Samuel L. Jackson, Quentin Tarantino’s go-to hired gun, gets back in the saddle
Author Alex Pappademas Photography Brian Bowen Smith
In a penthouse suite high above Sunset Boulevard, Samuel L. Jackson sits puffing on a shiny e-cigarette—the kind that looks like a weird alien piccolo, the kind you pretty much have to be one of the coolest actors on the planet to pull off. He’s in a blue T-shirt, blue gym shorts. He’s got his sneakers up on the coffee table. He’s clean-shaven, including his head. His features are smooth. You wouldn’t take him for 67, but that’s how old he is. He was already 42—and less than two weeks out of rehab for alcohol and cocaine addiction—when Spike Lee cast him in 1991’s Jungle Fever as the crackhead Gator Purify, his first big break. He was 46 when he played Jules Winnfield, the hitman turned contemplative by an act of God in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction—a bigger break, from which many other opportunities have sprung.
Pop-cultural ubiquity, too. In a 2002 issue of Marvel’s The Ultimates, the comics creators Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch re-imagined Nick Fury—a James Bond-esque superspy who’d been white in comics since 1963—as a cool, bald black man whose features strongly resembled those of a certain fiery film actor. When asked who he’d want to play him in a movie, this Fury answers, “Why, Mister Samuel L. Jackson, of course.” He hadn’t been asked for permission, but when Jackson saw this, he signed off on the use of his likeness; a few years later, he signed on to play Fury in nine Marvel Studios movies. “I’m like, me as Nick Fury?” Jackson says. “I read Nick Fury comic books when I was a kid! I’m down with it.” He’s got two films left on that contract, and he told the movie news website Collider in June that he’s “looking to re-up.” Between the Marvelverse, three Star Wars prequels, and the 100-plus other films he’s appeared in, his movies have generated a Guinness record–setting $7.4 billion at the box office.
Jackson makes it clear whenever anybody brings this up that there’s a significant disparity between what the movies rake in and what he personally takes home. The critic David Thomson once called him “the best actor in American film who has to work his ass off to keep being noticed.” This may be less true than it used to be, but even now, this many blockbusters deep, he still works like a striving 40-something character actor. In 2008, he told an interviewer that he reads six to eight scripts a week. And sure, it might be better for his brand if he said “Yes” less often—but actors act, and he can only play so much golf. He’s got reboots of King Kong and The Blob and Tarzan on deck, plus Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, plus the Stephen King adaptation Cell, plus the next Tim Burton film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, in which he does not play a peculiar child (“I’m chasing the peculiar children”).
First up, though, there’s The Hateful 8, with Jackson, Channing Tatum, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Kurt Russell, among others, as strangers snowbound at a remote mountain roadhouse in post–Civil War Wyoming. It’s another racially-charged Tarantino Western, like 2012’s Django Unchained—except this one’s presented in glorious 70-milimeter, which is a big deal for Jackson, a lifelong movie fanatic who never imagined he’d live to see himself on a screen that large. And yet, epic proportions aside, most of the action takes place in one room. It’s a lot like a play, which is a comfort zone for Jackson, who started out as a theater actor, understudying Morgan Freeman in Mother Courage at the Public Theater and Charles S. Dutton in The Piano Lesson. On the Hateful 8 set in Telluride, Colorado, instincts from those days came in handy.
“Because it’s 70-millimeter, and the scope is so big, you can see the whole room the whole time, unless they come all the way in on somebody, so you’re always on camera,” Jackson says. “You have to find things to do. Drinking. Writing. Talking. Warming your hands. Or you’re eavesdropping, trying to figure out what’s going on.”
This is Jackson’s sixth Tarantino movie. People have referred to Uma Thurman—the star and co-conceiver of the Kill Bill saga—as the director’s muse, but there’s a case to be made that it’s actually Jackson. No one’s better at finding the music in the vernacular poetry of Tarantino’s dialogue—the opera, the Old Testament. They’re both guys with roots in Tennessee who grew up with their fathers out of the picture. They both dig blaxploitation movies and Asian cinema. Beyond that, Jackson’s not sure what their affinity is about.
“I have no idea,” he says. “We’ve never had that discussion. Why me? I’ve never thought to ask him—or anyone else. I just know it works, for both of us. I have an ability to say what he writes in a very real yet theatrical way, and he keeps writing it. I enjoy it, and I enjoy him.”
Among other things, Jackson’s bounty-hunter character, Major Marquis Warren, gets to deliver a monologue about forcible oral copulation, a speech destined to go down in history with the many other great, graphic Tarantino monologues—think Dennis Hopper’s True Romance lecture about the ethnic makeup of Sicilians or Christopher Walken’s wristwatch story in Pulp Fiction. When Tarantino directed a live reading of the Hateful 8 script at LA’s Theatre at Ace Hotel in 2014, this particular section had the whole room roaring with horrified laughter, until even Jackson broke character and cracked up midway through.
When it comes to Tarantino, Jackson says with a grin, “I’m past the point of shock.” After he read the script for Django—in which he played Stephen, a conniving house slave who’s fiercely loyal to Leonardo DiCaprio’s brutal cotton planter—he called Tarantino and said, “So you want me to be the most despicable Negro in cinematic history?” and Tarantino answered, Yeah.
“But he’s a legitimate character inside a story, and he deserves an honest portrayal, in terms of who he is, what his purposes are, what he’s about,” Jackson says. “Same thing with Major Warren—he’s got some issues, too. He’s an ex-slave who became a Union soldier so he could kill white people. Period. The whole blue and gray of it didn’t matter to him. It was about, OK, I have an opportunity to kill white people.”
For Jackson, Hateful 8 was an opportunity to live out a childhood dream by playing a real gunfighter—six-shooters on his hip, a black hat like the one Henry Fonda wore in Once Upon a Time in the West, the whole deal. When Jackson was growing up in the ’50s, in segregated Chattanooga, his house was within walking distance of the town’s two black movie theaters; on Saturdays, he pretty much lived in one or the other.
“They had serialized Westerns, with Lash LaRue and Buffalo Bill Cody and Gene Autry,” he says. “All that stuff. And back then, TV was loaded with Westerns, so when I was at home, it was Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rebel, Maverick, Sugarfoot. Christmas wasn’t Christmas in my house unless I got a new set of cap guns. I had the Rifleman rifle one year. I had the Wanted Dead or Alive set, with the little sawed-off Winchester.”
So with this dream realized, what’s left? Jackson thinks for a minute, then answers: “I would love to do a really awesome, gory slasher movie.” He says he recently asked horror director and Tarantino pal Eli Roth to write one for him, adding that he doesn’t care if he’s getting slashed or doing the slashing. “Doesn’t matter,” he says. “I just want to be in one. I like ’em.
I just wanna be drenched in blood or running in terror.”
This is the thing: Jackson likes serious movies, message movies, up to a point. But he never thinks about putting a particular image out into the world—the role-model stuff.
“If you want a role model, look at my life. I’ve been married to the same woman 35 years. I’m a college graduate. Never been to jail. I’m a good father. Good husband. Good friend. Good son.”
Sometimes he’ll make a film just because it’s something he’d have gone to see. “I mean, why else would I do Snakes on a Plane?” he says. “I was like, Hell yeah—I want to see this movie, and I want to see me in it.”
Same with his decision to play Jedi knight Mace Windu for George Lucas in The Phantom Menace and two subsequent Star Wars prequels. He likes the idea of little black kids seeing someone who looks like them as an intergalactic hero with a lightsaber. “But I didn’t do it because of that,” he says. “I did it because I wanted to be in Star Wars!”
Jackson’s publicist pokes her head in. Jackson needs to go try on clothes for Kong in a minute. There’s a question we’ve been saving.
So we heard you and Donald Trump are golf buddies…
“I would never say buddies,” Jackson says, flatly. “Or friends. I’ve golfed with him.”
OK. Having golfed with him, do you feel like you understand him? Do you have any idea what he really hopes to accomplish by running for President?
“None,” Jackson says. “But it’s funny—last week or so, I actually got a bill from Trump National Golf Club. And I haven’t been there in four or five years, so I had my assistant call. They said it was for membership dues. And I said, ‘I’m not a member,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, you are—you have a member number.’ Apparently he’d made me a member of one of his golf clubs, and I didn’t even know it!”
Your own golf buddy, Donald Trump, charged you without your knowledge?
“Yeah!” Jackson says, laughing. “I’m not payin’ that! But no—I don’t know what the Don’s up to. Interesting character. More P.T. Barnum than politician. I don’t think he believes half the things he says.”
Who’s the better golfer?
“Oh, I am, for sure,” Jackson says, then smiles. “I don’t cheat.”