With a filmography that includes roles in some of the highest-grossing movies of all time including The Avengers, Iron Man and the Star Wars series Samuel L. Jackson clearly knows how to pick ‘em. And that is entirely intentional. His current film Django Unchained, in which he is reunited with frequent director Quentin Tarantino opened to strong grosses on Christmas Day and is already looking like another solid box office hit.
In the film he plays Stephen, the conniving house slave for Leonardo DiCaprio‘s despicable character Calvin Candie. As the manipulative slave, Jackson says he is playing perhaps the most hated negro in cinematic history. He’s fine with that. “At least he’s a memorable character. I mean Quentin writes interesting characters. I’ve been pretty despicable in most of his films. People loved Jules (Pulp Fiction) but he’s a murderer. People loved Ordell (Jackie Brown) but he’s a murderer. Stephen has an unusual take on slavery. He’s okay with it,” he says and is not worried about what African American audiences might think (Spike Lee has already chimed in to express his displeasure with the film’s depiction of slaves). “I hope he’s reviled, and people want to see him die. People enjoy him, but it’s strange. He’s a funny guy in a way, despicably funny. People laugh at Stephen and what he does, but you know they do want to see him dead.” But still slavery is a serious subject and Jackson says Tarantino’s larger than life and sometimes comical take is aimed more for the masses.
“I would say that Quentin’s way is the way to reach a larger audience, and slavery seems to be another backdrop. We seldom understand that when people were out there shooting Indians or whatever, on the other side of the Mississippi there were people getting beaten down. This is the first time those genres cross paths,” he says. “When you take that and make it entertaining in a way, you express the brutality of what slavery really was, of how people were really property and the way people treated them. Everyone’s all ‘oh my god, Quentin’s written ‘nigger’ 176 times on a script again’… This is an homage to Mandingo, those movies Quentin likes. He has a habit of mixing genres of movies he likes. Django Unchained is essentially a spaghetti western exploitation movie with some Hong Kong overtones. He knows the movies that we like. I tend to go on location with about 30 Hong Kong films — I have a lot of Asian crime films in my trailer just to pass the time. Every time he’d pass my trailer he’d ask, ‘what are you watching now?’ and we’ll talk about it. We had long conversations about those movies. We tend to watch the same kind of bullshit. Entertainment.”
Jackson’s history with Tarantino goes back 20 years to Reservoir Dogs. He read for a role with Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender but didn’t even realize Tarantino was the director at that time. “I thought he was just a really bad actor. I was like ‘damn, these dudes are horrible’. I look like I was overacting or they have no judgment of what’s good and what’s not,” he recalls. He didn’t get the part but ran into Tarantino some time later at the film’s first screening at Sundance and was told the director was writing a role for him in something else. That turned out to be Pulp Fiction in 1994 and the role that won Jackson his only Oscar nomination to date. He lost to Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood. When I asked if he thought he should have won instead Jackson was refreshingly candid.
“Yes I do. I really don’t know many people who can not only remember Ed Wood but remember what Martin Landau did in it,” he said but added he was told it was more of a life achievement kind of award. “You know they were saying ‘Martin’s been nominated a few times and you’re going to be around for a while. Don’t worry.’ I was thinking I didn’t know it was a thing where if you get nominated for a few times you automatically get one. I thought it was supposed to be about impact.”
Jackson’s Django co-stars Di Caprio and Christoph Waltz both got nominated for Golden Globes for Best Supporting Actor but Jackson, who has been getting his own share of awards buzz, was left out. He knows the game. “I understand what the Golden Globes is. It’s the only show they (the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) have and is their biggest moneymaker so you have to pack the room with people that are going to make people tune into that show. With popular actors and the popular television shows, it’s whoever they think people want to see on the red carpet and hope that they win, not necessarily the quality of work you’ve done,” he says.
So I guess we won’t expect to see Jackson turning up as a presenter on the Globes this year? Jackson doesn’t seem to care. He says he is not in it for awards as some actors may be. “I figured out early in the game that the best thing for me to do is just keep going to work. I don’t worry about picking a movie that says ‘oh my god, this has Oscar potential’. Other people think about that stuff, I don’t. I look at some actors and go ‘they only do those kinds of movies’. I do movies I want to see myself. Like Quentin, he writes the movies he wants to see. I tend to take roles that I want to see me in. I enjoy movies for the audience aspect of it. I am an audience member. I like all kinds of movies and if the role is right in that kind of movie and the timing is right I’m going to do it”.
Jackson is continuing those kinds of films and hopes to be shooting a new version of the Tarzan story this summer if all goes well. He’s also got the new Robocop, another Captain America and eventually a second Avengers on the docket. He’d even like to figure out a way to revive his character for the next Star Wars and there are even rumors of an eventual Nick Fury film too. He’s also about to do another film with David Ellis, director of his cult hit, Snakes On A Plane. “It’s a live action version of a Japanese anime. It’s real sick,” he says with obvious relish.