"I was in the right place but it just wasn't my time" – Samuel L. Jackson
A lifetime of outstanding cinematic work
It takes a special kind of actor, for a major film festival to create an award just for you, and that's exactly what Hollywood superstar Samuel L Jackson is. With over 100 movies, multiple awards and now the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), it seems that Jackson has had an outstanding career, but he's not quite done yet. In an exclusive tell-all session at the Madinat Theatre, the icon shares his story, his passion for theatre as well as his hopes for the future. Buro 24/7 Middle East has all of the details...
When did you first know you wanted to be an actor and why were you drawn to the art?
When I was a child I lived with my grandparents and aunt, who was an arts teacher and she taught tap dancing. She was always in charge of the plays but she never had any boys so she was always putting me in costumes and making me learn speeches and dancing — I had no choice in the matter. But I do remember how much I enjoyed the sound of applause at the end of each performance. People were always coming up to me telling me how great I was. That stuck with me and I continued to do plays until teachers started telling me I had to give others a chance.
Is the idea of becoming a Hollywood star a distant and almost impossible dream?
I was not thinking about it but I spent an inordinate amount of time all weekend at the movie theatre. I was at the movies from 9am until 10pm. I was always told that I could be a lawyer, doctor, teacher but nobody said I could be an acto. That was not a career goal. It was not until my junior year that my teacher offered extra credits to boys who would join the play and I haven't stopped doing it since. That was the time I realised that I had finally found something that made me get up every morning to go to acting class or be in the theatre and be around creative people.
You were in the cinema from the early '70s. Tell us about that transition into the big-time.
As an actor, you always dream about being a movie star. I was naive about the process at one point, thinking that acting was like most jobs where you had an entry level position, which for me was theatre, then to soap opera before moving on to a real television show and finally a movie star. I was in New York at a really burgeoning time for actors of colour. Putting in the work and being around the people I was with was very encouraging because I was working alongside Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne. Every now and then somebody will get picked out from the group and went to Hollywood. I remembered when Morgan was picked out and became a movie star and then Denzel followed after. I was in the right place but it just wasn't my time. One day Spike Lee called me and said he was doing Jungle Fever. Then one day my agent told me that the Cannes Film Festival had created an award specifically for me for that role.
When I first got there every script that I read had Denzel's fingerprints on it; they were either he didn't want to do or didn't have time to do. If Denzel wouldn't do it then it was left to me Forest (Whitaker) or Fish (Laurence Fishburne) and it came down to which one of us was cheaper.
Let's talk about Pulp Fiction, which was a critical and commercial success. Did you see the magic when you first received the screenplay and script?
Actually I did. I remember just sitting there after reading it for the first time and then immediately reading it once more, cover to cover. I though to myself, if the Weinstein brothers lets him (Quentin Tarantino) make what's on this page, it' s going to be amazing. That's the film I cannot run from and I actually do embrace it because at least once a day somebody comes up to me and says one of the iconic lines from Pulp Fiction. People have gone through whole careers and people don't remember a single line they've ever said. But I've been blessed and people throw catchphrases at me all over the place.
Throughout you career you've worked with some of the greatest directors of our time from Spielberg to Scorsese. But you seem to have a unique connection with two in particular: Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. What is the special partnership you have with these two and what's it like working with them?
I've known Spike for a very long time and he wrote these very interesting scripts. He was very fortunate that he had a group of actors who have worked together for a very long time so when we had rehearsals for his movies, we could simply fix whatever was wrong and Spike just had to point the camera and let us do our jobs. We all grew together, he as a director and we as actors.
Quentin and I share a love for Hong Kong movies and we can talk about them forever. That's how we bonded. The beauty of working with Quentin is that because of my theatrical background, he understands the value of rehearsals. We rehearsed Pulp Fiction at least a month before we started shooting. Likewise for Hateful Eight, Django Unchained and so on. Quentin also has the most encyclopedic cinematic mind that I've ever encountered. He can tell you about certain shots, lines or even the politics of the particular time for a particular type of movies.
Many of your roles speak about being a black person in America. Tell us about your choice of roles when it comes to these types of activism.
I choose films that entertain because we are entertainers and I think documentarians are the ones who should chronicle our history and those films serve another purpose. I don't mind telling a message or being in a message-movie but I particularly think of myself as someone who gives people an opportunity for people to get away from what their everyday life is and give them a chance to not think about what their troubles might be. My politics are my politics and I don't use my politics on screen. But then there are also times when I choose movies that I personally would see when I was a kid like King Kong.
Is there any genre that you enjoyed doing most and which do you think you'd want to do?
I'm a boy so I like noise and toys, running jumping and shooting. There are a couple of kinds of movies that I love that I've yet to do. I've never done a slasher movie and I want to do one of those. There are also a lot of other genres from other countries that I like and I tend to watch a lot of Asian, namely Japanese, Korean and Chinese films, and I would like to work in that culture as well as in this Middle East culture. I love Bollywood movies too. So wherever I can go and whatever I can do. If you're asking about a role that I enjoyed the most then it's probably Mitch Hennessy in the Long Kiss Goodnight. It was a miserable movie to make because the temperatures averaged about 37 degrees but we had a lot of fun.
Would you go back to theatre?
Yes I do think about it. I actually was on Broadway about four years ago and did a play called Mountain Top. When I'm in New York and watch other people in plays, I do miss it. There's something very special about the relationship between an actor and the audience when you're there doing it and sharing that energy. Theatre has always been a political performance space for artists and they get to talk about the world in a way that's safe and creative yet it's still wholesome.
The 13th DIFF runs until Decmeber 14. For your DIFF guide, discover the movies that are set to have their gala screenings at the festival.