Samuel L Jackson: The Muthaf*ckin Man!
What set your character in Freedomland apart from other characters youve played?
Well, I've played a lot of different cops from a lot of different law enforcement agencies. Lorenzo is a 20-year vet who has a very real connection to this housing project, and in my mind he grew up in those projects, so he knows all those people, he's been in their houses, he's arrested some of them, he has stopped some of them going to jail. All of a sudden hes put in this position where theyre asking him. Are you going to be black or blue? and the people on both sides are putting pressure on him. Then he discovers this person on the inside of it [i.e. Julianne Moore] that is a real victim, who he has to kind of handle in a specific kind of way to get to the truth. It seemed like a very appealing kind of challenge for me as an actor to get into.
Did you ever live in the projects, and if so, how did that environment affect you?
I had relatives who lived in the projects in Tennessee when I was growing up, and I grew up around... well, not grew up, but spent time in and out of projects when I was in Atlanta in college. Morehouse College sits in the middle of some projects and I interacted with the guys that lived there, and when I got to New York I lived in Harlem and there were huge high-rise projects all around. So I know what housing projects are, and when a crime happens in an area like that the immediate thought is that somebody black did it, because black people live there. Nobody stops to think that they live in these places because that's the economic strata that they're on, but you know 80% of those people still go to work every day and do the same things that everybody else does. But when you go in there you immediately think its a high-crime area, so the majority of people that live there are criminals. When you go in with that mindset, you tend to treat the people as less than human, and the people tend to push back. You push a little bit more, and it doesn't take a lot to set off a spark like that riot that happens in the film.
Did you ever find yourself in a situation where you were pulled over or hassled by police just because of the way you looked?
[Laughs] I grew up black in America, so that happens. It hasn't happened recently.
Could you give us an example?
There were times in the 70s when I got pulled over because I had a great big afro and I used to wear Angela Davis and Fight the War T-shirts. That's when the L.A. police were pretty much able to do whatever they wanted. Then when I was in Atlanta I used to get pulled over a lot because I drove fast and had a big afro. I looked like Jimi Hendrix, so there was always the suspicion that I was inebriated or high or something. But Ive never gotten roughed up by the cops. I think the worst incident I ever had was when I was doing a play while we were shooting Pulp Fiction. I had dinner with four of my friends one night at Hugo's and we came outside and stood on the corner talking for a half-hour or so. Out of nowhere, five sheriff cars pulled up with guns out and spotlights in our eyes, laid us in the street so we were face-down on Santa Monica Boulevard, all because somebody called and said there were five black men standing on the corner with guns and bats. The cops could see we had no guns and bats, and we were just standing there talking. But they laid us in the street, took all our ID's, questioned us for half an hour, and eventually let us go.
Did they recognize you?
One police officer said, I think I know you, but this was when I was shooting Pulp Fiction. I had done Jungle Fever', and a few other movies, but it wasn't like I was a household name. When a police officer says, I think I've seen you before, you don't know if that's because they were briefed that there was a rapist running around who is black, six feet tall and weighs a hundred and so and so pounds. All I could say was I doubt it.
What goes through your mind at a point like that?
What goes through my mind at a point like that is, don't make any sudden movements. Don't say anything smart that might inflame them. Continue to say Sir and be as polite as you possibly can.
Freedomland was a pretty intense film with a serious message. Do you take your role choices more seriously these days than you did when you were younger?
No, why would I do that? I mean, the next film I have being released is Snakes on a Plane. How serious is that? The point is I still do movies that I think are going to be fun. I do read scripts that are serious in tone that may or may not speak to some social issue. But I'm still that guy that likes to go to the movies and see myself in something kind of mindless and exciting. I don't want to go to work every day and have to ruminate and deal with all the themes of human frailties and that stuff all year long. I don't make the conscious choice, like I have to do a big studio film about nothing, then I have to do a great independent film that's kind of deep and has social relevance. I still want to do films like Snakes on a Plane, where people know theyre just going to sit there and go Aaaaagh! and not have to worry about, What did he mean when he screamed like that? Its obvious-- there's a snake there, and it's getting ready to bite him! I'm not one of those actors whos sitting around thinking, I'm older now and I need to mature, so I need to do serious things.
There were rumors that the film company wanted to change the title of Snakes On a Plane, but you refused.
Yeah, they finally figured out that this is the title thats going to work. Pacific Flight 121 was just not interesting.
You seem to stay incredibly busy. What drives you to work as hard as you do?
Well, I like my job. I mean, I am an actor and I always think actors should act. You go to work as often as you possibly can. If I had my way, I'd do film, television, theatre, whatever. It just so happens my agent and managers seem to think I should continue to do films. Hopefully Ill be like Michael Caine, and I'll find roles that fit what I can do in my age range even when I get older. But I actually grew up in a household of people that went to work every day, and I think that is what adults do they go to work. I happen to have a very cool job where I can actually go to work and go back to bed and nobody cares. I have a bed in my dressing room! Its like, Where's Sam? Oh, he's asleep. Oh, that's great. You know? (Laughs)
I thought is was an interesting choice for you to do a voice in The Boondocks.
Well, you know, there are things that I like that I want to be a part of. I've always loved the comic strip, and Aaron McGruder has always been a champion of mine. I remember he did this one comic strip about Mace Windu when I got the job in Star Wars for the first time, and those kids were saying they'd better not kill him. I liked that idea, cause I wanted to be in all three of them, too. So its kind of like some payback. As an actor, you want to do things you like. I mean, I like Law and Order and CSI. I did an episode of Law and Order before I left New York, when there was just one of them. But, you know, things like The Wire and The Sopranos and Deadwood, if I had my choice, I would find a way to be on those shows.
If you could create any TV show for yourself, what sort of show would it be?
Wow. It would probably be like Have Gun, Will Travel used to be, cause I used to really love Mr. Paladin, even though when I got older I started trying to figure out how long it wouldve actually taken him to get from San Francisco to Ohio to help somebody once he saw that ad in the paper. But he had to take a stagecoach, so you read something and then 6 months later you show up and go, Oh, is that problem still going?! But [my ideal show would be] Have Gun, Will Travel crossed with CSI crossed with Deadwood.
Have you wrapped Black Snake Moan?
Yeah, we finished in December.
You play a blues man in that. Are you a fan of the blues?
Yeah, Im a bigger fan now. I spent a lot of time with the guys in the Delta. I had to learn to play guitar, so I spent a lot of time with these old guys who taught me some interesting guitar licks. I actually got to play and sing with guys like Big Jack Johnson, so it was very cool. Most of the guys that I met aren't big stars except in their little areas, because they still have juke joints where they take all the furniture out of their house on the weekends and charge people $10 to get in. They play, they got their little three-man band, and people come and kick it. It was great.
Congratulations on putting your hands and feet in cement. What was that experience like for you?
(Laughs) Being able to put my hands and feet in cement at Grauman's was kind of surreal. I'm always saying that Im not a movie star, Im an actor, but I just happen to be an actor whos very popular and Ive made some films that made some money. I don't need an Academy Award to validate the things Ive done. But the hands and feet ceremony is one of the things you watched when you were growing up, and the people doing that represented what Hollywood was at the time. I think Hollywood Stardom is more of an elite club than the Academy Award club, and it gave me a great sense of pride to know that there I was doing something that I watched James Cagney and other classic Hollywood icons do. It kind of makes you admit to yourself, Okay, maybe I am a movie star.
Does it remind you where you are now, and where you've come from to get here?
I didn't reflect in that kind of way. Youre there putting your hands down, and you can see the names of other people all around as youre doing it, and its kind of like, Man, Im getting ready to be in the company of all these legends! There are only 230-something people there, and I think I am maybe the seventh African-American to do it, so it is pretty important. I was just awed by the whole process.