Thursday, January 28, 2010

All Cool, All Business: The Man Named Samuel L.

Samuel L. Jackson during the "Mother And Child" Red Carpet Photo Gallery, Jan. 25 at Sundance.
Omar P.L. Moore/

By Omar P.L. Moore/
Thursday, January 28, 2010


Acting-wise, Samuel L. Jackson can, and has, done it all.  Philosophical hit man.  Vulnerable teacher.  Political activist.  Homeless man.  Lawyer.  Army general.  Bigoted LAPD officer.  Chess master.  Scientist.  Richard Roundtree's alter ego Shaft.  He's done all of these very well, and he expects that his fellow actors on the film set have the same level of commitment to their jobs. 

He's been known to make phone calls if anyone isn't prepared to do the job demanded of them on the set. 

"It's not pretty," Mr. Jackson says on this Monday afternoon.  "People show up and start talking, and I talk to the producers.  You can't waste people's time." 

Mr. Jackson is asked about directors with whom he has collaborated best.  Without hesitation he fires them off: Quentin Tarantino, Renny Harlin, Roger Michel.  ("Roger was awesome.  I'd love to do another movie with Roger.")  He adds that he likes Kasi Lemmons, who directed him in "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine."

Mr. Jackson really can do anything. 

He can even wear a pale green woolly hat that says WHITEBOY on it.  (He wore the hat at the red carpet premiere here later that Monday night.  See the photo above.)

Today, Mr. Jackson isn't taking himself too seriously.  Upbeat, somewhat playful, he's been known to, shall we say, f--- with interviewers' heads sometimes.  It is all in jest, of course.  But you've got to be ready for his quick-fire wit and sarcasm.  He can throw you off if you're not paying attention.

The film being represented by the versatile actor is "Mother And Child", written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia -- and it's about exactly what its title is.  Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Annette Bening and Jimmy Smits join Mr. Jackson in a cast that also includes S. Epatha Merkerson, Shareeka Epps, David Morse, Elizabeth Pena and Amy Brenneman.  The film, distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, opens in the U.S and Canada on May 7.

During a roundtable interview for Mr. Rodrigo's film, which had its premiere here at Sundance on Monday, he wears black Ray-Ban shades.  He's decked out in black from head to toe.

In "Mother And Child" Mr. Jackson plays Paul, the owner of a law firm in L.A.  He encounters Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an attorney who keeps him on his toes.

Samuel L. Jackson as Paul and Naomi Watts as Elizabeth in "Mother And Child", written and
directed by Rodrigo Garcia.  The film opens in the U.S. and Canada on May 7.
Sony Pictures Classics

Mr. Jackson talks about the perception people have of him as an actor bereft of romantic male lead roles in films.  "...Everybody says, 'we want to see you in a romantic role.'  Really?  And then, you know, I do it and then they go, 'that was a white woman?'  I didn't write the script."

The reality is that Mr. Jackson has had romantic roles in at least four films prior to this new one: in "187", "In My Country" (opposite Juliette Binoche), "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine".  And for those interested in such observations: three of the four films involve romances with white women.  (Paul Thomas Anderson once observed that one of his "Boogie Nights" actors, Melora Waters, who is white, told him that she always seemed to be in films -- specifically Mr. Anderson's -- in which she had romances with black men.  In Mr. Anderson's "Boogie" she played the romantic interest of Don Cheadle.)

"I'm not a heartthrob," Mr. Jackson confesses.

Even though everybody loves him.

Ms. Watts, who is married to the actor Liev Schreiber, was eight months pregnant during parts of the shoot on "Mother And Child", and Mr. Jackson (who said he didn't spend any extra time developing one aspect of Paul over another) said that he didn't have any rehearsal time with the Australian actress. 

"I just kind of showed up and there she was.  It's kind of awkward to show up and meet somebody and go, 'Hi, I'm Sam.  Hi.  Naomi.  Alright, take your clothes off, let's do this.'  It's like, weird.  Very weird kind of dynamic, you know?  I had to go through the process of, 'where can I touch you?, where can I not touch you?  When I kiss you are we gonna really kiss or are we doing that fake 1957 kiss?  Are we using tongues?  Or no tongues?'"

"You have to hold back a lot," said Mr. Jackson of the information given to him via the script versus what an audience watching a film knows. 

Mr. Jackson is asked about a nine-picture deal with Marvel involving his character Nick Fury, to appear as the lead in "S.H.I.E.L.D", one of the upcoming Marvel films. 

"Yeah, but I got to stay alive long enough to do nine pictures."

He tells a story about the first "Iron Man" and his end-of-end credits appearance in it as Nick Fury.

"The first time they screened it for me, I sat there and watched the whole film.  I watched all the (end) credits and they said the print didn't have that particular scene in it.  So the guy had to bring that particular scene to my house so I could see it.  But I'm in it ("Iron Man 2") a little more this time."

Also in it, well -- in "Mother And Child" -- is Mr. Jackson's wife LaTanya Richardson, who has also appeared with him on screen in "Freedomland" and "Losing Isaiah" as the lawyer of Jessica Lange's character in the latter film.  Ms. Richardson's husband played the lawyer for Halle Berry, with whom Mr. Jackson starred in "Jungle Fever", for which he won a special one-time-only Cannes Film Festival award for best supporting actor for his role as Gator Purify, a crack junkie in Spike Lee's film.

And in 2008, when a certain journalist had asked Mr. Jackson a question about which kinds of characters he preferred to play, Mr. Jackson joked that he preferred to play white ones.  Does his answer remain the same today?

"Pretty much."

"Mother And Child" is playing at Sundance now and will be in theaters across North America beginning on May 7.