Monday, January 8, 2007

Getting the Shaft: An Interview with Samuel L. Jackson 06.08.00

Samuel L. Jackson has worked more than any other leading actor in Hollywood in the past decade. But Jackson is not a superstar because of the quantity of films he has made, but the quality of work he brings to every role.

Jackson has worked with such notable directors as Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Tarantino (twice) and Spike Lee (four times). He has created memorable pop culture icons in Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction, Mister Senor Love Daddy of Do the Right Thing, and Big Don of True Romance.

In 1999, Samuel L. Jackson realized a lifelong dream, playing Mace Windu, a member of the Jedi council in the long-awaited Star Wars prequel. This summer, Jackson follows that up playing John Shaft.

At the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Jackson and I discussed being a bad mutha.

You’ve played a Jedi Knight and Shaft, what else do you have to do?
Hmm… play a Jedi Knight in Shaft.

Did you dig having an action figure?
Very cool. It sells out every time they reissue it. It’s very cool.

Have you seen a script for Star Wars II?
Nope. They just told me when to show up. July 6 is all I know. They said be in Sydney on July 6.

How did you come to be John Shaft?
When I heard John (Singleton) was doing this, I was trying to think of people who could possibly pull it off. My name didn’t come up in my head.

Who did?
Wesley (Snipes). They were talking about Don Cheadle. Will Smith. I thought maybe Fish (Larry Fishburne) could do it.

Why didn’t you think of you?
I just didn’t. I don’t know. I guess because in my mind there was an age sort of thing going on with it. It’s not like I look in the mirror and see a guy my age, but they might.

Did Singleton call you himself?
I don’t know who called me. My agent called me, I think. She actually sent me the script and I read it. I asked her “Whom do they want me to play?” She said, “Well, I think Shaft.”

Did you take a lot of heat for stepping into a role originated by Richard Roundtree? Were you concerned with the comparisons?
Well, I wasn’t worried about it. I thought it was something I shouldn’t have to deal with. When I met with the writers and producers, I told them the only way to diffuse that was to put Richard in the movie, so everybody would know that he is still “that” guy and allow me the freedom to become the guy that you saw.

Yeah, but the guy we saw doesn’t get nearly as much tail as Richard Roundtree did in 1971…
It’s definitely a reflection of the times. You can’t do that. It’s just not politically correct to sleep with five different women in the same movie. Unless you’re James Brown and you get that shot from the government.

But I’m sure you were looking forward to being a sex machine with all the chicks?
Yeah, I was. But I let that go. I discussed it for a hot moment and then I let it go. I got to beat people up and shoot people.

Are there any scenes you liked that didn’t make the movie?
We shot a lot of stuff. The fight between Christian (Bale) and me. That was one of my favorite scenes. I beat his ass. He got to hit me a couple of times, but in the end, Mr. Violence wins out.

Yeah, I think Christian Bale said that he dug that scene, and he was disappointed it didn’t make the final cut.
That’s why the movie is called Shaft. Not Shaft’s Supporting Players.

Do you ever look at your work in a film and say, “I’m a bad motherf*cker?”
Yeah, sometimes. I sit in the back of the theatre and think, “Yeah, I rocked that!”

What impact did the original Shaft have on you?
I was in college. It was like the first time I saw someone on screen that looked like me and sounded like me. He dressed like I wanted to dress and he was a hero. It was wonderful. It was a great feeling of pride and it was like, “This is great. I can relate to this guy.” Of course he was getting he was getting all the girls. Everybody wanted to be as cool as John Shaft. He was something to aspire to be.

Well, your aspirations were realized. Now, you’re John Shaft. Is that a wild thing to think about?
I laugh about it all the time. It never occurs to you at that time that in twenty years they’re going to do another one and that’s going to be me! So, yes, I laugh about it all the time.

What impact did Shaft have on mass culture?
Shaft was a hero for that time. Hopefully I can be a hero for this time. Although we see ourselves on the screen all the time, we still don’t see ourselves on screen as pure heroes. My character has its flaws, but he’s a pure hero. He’s the guy out there, dodging bullets and running around and beating people up, looking good and, hopefully, he’s semi-sexy like Richard was and somebody sitting in a theatre will be able to feel good about seeing someone like them onscreen.

Interestingly enough, last year when I was out in the world promoting Deep Blue Sea and Star Wars, all over Europe, everybody was asking me about Shaft. My manager was telling me last week that a 60-year-old woman was telling her she couldn’t wait to see Shaft. She was like, “Can you believe that?” I said “Yes, because she was 30-years-old when the original Shaft came out.” My daughter has had a Shaft poster in her room for five years. She was thirteen when she brought that poster. That movie has stood the test-of-time. John is still the standard for tough, hip, cool, ladies man. And the hip-hop culture has embraced the movies from that era. So there’s a wide appeal among the hip hop era, which are those urban people who happen to be white kids who live in the suburbs.

Accurately or not, the original Shaft is perceived as a blaxploitation film, perhaps the blaxploitation film. Where does this Shaft fall into that milieu?
Nowhere. All of a sudden when you have a black actor with a black director it becomes a black movie. Like The Negotiator. You get me in it and you have Gary Gray directing it, and even though you have Kevin Spacey in it, people go, “Is that a black movie? Black actor, black director? Well, Kevin Spacey is in it, so maybe not.” We have Christian Bale in this movie, so maybe it’s not.

Shaft is engrained in the consciousness of moviegoers, but most “blaxploitation” films of the era are long-forgotten. What happened?
What happened was: it burned itself out. What happened was: everybody stopped fighting with The Man. The Man ceased to be the enemy. It became: The Pimp versus Us. There was no place for these movies. There was no place for Black Caesar, Hell Up In Harlem. The majority of the films they made that tried to be mainstream black films, like monster movies with black people in it, and Claudine, which was critically-acclaimed, people just didn’t want to see movies like that. People just didn’t go to see them. Then all of a sudden, the black dollar was spread out and they discovered that we would go to see movies of anything. We had been going to movies, but they were just discovering this.

This is a violent movie, and the theme is definitely an-eye-for-an-eye justice.
This is the New Jack City ending. No, I don’t think people are going to go out and take the law into their own hands because they see this movie. They might go out and buy some leather clothes though.

In light of the recent violence in schools, and the violent world we inhabit in general, are you concerned that screen violence will contribute to that atmosphere?
Not at all. I don’t expect a lot of guys to put on leather coats and go out and kill drug dealers. I grew up watching gun shows on television. I never killed anybody. I enjoy doing it in the movies. I don’t think that movies, video games are an influence or they desensitize kids to violence. People either have morals and they’re being taught values at home or they’re not. It’s kind of stupid to have a parent who walks by their kid’s room who has a pipebomb sitting on their desk, and just sort of goes, “Oh, son, what’s that?” I grew up with real guns in my house. I shot guns. I understand what they can do. I have a healthy respect for them. I still have guns. Americans have guns. But I don’t think that what people see onscreen causes them to do things in life. If you hug your kids at home and tell them you love them, they don’t have to go out and join a gang to find love. They’ve got love at home. You do what you need to do at home and everything is fine.

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