Say It Ain't So: Samuel L. Jackson Has Soul-ed Out
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
November 7, 2008
LOS ANGELES, California
If James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then Samuel L. Jackson is the most omnipresent.
That doesn't mean he doesn't work hard.
On the contrary -- Samuel L. Jackson is regarded by his peers as a serious artisan, methodical and deliberate in his craft and skill as an actor. He works and works and works and works. You'd have to go back 22 years to 1986 for the last calendar year during which Mr. Jackson didn't appear in any film released in the United States.
Don't get this writer wrong. Mr. Jackson takes five. He makes time to get in his 18 holes of golf, a sport he loves. And luckily for a group of journalists assembled here recently at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, he also spared his valuable time for a roundtable interview about "Soul Men", the new film from Malcolm Lee which opened today in the U.S. and Canada. The 59-year-old actor enters the suite and acknowledges his inquisitors, thankful that they've enjoyed the film.
"Soul Men", which is rated R and released by The Weinstein Company, is about a couple of back up soul singers who decide to reunite and tour the country after 30 years away from the stage.
"Now all you got to do is tell the -- try to tell the Weinsteins, 'how do you sell this movie to a white audience?'"
The predominantly white journalists in the suite laugh heartily.
"I think they'll laugh at it too," Mr. Jackson adds, an wry humorous observation almost on cue with the laughter.
It's clear that Mr. Jackson is in a playful mood. On more than one occasion he tricks a certain journalist, getting him to stumble over his words. The Academy Award nominee has been called a man of style, but on this day he is attired more modestly. Under his open windbreaker jacket is an Obama t-shirt, with a caricature of the since-president-elect ripping open his shirt Clark Kent-style to expose a large red "O".
"Who's talking about politics?", said Mr. Jackson, putting on a serious face, wincing mildly, causing his questioner to fumble and stutter a little.
It would be easy to take the Sultan of Supercool seriously and make the major mistake of feeling intimidated by him, but you realize if you've been around him long enough, that Mr. Jackson is playing a game of 'gotcha'. Only towards the end of the interview does he begin to reveal that he's been stringing some of his greener interviewers along.
Between that moment and right now though, the talk is about "Soul Men".
"We were in the same studio (at Capitol Records in Hollywood) as Frank Sinatra . . . and Dean Martin. They're probably rolling over in their graves right now," said Mr. Jackson.
It wasn't a big deal for the golf lover to sing, dance and do choreography for "Soul Men", since Mr. Jackson had done so many times dating back to his college days, in musicals and on stage in New York City. The D.C.-born thespian spoke of his appetite for organization and structure on a typical movie set. "I have a standard that I hope everybody else meets. I'm prepared. I know what I want to do when I come to work and I know how I want to do it. I know my lines. I want everyone else to know theirs. I want the director to have a shot list and know what he wants to shoot. And shoot it efficiently and quickly as he possibly can. And I'm just a -- a taskmaster. I unreasonably expect everyone to be as prepared as I am."
One thing "Soul Men" didn't have was the preparation for the untimely departure of two of its stars, who died within a day of each other. The iconic soul man extraordinaire musician-songwriter-producer Isaac Hayes, whose "Theme From Shaft" in the early 1970's earned Mr. Hayes an Academy Award, and which played over John Singleton's 2000 reprise (starring Mr. Jackson in the title role) of the Gordon Parks film; and Bernie Mac who departed the earth this summer just prior to Mr. Hayes.
Bernie Mac never got to see the finished film.
One could sense that Mr. Mac's passing was understandably a delicate subject for Mr. Jackson, who during this sit down spoke about the comedic maestro as if he were still on the planet -- or waiting in an adjacent room in the suite. Mr. Jackson talked about acting readiness with one of the Original Kings of Comedy during "Soul Men". "Bernie and I know each other very well. He knows want I want and how I wanted to do it, and we talked. And Bernie does have a tendency to go off the page," emphasized Mr. Jackson, whose comment drew more than a few laughs.
"I had no problem with that . . . before shooting I said, 'okay Bernie, we got to get from here to here but I have to get this line in because this line leads us to this place, so if you'll just give me a nod or a wink or something, let me know when I can say this line.' And we'd keep on going . . . and Malcolm had a habit of not saying 'cut' when we were done and I'd shut up and let Bernie do what Bernie wanted to do -- his comedy routine and then (Mr. Lee) would finally say 'cut'."
Bernie Mac and Samuel L. Jackson share a moment on the set during the filming of Malcolm Lee's "Soul Men". (Photo: The Weinstein Company; Larger photo of Mr. Jackson courtesy of SamuelLJackson.com)
Friends for a long time with Mr. Mac, Mr. Jackson said that he knew Bernie "before anybody knew who Bernie Mac was." Mr. Jackson spoke of a golf tournament he'd held regularly in Bermuda, when he and Mr. Mac would play together. Mr. Mac was the host of Mr. Jackson's comedy night there. The two played golf for three years and a decade ago when Mr. Jackson was in Chicago filming "The Negotiator" Mr. Jackson spent time at Mr. Mac's house. Mr. Mac he recalled, was a stay-at-home family man at heart, a lover of his native Chicago, and far from a Hollywood figure despite his fame. "The great thing about Bernie and my conversations," Mr. Jackson recalled, "generally were we didn't talk about the fact that we had reached this kind of success that you would talk about when you weren't so successful. We talked more about where we came from and the people that were still around us that kind of kept us grounded. And how he was going back home to hang out on his boat and do this that and the other."
Mr. Jackson and Mr. Mac had been meaning to work together in a film for the longest time but Mr. Jackson stated by implication that story ideas pitched to them and screenplays written for the two of them together had been of poor quality. "'You're gonna be rivals . . . at a barbeque contest!' No ... I ... don't ... think ... so,'" Mr. Jackson would say to such ideas.
It was Mr. Mac's manager Steven Greener however, who threw out the idea of "Soul Men" as a vehicle for both Mr. Jackson and Mr. Mac to star in. "We sat down with the writers and kind of threw out all these ideas that we wanted to explore," says Mr. Jackson, who plays Louis Hinds in the film. Mr. Mac plays Floyd Henderson. "He's responsible for the dramatic arc in this film in a very interesting way and I'm not. That this was a fitting tribute to all the talents that Bernie had to the joy and love and presence that people feel for him." Mr. Mac was just 53 years old when he passed away during the summer, as the film was in post-production. Looping and dubbing for some of Mr. Mac's lines was done by another actor, and no additional coverage was needed as all of Mr. Mac's scenes for the film were shot.
Musician-songwriter John Legend plays Marcus, the lead singer of the soul sonic trio.
If you look at the resume of characters Mr. Jackson has played you will realize they are more diverse than you might think. Many moviegoers are acquainted with the cool or the righteously indignant glare or the mischievous, scheming type. He has played vulnerable as a teacher either flirting or dabbling in romance in films like "Country Of My Skull" and "187" -- or as a homeless musician in "The Caveman's Valentine". He has played take charge types in films like "Black Snake Moan" and cerebral types in such films as "Jurassic Park", "Sphere" and two of George Lucas's "Star Wars" prequels. He's played his fair share of police figures, including in films like "S.W.A.T." and the previously-mentioned "Negotiator", while playing mentors in films like "Fresh".
So after playing an abundance of characters on the big screen over the decades, is there a type of character that Mr. Jackson gets a particular enjoyment or satisfaction?
"Well generally -- I generally feel better when I play white characters instead of black ones."
Raucous laughter from the press ensues.
"But that's another story," Mr. Jackson says, smiling before getting serious about answering the question posed to him. "No, every character is important. Even if he works a day or he works an hour. You commit yourself to the story. I make commitments to what the story is. That's how I choose. You know. I choose a story that I like, I find a character on the inside and then I try to find what the acting challenges are and work my way through those. But if you're not servicing the story you're doing a disservice to an audience. And I always look at myself as an audience member. And I don't do films that I wouldn't pay my $12.50 to go and watch me in. I'm not like those actors who say, 'I can't stand to watch me suffering.' I love watching me on (the big screen)."
After acting for more than 30 years is there any desire for Mr. Jackson to direct a feature film?
Did Mr. Jackson hear about the rumor on the Internet a few years ago that he was in the running to play American heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis?
"Really? Really? Really? Joe Louis?"
When the questioner responded in the affirmative, Mr. Jackson said: "There's no way I could play Joe Louis. That's the Brown Bomber. You're talking about Joe Louis."
In his own right Samuel L. Jackson is a heavyweight among Hollywood actors and proves it again in "Soul Men".
Note: Mr. Jackson still has "The Spirit", Frank Miller's graphic novel hero-thriller to come next month, at Christmas to be precise. Prior to that in 2008 there was "Jumper" and "Lakeview Terrace", both of which debuted at number one at the box office in North America. Next year Mr. Jackson will have at least four more films in release on the big screen, including "Unthinkable", in which he will play a bad guy who threatens to destroy parts of the United States with explosives.
Note two: Earlier this week and in the prior month, Mr. Jackson's voice could be heard by television viewers in California narrating the "No On Proposition 8" television ads. "Vote No on Prop 8. It's unfair and it's wrong," Mr. Jackson says to close out the ad. The proposition, which removes from the California constitution the right of same-sex couples to marry, is as of this writing very close to passing. Already in San Francisco and Los Angeles, lawsuits against the proposition are being filed.
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