Cinematheque salutes Samuel L. Jackson

Actor referred to as 'hardest working' in showbiz

Samuel L. Jackson hardly minds being called “the hardest working man in showbiz.” Even if he doesn’t think it’s necessarily true.

Making four movies a year, he insists he is only “doing what I like to do. There are just so many opportunities in a lifetime. I like acting. Actors act. When I was doing theater, I was always rehearsing a play, reading a play, doing a play. I don’t see why I can’t do that in cinema, if the job’s there.”

That’s why Jackson’s motto is simple: “Go and do it.”

He explains: “Painters get up every day and face the blank canvas. Writers get up and face the blank page. Everybody seems to think actors –well, people will say, ‘You work all the time.’ Well, you go to work every day, why shouldn’t I? It’s a job. It’s a calling. It’s something I feel the need to do and I get up and do it.

Jackson turns 60 this month. His personal calling began as a child.

“My aunt was a fourth-grade school teacher who taught performing arts. When she had plays and pageants, she always cast me when I was a small child. There was always a role for a boy. I also did plays in high school,” he recalls.

It was at Morehouse College when he performed in “The Threepenny Opera” that his career took shape. “There was a public-speaking class and there weren’t enough guys for the play. So our teacher said he would give us extra credit for the play. I auditioned and I got in the play, I was Ready Money Matt, one of the guys in the gang. And on opening night, you get that applause. I guess it’s like a rush.” And he makes a soft sigh of exultation, “Wow!”

It was also at Morehouse where he did his very first film and got his SAG card in 1971 for the little-remembered “Together for a Day.”

Jackson worked in Atlanta — “My first big professional job out of college was an improvisational theater company called the Academy Theater” — before he moved to New York and spent the 1970s struggling. Things began to change when he performed in “Ragtime” in 1980. “I love watching old movies and I never thought I’d meet James Cagney, who was someone I admired from afar. And then we were in ‘Ragtime’ together,” he says. “I was actually in a film with James Cagney! It’s one of those far-reaching things that young actors today would go, ‘Who?'”

Even though Jackson now segues from project to project – just this year he’s done an uncredited appearance in “Iron Man,” and a voice for the animated “Star Wars” as well as starring in “Lakeview Terrace,” “Soul Men” and “The Spirit” – nothing has changed.

“Acting’s acting. I treat every character with the same amount of seriousness. They’re all people,” he says – and he means it. There’s no master plan at work here either.

“I don’t necessarily look for things that are social commentaries or ‘I got to find a comedy’ or ‘I got to find an action movie.’ I just read what’s there on my desk, and if I like it, they put me in the room with people. Then they’ll try to go out and find the money, and when I’m finished with what I’m doing, what’s ready to go after that: I do! It’s not a plan,” he insists.

Surprisingly, for one of the screen’s toughest bad men, his fans don’t pigeonhole him. “There are people who talk to me about ‘Pulp Fiction’ and there are those legions of ‘Star Wars’ fans who refer to me as Master Windu and there are older black people who really like ‘A Time to Kill,’ Carl Lee, that character. There are older kids who like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Incredibles,’ I have that little crossover. I’m moving through a lot of different fan bases.”

Disciplined, focused and eager to work, he sounds much like Sean Connery, who has been known to have taken directors to the woodshed when they didn’t run their set properly.

“I don’t Method anything. I like one or two takes. I’m prepared and know how I want to do it and I want them” – the director, the cinematographer, his fellow actors – “to know theirs. I’m just a taskmaster,” Jackson says. “I unreasonably expect everyone to be as prepared as I am.”

Jackson’s Just Do It approach extends to his characters.

“They stay at work, I don’t bring them home. They don’t hang out with me. Actually, they stay on set most of the time. I don’t bring them in my trailer. Once you figure out how to do it, once you’ve done the first rehearsal, ‘How many takes are we going to do?’ Then we do it and let the rest of it go. And hopefully you develop a relationship between yourself and the other actors and you like each other enough, so no matter how far we’ve gone in the scene when we’re done we can look each other and laugh and say, ‘I think we’ve got it.’ ”

All that hard work means he tops the Guinness Book of Records list as the actor whose films have generated the most money.

“Not my fault,” he says, hardly displeased.

What’s it like when Guinness calls with that news?

“They didn’t call me, they didn’t tell me, it just popped up. It’s because I’ve been in films that have made a lot of money, mostly because of ‘Star Wars.’ The guy who is number two (Harrison Ford) is in the other set of ‘Star Wars’ pictures.”

When he’s taking time for himself, “I watch more Asian films than anything, amazingly.(why amazingly?) I watch Hong Kong films, I watch Korean films and I watch Thai films. There’s just something about Asian films that I like and I don’t get to go out and see enough of ’em so I buy a lot of them. I own maybe thousands of Asian films.”

What’s left?

“I haven’t done a Western yet. (‘Spirit’ director) Frank Miller says he has one in his head for me and I told him to get it on paper. ‘Spirit’ is more a live-action cartoon than anything else, Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny, people get hit with big things and don’t get hurt.”

One thing Jackson hasn’t done is direct, and as he explains it, he may never take that step. “I could do it to continue the things I do,” he offers. “I’m thinking about it more. But I have no great desire to direct.”

Celebrity has never blindsided Jackson, who had wait until 1994 with “Pulp Fiction” to achieve it. “I was grown when this happened and understand what a blessing it is to be in this place,” he says. “It’s not a given and something that’s not taken for granted.”

If ever he needs a respite from stardom, he finds it on the golf course. Does his swing help his acting?

“Golf and acting have certain mechanics you need to know to be able to play the game,” he believes. “In golf, you have to visualize the play before you make it. In acting, you have to visualize the character.”

Jackson is currently in L.A. filming “Unthinkable,” “which is about a guy who puts nuclear devices in three different cities.” As he explains the role, “I’m the guy they bring in to extract. I’m the unthinkable in the interrogation.”

Does that mean he plays a torturer?

“No such thing, according to John McCain,” Jackson says – and he isn’t smiling.

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