Samuel L. Jackson
original airdate February 24, 2006
With a worldwide box office over $3.8 billion, Samuel L. Jackson is the highest-grossing actor in movie history. His credits include Jungle Fever, Pulp Fiction, which earned him an Oscar nod, and Freedomland. Jackson studied architecture at Atlanta's Morehouse College. In an effort to help his stutter, he auditioned for a musical and ended up changing his major. After graduation, he moved to NY to pursue his craft. He has extensive stage experience, including originating roles in two August Wilson plays.
Samuel L. Jackson
Tavis: I'm pleased to welcome Samuel L. Jackson to this program. The Oscar-nominated actor has been a force in Hollywood for more than fifteen years now, beginning with his breakout role in Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever.' Three years after that, he would garner an Academy Award nomination for his brilliant performance in "Pulp Fiction.'
All told, his films have grossed - get this - more money than any other in Hollywood history. I ain't mad at you, Sam Jackson. His latest project is called "Freedomland" and also stars Julianne Moore. The film is in theaters nationwide. Here now a scene from "Freedomland.'
[A film clip is shown]
Tavis: I've always wanted to yell like you, man. You got that thing down. "What is your son wearing?"
Samuel L. Jackson: You got to learn to be forceful. I had a lot of that in my household.
Tavis: (Laughter) Down in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Jackson: That's right.
Tavis: We're going to talk about that in just a second. Good to see you, Sam.
Jackson: Thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.
Jackson: Pleasure to be here finally.
Tavis: Finally. Glad to have you here. I'm going to tell you honestly, when I saw that you were doing this project and saw we had the opportunity to have a conversation with you, I wanted to see it because I love and respect your work, but I didn't want to see it. I was, say, po'd because when I saw what it was about, two words popped in my head. Susan Smith. I was so angry at that white woman when that story broke years ago. I don't want to go see no white woman blaming no brother for something he didn't do. It conjured up all these thoughts of like art imitating life here.
Jackson: Yeah. Well, I'm sure that was the inspiration for Richard when he wrote it. I guess, apparently, by me reading the reviews because I do that - I do that, you know. A lot of actors say they don't.
Tavis: You read reviews?
Jackson: I read reviews. I read everything. I want to know who the people are that, you know, like what I'm doing and who the people are that don't like what I'm doing and possibly why they don't like it. But there's been a very mixed reaction to this film. Audience members who are Black have a totally different way of watching this film than, you know, white audiences, so the response is totally different.
I've gotten different responses from guys that I play golf with that are white that say, "You know, you were great. I don't know about the movie." Because a lot of people want to believe that that's not still happening, that those kind of things are part of Hollywood fantasy or fiction. We know that, on a daily basis, people are getting blamed for things or, because you're from a specific kind of place, people have a specific perception of you and who you are because of where you come from. The film speaks to that in a very real kind of way.
Tavis: You're off and running already. You said two things that have already got me thinking, so I'm going to pick them apart as fast as you put them out there.
Jackson: All right.
Tavis: Two things I want to come back to right quick. First of all, when you say you want to know what people are saying about you, what they think of your work, what's the value in that? Why do you want to know? Why do you care? What's the value?
Jackson: Oh, because of the information. I think of what I do and how I evaluate my performances from film to film and I'm interested to see if people think that I'm growing or if I'm digressing or if they say, once again, Samuel L. Jackson does the thing that we're so used to seeing him do. Now a lot of characters are similar in a lot of ways and emotional involvement takes you to a specific kind of place. So when I raise my voice -
Tavis: - the scream, the scream.
Jackson: You know, people go back to all those roles where I've raised my voice, but this guy's raising his voice for a different reason and he's in another emotional place. Anger kind of shows itself in a specific way. I mean, there aren't a lot of different ways to be angry (laughter) and, if a character's angry, he's angry. If that's how Jules was angry, the father in "A Time to Kill" was angry or Dell was angry or any character that I play was angry, then the anger that you see is that particular character and it's not just me. It's not something that I look for when I look at a character and go "I have to get a character that gets angry because there's this thing that I do that I love doing." That's not the case.
Tavis: Okay, so how do you process this emotionally? I've had to learn over the years - I like to read what people say about me as well, but I honestly admit that I've had to learn over the years how to do that because, I mean, I will fire you off an email with a quickness if you say something I got a real issue with, if I think you're wrong. Do you do that too?
Tavis: You don't get emotionally upset about it anymore?
Jackson: No. I will pull a critic up when I meet him and say, "You wrote so and so, so and so about the last film that I was in. Why did you feel that way? What about the film bothered you or what about my particular character disturbed you to the point that you had to say something like that?" They'll go, "Well, I was just, you know, giving my honest opinion about it." We have to remember that, when critics write things, that is one person's opinion and that's just how it works.
Tavis: Read by millions sometimes. Impact your bottom line.
Jackson: Well, I don't know if it's read by millions. You know, movie reviews are written for a specific kind of person. People who are interested in film criticism, people who read the section of the paper that has reviews in it because they are trying to make an informed decision about whether they want to see a film or not. They're read by people at studios, people in the business; they're read by other actors so they can see what folks are saying about actors who are in the film.
But generally, people that go to the movies, the majority of those hundreds of millions of dollars that are paid by people that go to the movies, are people between the ages of fifteen and thirty. They don't read movie reviews. They watch trailers because they're in the movie theaters every weekend and, if it's a trailer that interests them, they're going to go and see it. A film like this, we sort of need positive reviews because it's an adult film and it's an adult theme.
When adults read the paper, they read the paper. And if they read a negative review, they'll say, "Well, I'll just wait for it to come out on DVD or wait until it comes on cable,' as opposed to someone going to the film and coming back and saying, "You need to see the film. I don't know what that guy was watching when he wrote that, but you need to go and see the film." I've actually heard that also.
Tavis: Let me go back to "Freedomland" and ask two questions. One, you referenced earlier the kind of projects that you choose. I've never gotten the sense of this, Samuel, and maybe I'm wrong about this and you can disabuse me of this notion if I am. But I've never gotten the sense that you choose films because you want to make a statement. I say that because you choose such a variety of roles. I don't get the sense that you choose this stuff because you want to make a statement, although in this particular film which I want you to talk about, "Freedomland,' does say something.
Jackson: Um-hum. Well, I don't specifically set out to do films that are socially relevant. Scripts come across my desk and I read them. I read stories. I'm looking for a great story that has a great character on the inside of it. If it has some social relevance, fine. If not, you know, I don't care about that either.
I go to the movies because I want to be entertained. When I was a kid or young adult, I was going to the movies because I wanted to be taken away from my normal everyday existence for an hour and a half or two hours. I assume that people still do that because they want to experience something that's away from their normal existence. I read scripts and I look for those things.
I also try and recreate the excitement that I had when I was a kid sitting in a big dark room with all these other people and I watched westerns and monster movies and adventure stories. I've tried consciously to find stories that were akin to those stories that made me so happy when I came out of the movie theater. I didn't have to think about it and say, "Oh, that was deep." I was like, "Boy, that was great!" You know, I was excited and I was sad and I was happy and I was scared and I was all those things. So I look for stories that give me that same emotional roller coaster that I had when I was a kid sitting in the movies.
I've tried to recreate, you know, the war stories that I used to watch by doing things like "Rules of Engagement.' I still haven't found that western that gives me the opportunity to stand in the middle of the street and see if I'm faster than the guy who's on the other end (laughter) or ride a horse real fast or shoot somebody off a horse and do all the stuff that I enjoyed doing. I replaced the pirate movies and the Errol Flynn movies with "Star Wars" because I had a light saber, so I got to do all that stuff.
Tavis: I want to stop here. So you're actually telling me - I think I hear you suggesting to me that you're in part picking roles because of a dream or a life or a body of work - you're creating a body of work based upon what interested you as a kid.
Tavis: So you're filling in the breaks here.
Jackson: And trying to do a well-rounded and complete kind of body of work that goes from comedy to adventure to well thought out drama. I don't think every movie has to be something that, you know, makes you go out and have dinner with somebody and talk about the issues that you just saw. You know, sometimes you got to go out and go, "Wow, that was great, wasn't it?" I mean, why else would I do a movie called "Snakes on a Plane"? As soon as I saw that title on that script, I wanted to do it. Without even reading a word in it, I said if this not a metaphor for something else, and it is what I think it is, I don't even need to read this script. I'll do it. I want to be on a plane full of poisonous snakes and see what happens, you know?
Tavis: (Laughter) Sam, I can tell you what's going to happen. The point is -
Jackson: - Yeah, but I'm not going to be one of them (laughter).
Tavis: Yeah, I hear you.
Jackson: So I want to be number one on the cast list, unless it's a "Deep Blue Sea" situation. I did that because I got killed by something that was big and had sharp teeth because I've been waiting to run away from something like that since I was a kid. I watched Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, you know, the Thing, the It from Outer Space, all this other stuff, and the opportunity for me to run from something that's bigger than I am, faster than I am, that has big teeth and might kill me was the kind of movie that I wanted to do. So I did "Deep Blue Sea" and I got killed and it was very cool (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) I'm glad we're finally talking about this because now I'm starting to see how you have created and are in fact creating this body of work based upon your childhood, which leads me to this point. You must have saw a whole lot of films as a kid because you're cranking them out like three or four a year.
Jackson: I did. I saw a lot of movies. I was at the movies every weekend. I used to go to movies all day long. I would go to the nine o'clock show which was for kids. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, we had two Black theaters. We had the Liberty and the Grand. We were segregated, but we had two Black theaters, and they kitty-cornered from each other. At the Liberty, they had this kiddy thing on Saturday mornings where, if you had a nickel back of Lay's potato chips, an empty Lay's potato chip bag -
Tavis: - I'm glad you said Lay's potato chips.
Jackson: Yeah. You could get in the theater. During the cartoons - they had like two hours of cartoons and then they had some kind of serial movie that was like Lash LaRue and some Gene Autry stuff and then they would have a double feature monster movie or adventure movie. But between all those things, they had auctions for cameras and portable radios and stuff and you bid with potato chip bags. So we were constantly eating Lay's potato chips or begging our parents to buy Lay's potato chips so you could have the dime bag or the quarter bag or the nickel bag. The more you had, the more you could bid to get these things.
Tavis: A lot going on in Chattanooga.
Jackson: Right. So we were there all day long until like four o'clock watching movies. Then my mom - they would screen the adult features or more serious films after four o'clock and my mom would meet me at the theater and I would stay there with her and watch another double feature. So I would be in the movies all day on Saturday, so that's how I got it.
Everybody talks about me being a workaholic. You know, it has nothing to do with workaholism. It has to do with the fact that, when I was a kid, everybody in my house got up every morning and went to work and I assumed that's what adults did. So when I grew up, I went to work because that's how you get paid and that's how you eat and that's how you take care of yourself and your family. So I have a work ethic that I'm used to seeing and nobody stayed home all day. You know, everybody went to work.
When I got to New York and started doing theater, even before then in Morehouse College, I worked at a theater across town and we had our own street theatre night and we had to do the Morehouse Players, so we had like three jobs already. I was used to doing the play, rehearsing the play and auditioning for plays all week long, so it's part of what I do.
Actors act. I didn't wait tables. I didn't do all that other stuff. I acted. All the things that I learned to do at Morehouse like build sets, do costumes, hang lights, do all those other things, I did to support myself when I wasn't acting. When I had an audition, the people in the theater would go, "Good luck,' not "Hey, who's going to wait my table?"
Tavis: Do you juxtapose - do you ever think about what it was like to have grown up in segregated Chattanooga at that time and how fortunate and how blessed you have been now to be on top of the world? Do you ever think about that or are you too busy working to think about that?
Jackson: No, I'm very in touch with it and very aware of the distance that I've come through many different kinds of social upheavals in terms of where I started and where I am now. I've actually gone from a point in my life where I didn't know any white people to -
Tavis: - now you're playing golf with them.
Jackson: - dealing with white people almost all the time. That's a drastic thing right there because my whole life was Black people in this Black community. I encountered white people when I went downtown in Chattanooga, but I was taught to deal with them in a specific kind of way. Then when I went to school, all my teachers, fellow students and everybody else was Black. When I got to college is when I had my first white teacher at Morehouse College. I only had maybe three or four of them, but I was still in a pretty Black environment in the AU Center. Then I kind of branched out and I engaged in different ways.
But because of that, I'm sure you understand that we were taught to deal in a lot of different ways. So the way that I was raised gave me one way of dealing with the people that I was around all the time and the way that I was taught to engage gave me conjugation, manners, pride in who I was, another way of acting in a way because you learn to act in a specific kind of way because that's not who you really are. You learn to speak and engage people by looking them in the eye and conjugating when you want to say "ain't" and you'll say "I'm not.' You learn to live in two different worlds and to navigate those worlds in a very specific kind of way. Those lessons have been very valuable to me over the years.
Tavis: You know, listening to you talk about this, Samuel, while you - I understand that duality that you're speaking of now. I get that. But I think even with that duality, most people - I can't speak for America - I think most people regard you as a guy who they'd love to hang out with because, if nothing else, Samuel L. Jackson is real. I think most get the sense that what you see is what you get. Is that true?
Jackson: Pretty much, yeah, yeah. Pretty much, that's it.
Tavis: You mentioned Morehouse earlier and I want to go back to that because I knew this story of your - trying to find the right word here - of your involvement in a particular protest at Morehouse. I knew of the story. I'd heard the story before. I did not know that you all had taken hostages during this protest and I did not know that one of the hostages you took was Dr. King's daddy. Is it a true story?
Tavis: All right. Tell me what happened. You can't take Dr. King's daddy hostage, Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson: Well, we did.
Tavis: (Laughter) What happened?
Jackson: I was a student at Morehouse College. We had no Black Studies department. We had no Black studies, period. There was no real African-American representation on the Board of Trustees. There was no student representation. There was no community representation. We lived in the middle of some projects and the students of Morehouse were constantly getting beat up by kids in the projects and robbed and whatever. But we wanted to talk to them about that and see if we could fix it and they were having a meeting and we petitioned and they said, "No, we don't have time."
At the time, they had these chains on the walkway to keep us off the grass. So we took one of the chains off the walkway, somebody went to the hardware store and bought a padlock and we went inside the building and padlocked the door and said, "Okay, you're going to talk to us now." It just so happened that Dr. King's father was there. He was a de facto member. He didn't really have a vote. You know, nobody Black in there really had a vote. The president of the school, a lot of other people. Charles Merrill was in there. He was like the head of the Board of Trustees, and a couple of federal judges. You know, stuff we didn't really know.
So we locked them in there and when we got in the room, all of a sudden Dr. King's dad started having some chest pains, so I find a ladder and get him out of there because nobody wants to be charged with murder. So we put him on a ladder and sent him down and we kept the rest of them for like a day and a half (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) I'm speechless. I really am.
Jackson: Diana Ross's brother was in there with us, T-Boy, and she actually sent to Pasqual's and bought like fried chicken and potato salad and stuff and they bussed food into us. Somebody was about to call in the National Guard because of the federal judges and the federal judges were like, no, they're just kids. They just want to talk.
Tavis: So I feel like Chuck Woolery now. How'd the date end?
Jackson: It ended well. You know, they agreed to, you know, do something about the things. They got some African-American studies and student representation and more Black people on the Board and they got people from the community to come in and get involved in dealing with how Morehouse related to the community, whatever, and they granted us amnesty. Students voted to grant us amnesty and, as soon as school was out, the judicial board of the school, which had no students on it, all the old heads in Morehouse sent all of us registered letters and told us to come back so they could kick us out and that's what they did (laughter).
It was one of those kind of things where, you know, the first year you go to Morehouse, you had this big freshman lecture where - Dr. Mays was still president when I got there. He said, "Look to your left, look to your right. That person will not be here next year." Sure enough, I made it through three years before I was not that person that was there next year.
Tavis: Did you realize - I'm glad you went there. I mean, I quote him all the time. As a student, did you understand and appreciate the towering figure that Benjamin Mays was at that time?
Jackson: Well, yeah. We knew, but, you know, he was affectionately known to us as Buck Benny (laughter). You know, he'd come in the cafeteria and everything would stop and he'd, you know, address us all and talk to us. I actually, you know, spent some time around him because I lived right next door to the president's house in Gray's Hall, so I would see him and Sadie a lot, he and his wife. You know, he engaged you in conversation when he ran into you. So, yeah, he was a very powerful and interesting man.
Tavis: I always wanted to meet him and never did.
Jackson: Being at Morehouse at that time was a very interesting kind of place to be because I got to Morehouse in September of 1966. Dr. King used to come over there and speak and Carmichael would come over there and speak and they would actually have debates, you know. We'd be sitting there like, you know, King and Carmichael. Rap Brown would come in and speak, so all kinds of figures were moving in and out of that community. Julian Bond was, you know, still a big part of it. Lerone Bennett would come down and talk to us. So we met and engaged a lot of very famous Black people.
I mean, I actually was an usher at Dr. King's funeral because it was right in the middle of the Morehouse campus. We went to Sisters Chapel at Spelman to see the body that was lying in state and Bill Cosby and Robert Culp got a plane and a bunch of us - I met LaTanya on that plane. First time I actually saw her. We were on a plane from Atlanta to Memphis to go and march in the march the day after Dr. King got killed. We flew up there in March and they flew us back.
Tavis: Samuel L. Jackson, deep. I mean, that's history that you were part of.
Jackson: Yeah, it's interesting, yeah. There's actually a photo of me in an Ebony pictorial history of Black America where I'm sitting on the steps of the administration building while they're locked up upstairs with a big cane and a fatigue jacket and a big Afro giving a speech, yelling at the students. I actually couldn't deny that I was there (laughter).
Tavis: And from those steps, you sold more movie tickets than anybody else in all of Hollywood. I'm glad to have you here. "Freedomland" starring Samuel L. Jackson. Go check it out. Samuel, nice to have you here.
Jackson: Thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you. That's our show for tonight. You can catch me on the weekends on PRI, Public Radio International. Check your local listings. I'll see you back here next time, though, on PBS. Until then, good night from Los Angeles. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.