So obvious are Samuel L. Jackson’s gifts as an actor, it’s almost redundant to praise him. Yet heaping encomium on Jackson is what people do, and none more so than the directors he has worked with.
“Sam is incredibly professional,” says George Lucas, who has directed Jackson as Mace Windu in the three pics that now open his “Star Wars” series. “He is not only a very talented actor, which is obviously essential, but he is also a great person to work with.”
Part of Jackson’s appeal is his work ethic. “He shows up on time, stays focused on his work and is rational and reasonable — there are never any arguments,” Lucas maintains. “He always just wants to know how he can make it better. I always tell young actors that if they ever want to know what it means to be an actor, look to Sam Jackson, because he is the consummate actor.”
Neil LaBute, who directed Jackson as a disturbed cop in the recent “Lakeview Terrace,” found that the actor would actually deepen the material when possible. “I remember early in the filming,” LaBute recalls, “we had his character get out of bed, and all of a sudden Sam’s on the floor praying. And I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, you think this guy would do that?’ And Sam says, ‘He prays every day.’ What an interesting take on the bad guy!”
LaBute was particularly struck by how much Jackson strove for authenticity in his portrayal. “It wasn’t just that Sam came prepared and that he’s a master craftsman,” LaBute says, “but also that he’s always taking that character to the next level. Sam knew a lot more about guns and police work than many other people associated with the movie, because he has a lot of experience and does a lot of research. But it’s not just that. It’s that he knows that real people aren’t two-dimensional.”
The helmer also found directing Jackson to be a learning experience. “We always thought we were making a thriller,” he says, “but we turned out to be making a dramatic thriller. Sam was a guiding light. I learned a great deal in terms of pushing myself. We had more than a working relationship; it was a kind of mentoring as well. I’m not afraid of that. The most important thing is how we capture the actors and let them do what they do. It was fun to stand back and watch him work and create.”
Jackson played a very different but equally complex character in Craig Brewer’s “Black Snake Moan” (2006), and once again, his portrayal exceeded even high expectations.
“The world knows Sam Jackson as a movie star,” says Brewer. “But those who have worked with him know him as a hard-working craftsman. He’s so gifted and charismatic that he could satisfy audiences simply by hitting his mark. But ‘the Man,’ as he’s known to some of us, always goes much farther. The Man rehearses and researches. He digs deeply into his character and asks the hard questions. He is always prepared. And if the Man has a suggestion, shut up and listen to him — the Man has the experience to back it up. We all have something to learn from his craft and commitment.”
Lucas concurs. “You hire Sam because of his charisma and personal qualities,” he says, “but most importantly because of his talent to infuse the character with whatever traits are required. As a result, he can play almost anything.”
Roger Michell learned that when he directed Jackson in “Changing Lanes” (2002), in which he played an atypically meek character. “Sam normally plays the King of Cool roles,” Michell notes. “And he is supremely cool both on and off the screen. But in ‘Changing Lanes,’ we were asking him to play somebody very different: an anonymous guy, a clumsy, awkward, baffled, ordinary Joe whose world is being ripped up in front of his eyes.”
Jackson not only didn’t shrink from the challenge, he embraced it.
“Sam jumped on the material,” Michell recalls. “We did a costume fitting before rehearsals, and he found a scruffy old hat in a cardboard box in the back of the fitting room. That and a shabby old raincoat and pair of totally ungroovy black-rimmed specs, and the character was just suddenly there, staring back at him in the mirror.”
Michell says he’d love to work with Jackson again, as would LaBute.
“He has a sense of what his gifts are as an actor and his command of them,” LaBute says. “Why try to figure out that particular alchemy? He just has it, and let’s appreciate it.”