s a film close to the actor’s heart for the most basic of reasons. "I’m from the South and I think southern people are very interesting. I can look at this family and relate to its humanity, and it’s also unique in that it’s a woman’s story. There just happens to be this guy that’s like a satellite hovering around this woman’s world; occasionally he collides with that world and something happens."

Jackson wants the chance to be as diverse as possible. These days, with his ever increasing clout, that remains his biggest goal. "I love the movies, and when I read a script I read it as an audience member would, and then I ensure that this is as different a part from what I’ve done before."

"If I tell you anything about that film I’ll have to kill you" on his stint with Star Wars prequel

His next two films certainly fit into that, beginning with his much anticipated re-teaming with Quentin Tarantino on Jackie Brown. "Quentin’s as enthusiastic and as joyful as ever. It was as if we went from ‘cut’ on Pulp Fiction and straight into the next one without a break. This is a straightforward Elmore Leonard novel and is a little drama about this gun runner that I play." Jackson had just returned from England shooting a stint on the upcoming Star Wars prequel. "If I tell you anything about that film I’ll have to kill you", he adds. "All I can say is that this has been in an interesting year for me. One day I’ll look up and stand across from Dustin Hoffman; then I look up another day and I’m next to Robert De Niro; then last week I’ve died and gone to heaven –I looked up and there I was standing next to Yoda. And I got to even say: May the force be with you."

Email this article


"He’s the coolest dude you’re ever likely to meet"



"Preparing for the film, Jackson went to a number of different schools to find out what the teacher/student dynamic really was."



"I’m from the South and I think southern people are very interesting."


See REVIEWS






© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2018