Jackson career a tour de Force

A cool cat from stage to 'Star Wars'

Samuel L. Jackson is as cool as cool gets. He looks cool, he acts cool, he appears in cool movies.

His first stage appearances, though, were not so cool. As a boy he was drafted into church pageants by his aunt — and hated it.

“I was always crying when she dragged me out of the house,” remembers Jackson. “You should see some of the stuff she had me doing. I was the Sugarplum Fairy in the ‘Nutcracker Suite.’

“She was also a dance teacher so I had to dance. I remember some cowboy and Indian pageant where I was in a loin cloth with bells on my ankles, some big headdress on.”

By contrast, Jackson’s recent role in “Shaft” found him looking sleek and elegant in Armani. Director John Singleton tells Variety that Jackson had the perfect sense of style for stepping into the shoes made famous by Richard Roundtree.

“Sam brought what he’s brought to every role, which is a really cool vibe,” says Singleton. “Someone else would have played it for camp. Sam’s not too serious, but he’s not too jokey.

“This whole film was all based on getting a guy that had the right attitude.”

Attitude is the key to Jackson’s most memorable roles, the director continues. “If you look at all of Sam’s work, the roles that stand out the most are the ones where he has this cool, bad-ass attitude.

“He’s one of the few black actors that I think has a lot of soul, but he’s really accessible to everybody. He’s larger than life, but he’s very accessible.”

The 52-year-old Jackson has had quite a journey from church pageants to ultimate hipness.

A respected New York stage actor in the 1980s, his film breakthrough came in 1991, when he portrayed the crack-addicted Gator in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” (for which he won an acting prize at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival). But it was his turn as the philosophical hit man Jules in “Pulp Fiction” that scored him his first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actor, and legions of fans.

Now not a day goes by without a fan hailing him with a line from “Pulp Fiction.” “Especially in airports,” says Jackson. “If I’m going through an airport, I know somebody’s going to ask me, ‘You know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in France?'”

Since “Pulp,” he’s starred in a wide range of genres and styles, from big-budget action in “Deep Blue Sea” to dramas like “A Time to Kill.” He rejoined his “Die Hard With a Vengeance” co-star Bruce Willis for the upcoming chiller “Unbreakable,” from “The Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan.

“I’m always looking for characters that have a definite point of view,” Jackson says. “I do like characters that talk, but action appeals to me in another way: I like playing those action games, being out there running around, playing cops and robbers and doing that kind of stuff.”

Jackson also enjoys spending time on more intimate projects. He starred in and produced “Eve’s Bayou” for Kasi Lemmons and recently worked for her again in “Caveman’s Valentine,” due out later this year, in which he plays a homeless man investigating a murder.

His personal interests are as eclectic as his roles. During his early days in New York, Jackson and his actor pals haunted Hong Kong chopsocky triple features on 42nd Street. Today he is a Hong Kong movie expert and collector, and will soon star for veteran H.K. helmer Ronny Yu (“The Bride With White Hair”) in the thriller “The 51st State.”

He learned to dive while filming “Sphere” and has taken it up as a hobby. He also has a passion for golf, which he discovered when he moved to Los Angeles.

“I’m an only child so I like solitary kinds of things to do, and no matter how many people you’re playing with, you’re playing golf by yourself,” he says. “It’s you the ball and the golf course. It’s not a team sport. You can’t blame anybody else for your mistakes, and you take all the credit for the good things that happen.”

He is currently in Australia filming “Star Wars: Episode II,” expanding his cameo role in “The Phantom Menace.” For a longtime sci-fi fan like Jackson, though, just getting the chance to say “May the Force be with you” was a treat.

“It’s very cool,” he says.