Would You Fistfight Samuel L. Jackson?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “acting” is a mysterious art.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The cool thing about those who hit it late in life — after the age of reason, or let’s say, 25 — is that they’ve usually lived enough life like normal folk to still be normal folk. In an earlier life as editor-in-chief of a men’s fashion mag in Los Angeles, I found this to be the case when interviewing celebrities. Billy Bob Thornton talks to strangers in the street about their dentist brothers. Ed Bradley, the late 60 Minutes colossus, would hold forth on his love of, of all things, sweaters.
There are exceptions, of course. Laurence Fishburne being the most notable when you consider that he hit it big at age 14 with Apocalypse Now, and he was a great interview. But exceptions the other way?
Let us introduce into evidence my briefest of times with Samuel L. Jackson. He who broke big with Pulp Fiction — if you can honestly say you remember his turn in Goodfellas as a soon-to-be corpse, we’ll give you a cookie — was damned near 46 years old when the Tarantino-helmed monster went on to gross $213 million worldwide and make a new star out of Jackson and a revived one of John Travolta.
What that number means in real and practical terms? Dollars- and cents-wise? According to Box Office Mojo, it means Jackson was, at least by 2011, ranked the highest all-time box-office star with more than $4.9053 billion total gross. That’s an average of $69.1 million per film, if you’re counting.
So it was with great joy that my boss had come into my office and asked if I had a writer in mind for the Jackson cover story for our debut issue.
I sure did, and after canvassing the world of writers far and wide? The best person for the job ended up being me.
I know, I know, but hear me out. Jackson, a perennial favorite of mine insofar as cinematic badasses went, was not only a killer on the screen but also had shown himself to be unforgiving off the screen with well-publicized feuds with Spike Lee (who had hired Jackson before he hit), rappers whose careers he didn’t want to legitimize and, most recently, with Twitter, Donald Trump and Black actors from Britain. Yeah. All of them.
In literary terms, some might have called those feuds examples of “foreshadowing,” but not me. I thought it’d be a case of game recognizing game. When I reached the set where Jackson had been shooting for the better part of the day for our cover, I was jacked. I was Jacksoned! I knew he had no siblings, that he had stuttered as a kid; I knew that he had traced his roots back to Gabon. And, according to my creative director, the spread of thousand-dollar trenchcoats, crushed-velvet apparel and Hugo Boss suits had come off without a hitch.
Now, usually I preferred to have the interview be the only thing on the calendar, but with A-list, you take what you can get. “You want to meet him?” A break had opened up in the photo session. In another hour we’d meet, but this was a chance to get some color. “Sure!”
“Mr. Jackson? This is Eugene Robinson, our editor-in-chief.” With a flourish, the creative director waved at me, and showtime, it was.
“Hey! How the hell are YOU?”
“Fine!” We shook hands, and for those students of handshakes, his was as he was: badass. Not a desperate-need-for-validation grip of death. Not a dishrag. We stood and appraised each other. About the same height. Same haircut.
“Really excited to talk with you later.” I bounced from foot to foot, like a boxer. “But I’ll let you get finished with all of the pretty stuff first.”
Annnnnnd cue clown music.
“Pretty stuff?” Each syllable enunciated. Slowly, icily. Suddenly we were in a Samuel L. Jackson movie.
“Yeah. I mean the fancy clothes and —,” Jackson snorted — literally — spun on his heels and started walking back toward where all of the lights and crew were, leaving me to catch up and then walk beside him in total radio silence.
Post-photo shoot, he sat, stone-faced, across from me in a trailer on the set. My first question received a single-word answer. My fault. Second question, starting with “How would you characterize …,” got blanked with a “I’d have to think about that.”
And then, him staring at me, and me staring at him. He was irked. I was bona fide angry. Which is precisely what the nuclear option is for. For those not in the know, the nuclear option, or the NO, is for when you’ve got nothing to lose. Typically this is something you might save for the interview’s end, since in all likelihood it will end the interview. But desperate times? Yeah, desperate measures.
“My friend Andre Braugher” — the Homicide and Brooklyn Nine-Nine star and I had gone to the same college and had acted together — “once said he’d never do another role that required him to use the stereotypical Black accent. How do you answer critics who might dismiss you as a ‘professional Negro’?”
Damned straight: desperate. But, effectively effective. Jackson’s eyes widened; he sat up, he leaned in. It was an attack, but he was smart enough to get behind the why of the attack and right into the what of it. Which is to say, does Hollywood “minstrelize” Black actors?
Annnnnnd we were off to the races, finally. A high-risk maneuver rewarded in spades. Jackson from that point on? Candid, maybe too candid, engaged, locked in. Two hours later? Done.
“Thanks for taking the time, sir.”
“Eh.” And he was on his phone and I was out of his trailer and on the sidewalk in the setting Los Angeles sun. My first cover story in the can on a day I’d never forget with a guy who had already forgotten I was there.