Hollywood's premier moneymaker doesn't always want to play the lead
BY JOHN ANDERSON
John Anderson is a freelance writer.
March 10, 2005
Samuel L. Jackson is the biggest movie star in the world.
"That's true," he says, eyebrows arching slightly - in that wry, the-other-shoe's-about-to-drop sort of way he has with a line of dialogue, even if it's spontaneous.
The fact is, says Jackson, that the films of Samuel L. Jackson have made more money than anyone else's in the world. On the strength of "The Incredibles" (in which Jackson voices the cooler-than-cool Frozone), he says, he passed Harrison Ford and has kept right on going.
Right now, says, Jackson, he's the $6-billion man.
"Well, it's one of those kind of things I didn't know people kept up with, but apparently somebody does," said Jackson, whose caramel suit, vanilla ribbed top and shaved-head, bronze self sitting down for an interview made for a long, tall masterpiece of earth tones.
Don't look back, Harrison
"So when I was doing the new 'Star Wars,' George Lucas told me, 'You know, you're $150 million away from passing Harrison Ford on the all-time grossing list.' 'Really?' 'Yeah. Could be when we finish 'Star Wars' you'll be number one' - not knowing that 'The Incredibles' was about to come out. I guess George was thinking he'd be the one, but 'The Incredibles' kind of put me over the top.
"So now with two more great big movies ready to come out - 'XXX' and 'Star Wars' [sequels] - I might be uncatchable."
Again, Jackson delivers his line with both bravado and mischief and a tone that dares you to pick one. He's never been what you'd call user-friendly, not on screen or off. In fact, if there's one angle that seems clear about Jackson, it's that he's less about angles than edges. He can do comedy - he can be very funny - but the dude is serious.
Picking his roles
And it comes through in his choice of roles. The latest to be hitting the screen is that of Langston Whitfield, the Washington Post reporter who marches boldly - and, as Jackson puts it, cluelessly - into South Africa in John Boorman's "In My Country." The film, which opens tomorrow, is set in the immediate post-apartheid '80s, at the beginning of the vaunted Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings designed to heal the reborn nation's racial wounds. It co-stars Juliette Binoche as poet and radio commentator Anna Malan (based on South African writer Antjie Krog, on whose work the film is based) and is part historical drama, part love story - emphasis, perhaps, on the latter.
"I've sat and watched Juliette and fallen in love with her in about five different movies," Jackson said of his co-star, "but you never know when you walk into a situation how it's going to work. But we made an immediate connection as artists, which was great, and then we connected as people, and then we became really great friends. So it became easy for us to go into these scenes and these situations and see that these are two people who did connect, who have a need to be connected."
Jackson said he was drawn to the film strictly by the subject matter ("I very seldom look at romantic kind of leads and find an interesting guy"). He's a member of the Los Angeles-based Artists for a New South Africa, which raises money for AIDS research, artists, education and orphanages. Jackson, who lives in Los Angeles, also has friends who lived under both the apartheid and post-apartheid regimes. But he admits having had a bit of a struggle with ubuntu - or, as the film explains, the African philosophy of not taking an eye for an eye.
"I came at it with a Western mindset," Jackson said. "I said, 'Yeah, these people did this stuff, and theoretically it was a war, in their minds.' But how do you justify going into people's houses, taking them out and killing them? Or keeping hand in a jar? Or doing some of the things they did and then saying you did it because someone higher up ordered you to do it? ... A lot of people got away with things they shouldn't have gotten away with."
In movies since 1972
His role in "In My Country" comes on top of more than 80 others in a film career that stretches back to 1972. His earliest screen credits feature such roles as "bum," "gang member No. 2," "taxi dispatcher" and, as late as 1994, "mailman." But in that same year, he also appeared as the suavely menacing Jules Whitfield in "Pulp Fiction" - for which he earned a best supporting actor Academy Award nomination - and he was on his way to the $6-billion mark.
Jackson's most recent starring role was in the critically praised - and top-grossing - "Coach Carter." His next movie, "Freedomland" (based on the Richard Price novel), is in production. Still, he goes back from time to time and makes the smaller movie - "The Caveman's Valentine" (2001), for instance, which he also produced, or "In My Country."
"There are certain actors people pay to see be what they are and do this thing that they do," Jackson said. "And when they don't see that, they're kind of disappointed. With me, they don't particularly care what I look like. They just know that I'm going to do a complete performance and give them a character that's interesting and inform them of what's going on in the story, and that's what's important. It's all about the story. I'm there to service a particular story. And that's what I want to do."
At 56, the actor said he often reads scripts he likes but in which he doesn't want to play the lead - and so he'll take a smaller role. "I don't mind doing a day on a movie," he said. "I don't mind doing two weeks on a movie. Sometimes I just don't want to do the whole movie. ... I'm smart enough now to say to myself, 'Look I'm too old to do this, and I don't feel like running, jumping or getting in shape to do that. But if it will help you by saying I'm committed to doing the movie so you can get your money, I'll do that guy."
Jackson takes a stretch on the couch. "I'm not trying to stay young forever," he said. "And I'm not trying to be the guy who has to fight 20-year-old kids. I don't want to do that. C'mon. Too much work."
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