Saint Samuel

He used to play the tough guys. Now he's making 'socially relevant' films to inspire the kids of America. Whatever happened to bad boy Samuel L Jackson, asks Simmy Richman. And after 80-odd movies, why doesn't he consider himself a star?
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The Independent Culture

Dedicated Hollywood watchers aside, few people will have noticed that, just last month, Samuel L Jackson took over from Harrison Ford as the actor responsible for putting more bums on seats around the world than any other performer in film history. Truth is, though, that "highest-grossing actor" tag ($3bn and counting) must be offset against the other reputation Jackson has earned: as the hardest-working man in the movie industry. Because even before that unforgettable "breakthrough" performance in Pulp Fiction, Jackson had already appeared in more films than many actors will make in a lifetime. Staggeringly, in the years since that 1994 turning point, there have been at least another 50 vehicles of varying impact, and the five films he already has scheduled for 2005 prove that there is little sign that, at 56, Samuel L Jackson is showing any sign of slowing down. It's surprising then that Jackson consistently denies being any kind of "movie star". The man who has along the way had the good fortune to

Dedicated Hollywood watchers aside, few people will have noticed that, just last month, Samuel L Jackson took over from Harrison Ford as the actor responsible for putting more bums on seats around the world than any other performer in film history. Truth is, though, that "highest-grossing actor" tag ($3bn and counting) must be offset against the other reputation Jackson has earned: as the hardest-working man in the movie industry. Because even before that unforgettable "breakthrough" performance in Pulp Fiction, Jackson had already appeared in more films than many actors will make in a lifetime. Staggeringly, in the years since that 1994 turning point, there have been at least another 50 vehicles of varying impact, and the five films he already has scheduled for 2005 prove that there is little sign that, at 56, Samuel L Jackson is showing any sign of slowing down. It's surprising then that Jackson consistently denies being any kind of "movie star". The man who has along the way had the good fortune to utter some of cinema's more memorable lines - from "May the force be with you" to a certain now immortal discussion about what to call a quarter pound with cheese in metric countries - prefers to describe himself as a "character actor" and dismisses movie stars as those in his profession who people will go and see regardless: "People who come up to me never say, 'I love you'," he tells me earnestly, "they always say, 'I love that movie you were in'."

When it comes to discussing this phenomenal film career, Jackson usually gives interviewers the warm and funny side of his own character, while giving absolutely nothing away. When asked about Mace Windu, his character in Star Wars, he famously replied, "He's black". Another time, he told an interviewer that he is at least as passionate about golf as he is about acting. He is on the record as saying that he, a classically trained thespian, would never appear in a film with a rapper-turned-actor. And then he made seven (and counting). As a student in the 1960s, he took hostages at college in protest against the lack of either a black face on the college board of trustees or a black-studies programme on the college curriculum, and then spent the first 20 years of his movie-making career playing an assortment of drug addicts and low-lifes in parts credited under such "character" names as "Bum" or "Hold-up Man". He has admitted that he was a drug addict and alcoholic who never went a day without being under the influence of one substance or another, but famously gave it all up two days before playing a crack addict for Spike Lee and hasn't touched a thing since. This, it is safe to say, is a man of complex contradictions about whom we know very little. In short, Jackson is as enigmatic as the Barclays bank adverts he appeared in. (Fluent in finance, indeed. Although Jackson is proud of the fact that Barclays reported a "55 per cent increase in 'ethnic enquiries'. People should," he says, "find ways to make their money grow rather than stuffing it in a mattress.")

So while preparing to spend time with him, and reading the interviews he has given over the years, one question and one question only keeps buzzing through my head. In 1941, the legendary screenwriter Budd Schulberg wrote his first novel. It's the story of a man who, through sheer hard work and determination, claws his way to the "top of the Hollywood heap". The title of that novel? What Makes Sammy Run? Here's one of the opening passages from the book: "I guess he knew what he was doing. The world was a race to Sammy. He was running against time. And then it would start running through my head: What makes Sammy run? What makes Sammy run? I would take another drink and ask one of the bartenders: 'Say, Henry, what makes Sammy run? Goddam it, don't try to get out of it! That's an important question. Now, Henry, as man to man, What makes Sammy run?' Henry wiped his sweaty forehead with his sleeve. 'Jesus, Al, how the hell should I know?' 'But I've got to know. (I was yelling by this time.) Don't you see, it's the answer to everything."

So while for our purposes it may not be the answer to everything, it is the one question I am most keen to find out from meeting and spending time with Jackson, who is in town to promote his latest vehicle, Coach Carter. Coach Carter tells the true-life story of a high-school basketball coach called Ken Carter who hit the headlines in the US in 1999 when he locked his team out of the gym until they pulled their athletic socks up academically. An emotionally manipulative and predictable account of a man who "found boys and turned them into men", Coach Carter is ultimately saved from cornball corner by the gritty inner-city realism of the kids' lives and, despite your most cynical expectations, in the hands of Jackson and his brilliant young supporting cast, their coach's efforts to raise them above their situation becomes an authentically moving experience.

It feels like a part closer to Jackson's heart than many we have got used to seeing him in and he is, rightly, proud of the impact the film has made in the States. "It became a watermark for parents to see this with their kids in America," he says, sitting back and pulling languidly on a menthol American Spirit cigarette. "The parents were very appreciative of the message and said their kids got it and it meant something to them. To be able to talk to their kids afterwards and have their kids commit to a different way of life after seeing it, well, there aren't a whole lot of films that are socially relevant in that way."

Social relevance? This, remember, is the same actor who broke through playing a psychopathic hitman. Is there not another Jackson contradiction here: that he is happy to take the acclaim for inspiring kids to better themselves, but rejects the social impact of one of his characters joyfully "killing every motherfucker in the room". "Well," he says, "we are essentially storytellers, and there are different stories to tell. It's not often that a script comes across my desk that has some social relevance and a message that I can deliver and believe in. Now, when you are playing a psychopathic hitman, it shows people a different slice of life and those people's values in terms of who they are and what they do. But that's not the general reality of the world. We go to see those films because we want to know vicariously what the dangers are in those people's world. Remember that, essentially, people want to go to movies to be entertained."

It is a sincere love of entertaining people that lies at the heart of Jackson's work ethic. Growing up "working-class" in segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee, films were an escape for him, and a chance to come home and act the parts out for the female cousin who was born two days before him and who was his closest childhood friend. Coach Carter is an important film for him personally, because he is beginning to fear the time when his body will no longer permit him to play the "action" roles he loves best. "There's always the thing in me that wants to do the films I enjoyed most as a kid. I saw a lot of combat films, and I kinda got that out of my system when I did Rules of Engagement; I saw a lot of pirate films, and I got that out of me doing Star Wars. You want to do the things that entertained you when you were in that big, dark room sighing and crying with all those other people." Even though his home now boasts a private screening room, it's telling that Jackson still loves and frequently goes to see films with other people. So first and foremost, Jackson is a film-lover, who will talk passionately about Hotel Rwanda and is especially looking forward to presenting the Best Documentary award at Sunday's Oscars ceremony.

All of which is getting me nowhere nearer in my quest to get to the man behind the movies. With an uncanny ability to turn all of life's experiences into tales about parts he has played, it's hard to shake off the feeling that interviews are just another role, and the easy-going, riffing off on any given subject and machine-gun laugh hide something deeper; something that drives Jackson ever forward. (What makes Sammy run? What makes Sammy run?)

Let's play the game his way. Do you, personally, in your own life, share any of the traits that, say, Ken Carter displayed? "Ken has a lot of the same values I have. He's charismatic and he has beliefs that he's willing to stand up for. I'm that kind of guy. He treats people with respect. I'm that kind of person. He is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. And I think I'm that kind of person. He is fearless about certain things and I think that I am also prepared to stand up for what I believe in."

When was the last time you had to do that, I ask. "You may have noticed that there was an election recently in America," he jokes. "Now, I'm not one of those who would go out and tell people to vote for this man or vote for that man - because I think people should make their own minds up. But I did spend my time going out and doing vote promos, because I think that unless you go out and vote, you have no right to go around bitching about the state of things."

How did this once-radical man become so reticent about telling people what he himself believes in? "I think that can lead to resentment," he says, perceptively. "Let's face it, we in our profession don't struggle the way everybody else struggles. We have a lifestyle that's different. When you go out and say vote for this person or that one - because people think that we are privileged and don't have the same issues or problems that they have - not only do they not take us seriously, but the person you're supporting can actually lose the public's support. Meanwhile, I sign my tax papers and, as I just said to my accountant, 'I'm not buying bullets, I'm buying missiles.'

"I tend to support things quietly," he continues. "What I do now I do more subtly than when I was radical and younger." So what would the younger Samuel L make of the highest-grossing film star he has now become? "I'm the same person I was when I was struggling to get to this particular place," he states emphatically. "I've pounded the pavement, and I went to auditions and starved like a lot of other actors. And I haven't changed. I'm the same guy. Somebody says $100 and it's still not a trivial amount of money to me. It's a significant amount in terms of what it can do and what it might mean to someone. When I come to London, I don't have an entourage, I don't have bodyguards. People will see me walking around by myself and they look at me and say, 'You look like that actor,' and I reply, 'People tell me that the whole time,'" (cue the rat-ta-ta-tat laugh).

Has there been one specific moment when he could look at where life has led him and think, that's it, I've got there? There is a significant pause before he says: "Making the keynote speech at my daughter's graduation last year." (Jackson married the actress LaTanya Richardson in 1980. The couple are still together and have one daughter.) "Doing that allowed me to appreciate all that I'd done," he continues. "That was pretty cool stuff. To be allowed to send these kids out into the world with a positive message and to see their reaction..." What did you tell them? "I made a speech about responsibility and using your voice and standing up and speaking out to affect change. I spoke about holding people accountable, about talking to the people who make laws and knowing that the future is yours and that you are responsible for what happens around you."

All true enough, but it is also, I point out, the kind of speech that - while talking unspecifically - could equally be coming from the radical left or the moral-majority right. Doesn't your ass hurt from all that sitting on the fence, I feel like asking him. And then, spectacularly, he takes the leap. "Unfortunately," he says, "the people who are in charge now have no relation to the struggling masses and don't care. It's all about them and maintaining their power base more than creating a place that makes all of society better. The people in power don't relate to those who can't afford healthcare and they are blind to the struggles of the day-to-day process of going to work and trying to create a better place for themselves and their kids. And we haven't found a way to break the hold that those people have on being in charge. Until that happens, we're going to continue the decay that our society is in right now."

And having fallen off the fence, there's now no stopping him: "They want us to believe that there are outside forces that want to destroy our way of life, when it's basically them. I'm not sure that the people in Iraq or Iran used to really care about how Americans lived. For a long time the US wasn't a part of that 'Our god's better than your god' religious war in the world. We are now, though, and it's going to go on because people will be growing up pissed off that the Americans killed their cousin or their brother or their aunt or whatever. Those people will never forget those things."

And it's not just social compassion that drives Jackson, he is also prepared to think outside of the consensus. "Take the tsunami," he tells me. "It's tragic, sure, and we raise all this money to help these people. But the reality is that the millions of dollars we raised isn't going to reach those people ever. The folks in power will find ways of keeping that money and those on the ground will go back to living in shacks, because they are used to tragedy and hardship while those up top are going to have better lives. I gave some money, OK, but we need to start dealing with those people on our own streets with no place to go and nothing to eat because that's right here in our faces and that's also a tragedy and nobody's doing anything about that. You walk by them every day and you don't even drop any coins into their little box or even stop to say hello. That disturbs me."

When you ask Jackson about his own upbringing, it quickly becomes clear where this desire for social justice was born - it also illustrates the driving force behind that trite "hardest-working man in Hollywood" label. "When people ask me about my work ethic," he tells me, "it's kinda like, well, I work hard because that's what people do. I read six scripts each week and I'm a working actor so I go out and work every day. My mum was a buyer in a clothing store and my grandmother was a domestic worker in people's houses and my grandfather was a janitor. So I woke up every day and people were going out to work and I grew up thinking that that's what people do."

That glaring absence in his family breakdown can also not go unquestioned. "What did your dad do?" "I have no idea," he says. "He wasn't there." So what makes Samuel run? A healthy work ethic, a fear of God ("The first thing I do every day," he says at one point, "is roll out of bed and fall down on my knees and pray") and, perhaps, without going too Sigmund Freud on him, a driving desire to please the father he never knew. "Tell me," I ask as I'm leaving, "how come I've read all these interviews with you where I got absolutely no sense of who you are and where you've come from and how you got here?"

"Well," he laughs, "most times people would rather ask me what I think about stuff like the Michael Jackson trial. And I don't give a fuck about what's going on in that trial. It has absolutely nothing to do with how my world's going to work." And with that, Samuel L Jackson is gone - places to go, people to see, always on the run.

'Coach Carter' (12A) opens on Friday

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