Samuel L Jackson: The movie machine

Samuel L Jackson has made an astonishing 83 films, but he's being a bit coy about his latest. Lesley O'Toole discovers why
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The Independent Culture

Calling Samuel L Jackson iconic is, in euphemistic terms, akin to calling Lindsay Lohan a girl who likes nightclubs. A youthful 57, Jackson is the coolest star in Hollywood - and one of its classiest. That he is talented goes without saying, though it was not until 1994 that Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction brought him fame as the sardonic, expletive-spouting hit man Jules Winnfield. It also won him his first and only Oscar nomination. His new film Snakes on a Plane, the most internet-hyped film in history, is unlikely to see him adding to that critical acclaim, but will certainly bolster his legend.

"I made this film because of the title. I'm not kidding. I was sitting at home reading the trades and [Hong Kong action master] Ronny Yu was supposed to direct it. I e-mailed to ask if it was a euphemism for anything else or if it was really about snakes on a plane. And he said, 'Yeah, it's poisonous snakes let loose on a plane.' I was like, 'Oh cool! Can I be in it?' He said, 'You really want to be in it?' And I said, 'Sure!' "

Yu verified through Jackson's people that their client was indeed itching to make the film. When Yu was replaced by David Ellis, with whom Jackson had also worked, his interest never waned. "I just said, 'OK, I still want to do it as long as you really have snakes on a plane.'"

Jackson is, as one might expect, grinning as he recounts this tale. He is wearing a Snakes on a Plane T-shirt, a couple of Snakes on a Plane necklaces and a Kangol hat, and looks rather like the cat who's got the cream. He is also in the minority of cats, cool or otherwise, who have actually seen the film, which is released worldwide on Friday.

Jackson is either being refreshingly self-effacing or monumentally naive in wondering whether his involvement is key. His sass and renowned "bad-ass" factor are inevitably intended to better flavour the cheese, and the premise is undeniably cheesy. "Cult status is cult status" is the most self-serving comment he will allow himself on the subject.

Jackson has always attributed his eclectic choices of role to the fact that as a cinema-going kid his tastes were impressively broad. So now, he insists, he wants to make films like the ones he loved. "Snakes was the kind of movie I'd go to and spend my entire day at the movie theatre and watch it three times before I went home. I always wanted to see myself in this kind of film, so here I am. I've been eaten by sharks [in 1999's Deep Blue Sea], so why don't I fight some snakes? There's all this other stuff we do that your agents think will win you an award, but I just get up and go to work. There's only so much time to do stuff, so I do as much as I possibly can so when I'm gone, people will go, 'Wow, he was good.' Or, 'He wasn't so good but he did a lot of stuff.'"

He is not kidding. His latest, 1408, which he is currently filming in London, appears to be his 84th film in a résumé that ranges from Die Hard: With a Vengeance to the three Star Wars prequels and the understated Eve's Bayou. He lacks only a horror film to his name (Snakes doesn't count), which 1408 , based on a Stephen King story about a paranormal investigator, is rectifying.

In many regards, Jackson owes his career to a teacher at the elite black American college Morehouse, who suggested a public-speaking class to help him overcome his stammer. He loved it, licked the stammer and switched to drama. That he had got to Morehouse at all speaks volumes about Jackson's determination. Raised by a single mother and her parents in Tennessee (his father left when he was very young and died of alcoholism), Jackson attended a segregated school where he dreamed of being an oceanographer or architect. His mother was appalled when he told her he wanted to be an actor, but found herself acquiescing when she registered the size of the pay cheque for his first commercial.

He moved to New York, where he immersed himself both in Manhattan's black theatre scene and the world of drugs and alcohol. Incredibly, one acting teacher at the time condoned his particular Method, espousing the work of actors who had fuelled themselves to great performances the same way. But when his wife, the actress LaTanya Richardson, found him unconscious under the kitchen table in 1991, Jackson finally took charge. Ironically, his first role out of rehab - the crack addict Gator Purity in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever - was the one that finally kickstarted his film career. Indeed, the Cannes Film Festival jury created a Supporting Actor category especially to honour his work in the role.

Like most recovering addicts, this one insists his experiences were key in shaping the person and actor he is today. "I met some interesting characters out there. I understand the urgency of need and the crutches that people use to prop themselves up. I understand escapism, when people are running from the realities of what their lives are. Having cleaned up has made me a better person." He has not had a drink in 15 years.

Jackson may be worth millions but he is acutely aware of the value of money. He is also generous. When he made Black Snake Moan in the Mississippi Delta earlier this year, he would often discreetly slip restaurant managers enough money to cover all the patrons' bills and is not averse to handing over wads of cash to needy-looking families he spots in car parks. "That's the kind of thing I can do that makes some sense to people."

Amazingly, given that his filming schedule means many nights away from home, Jackson remains happily married to Richardson (their 24-year-old daughter Zoë recently graduated from Vassar College), with whom he worked in Freedomland. Did he share some of his movie star perks with her? "Occasionally I let her ride in my car from trailer to set," he replies, deadpan.

Jackson is unusual in that he admits to reading his own press, reviews and all. "I remember who did what," he says, trying to be menacing but laughing instead. I believe him when he says he is not worried about the absurdly high expectations for Snakes on a Plane. "We did the best film we could, and it's just snakes on a plane. It's not Snakes on Brokeback Mountain."

'Snakes on a Plane' opens on Friday