DATE June 27, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Samuel L. Jackson discusses some of his films,
including his most recent "Shaft"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "Pulp Fiction")
Mr. SAMUEL L. JACKSON: Oh, I'm sorry. Did I break your concentration? I
didn't mean to do that. Please, continue.
GROSS: OK. It's easy for Samuel L. Jackson to capture your attention. It's
not just the gun that gets you, it's his charisma. We just heard a clip from
"Pulp Fiction." He also starred in Quentin Tarantino's "Jackie Brown."
Jackson has made big-budget action films like "Stars Wars: Episode I" and
"Die Hard With a Vengeance," as well as low-budget independent films like
"Hard Eight" and "Eve's Bayou." He starred with Kevin Spacey in the cop
thriller "The Negotiator" and with Nicolas Cage in the comedy "Amos & Andrew."
Jackson appeared in several Spike Lee movies, including "Jungle Fever," for
which he was given a special award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Now he's starring in "Shaft," as a cop who is the nephew of the private eye
portrayed by Richard Roundtree in the original 1971 film. Jackson's Shaft is
investigating the case of a young, African-American man who was murdered
outside a bar. Here's Shaft, just after the murder, questioning the suspect,
played by Christian Bale.
(Soundbite from "Shaft")
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): How'd you get that blood on yourself?
Mr. CHRISTIAN BALE: Blood? What blood?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): I'm going to ask you again. If you give me an
attitude this time, I'm going to drag you out of here by your hair. How did
you get that blood on yourself?
Mr. BALE: It was, like--he started it and I finished it.
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Mm-hmm.
Mr. BALE: Look, I was razzing the guy. He couldn't take a joke.
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Oh. So you cracked his head open.
Mr. BALE: Yeah, I can dig it. I followed him out to apologize. The next
thing I know, he's coming at me with a silver bat. I was defending myself.
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Anybody see you?
Mr. BALE: No, Officer. It was just me and him out there. Do you know who
my father is?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): No, do you? Take him out.
Unidentified Man: Let's go.
GROSS: A couple of writers worked on the script for "Shaft," including
Richard Price and Shane Salerno. I asked Samuel Jackson about the different
versions of the screenplay.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, in one version, John Shaft stayed on the police force.
In one version, he ended up going back on the police force. In another
version, Richard's character, John Shaft, was a lot more proactive in the
resolution of the story. There were different kinds of villains in the story.
There were more aggressive moves done by the white character as he came uptown
into my particular neighborhood and kind of harassed me, as well as me
harassing him. It was--there were far-fetched versions and outrageous things
going on in the different versions that just, you know, were cartoonish to me.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Are there things that you asked to be changed, or that you...
Mr. JACKSON: Well, yeah. I asked for him to get off the police force,
GROSS: To get off the police force?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. My character's a bit volatile and I guess, you know,
borderline, you know, abusive to some suspects. So we have enough problems
with police brutality that I wouldn't want to leave him on the force doing
those things. And finally, somebody understood that.
GROSS: You wanted him off the force so that it wouldn't seem like you
were--you thought it was, like, OK for a cop to beat suspects?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I didn't want it to seem that way.
Mr. JACKSON: And number two, I still was trying to be somewhat true to the
theme song and to the spirit of the original "Shaft."
Mr. JACKSON: He's not a cop. He works, kind of, outside the law. He skirts
law and lawlessness in a very interesting kind of way. He always did. And he
was more of an anti-hero, who kind of didn't compromise and did things his own
way and wasn't intimidated or pushed around by anyone. And you can't do that
if you're a police officer. You've got to take orders from somebody.
GROSS: Now, as you probably know, you have enormous screen presence. And
this may sound like a really stupid question, but is that something that just
kind of exists or something that you are aware of and can work with and can
turn on and off?
Mr. JACKSON: I guess it's just something that kind of exists in me. I guess
through my theater training, I've learned how to take dominant positions and
submissive positions, when that's necessary, through body language or through
just positioning of one's self inside the framework of a scene. And I kind of
do it thoughtlessly now. If I'm the dominant person, I just take a dominant
position and try and make myself as large as I possibly can. And when it's
time for me not to be there and just kind of be in the background or just be
around, I try and find a way to make myself almost invisible. It's not
something that I think about.
GROSS: Can you talk about that dominant position a little bit? How do you
find that position?
Mr. JACKSON: You find a way to either be taller in the foreground or your
body position is in a stronger position than the person that you're talking to
or reacting to by having, you know, straighter shoulders, a more upright
position. You find a way to put yourself in a position that makes that other
person sit or look up or face away from you so that you are the dominant
person. You--it's almost called `upstaging' as they used to call it when you
were doing theater. They'd say, `You were upstaging that person.' Well, it's
a purposeful upstaging.
GROSS: Well, I love the way you speak and the way you do your lines in film.
So I thought I would play one of your great monologues.
Mr. JACKSON: OK.
GROSS: And this is a scene from "Pulp Fiction," where you and John Travolta
played hit men. And toward the end of the movie, at the very end--well,
toward the very end, you have a religious awakening because you believe that
only the intervention of God could explain why you weren't killed in the
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So at the very end, you're at a diner with John Travolta when two
crazy people pull out their guns and demand that everyone hand over their
money. So you get the gun away from the guy and quote the passage from the
Bible to him that you used to quote before killing somebody.
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So let's play that scene. This is Samuel L. Jackson.
(Soundbite from "Pulp Fiction")
Mr. JACKSON: Do you read the Bible, Ringo?
Mr. TIM ROTH (As Ringo): Not really, no.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, there's this passage I got memorized, Ezekiel 25:17.
`The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the
selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity
and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is
truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike
down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to
poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my
vengeance upon you.'
I've been saying that (censored) for years. And if you heard it, that meant
your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was
some cold-blooded (censored) to say to a mother (censored) before I popped a
cap in his ass. And I saw some (censored) this morning that made me think
twice. See, now I'm thinking maybe it means you're the evil man and I'm the
righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous
ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and
I'm the shepherd, and it's the world that's evil and selfish. Now I like
that, but that (censored) ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak and
I am the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to
be the shepherd. (Gun hammer clicks)
GROSS: That is such a great scene. And you have such an interesting contrast
there between the Bible reading and then all the slangy stuff that you're
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Can you talk a little about your line reading there of the Bible and
of the more colloquial lines as well? I don't know if you actually kind of,
you know, decide in advance where you're going to breathe and which words
you're going to emphasize or whether you just kind of do it in a more
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I do a lot of things. I break down scripts into beats,
dramatic beats, in the context of a scene, what one particular thing is trying
to do, what the next thing is trying to do and what explains what and why,
which leads me to things that have to be together, that don't have a breath
and things that can be breathed between. It's not a science, but it's just
good, old-fashioned theater training where you learn to understand the purpose
of each particular scene and what a sentence does in terms of moving that
scene along or defining what came before it or what's--excuse me--what's going
to come after it.
And doing something textual, like a Bible verse, you want to do it as straight
as you possibly can to make sure that the quotation marks are there. And
after that, the explanation of what it may mean in this way or may mean in
that way until you get to the definitive moment of what it really means, which
is `the most serious element of it,' you know, `but the truth is,' you know,
`you're the weak and I'm the tyranny of evil men,' which is, like, `Oh, my
God. You're going to kill him.' You have to have that suspense right there
in that moment. And then, you know, he shows that he's, kind of, been
redeemed by letting him go.
But you just build tension by doing those things. It's kind of hard to
explain even in a, I guess--I was actually talking to somebody yesterday who
told me they'd taken a film class last year and all they studied was "Pulp
Fiction." And for the last two weeks, they tried to break down the diner
scene. I'm going, `I don't know how you could dissect that movie in one
particular way because it's just impossible to do.'
GROSS: Well, one of the things you do so effectively is use pauses.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, yeah.
GROSS: I mean, I...
Mr. JACKSON: I mean, Quentin's one of the few guys, on screen, that allows
you to do stuff like that because I was actually passing by "Jackie Brown" the
other day. And I was watching the scene between...
GROSS: Passing by a screening of "Jackie Brown"? Uh-huh.
Mr. JACKSON: Huh?
GROSS: Passing by a screening of "Jackie Brown"?
Mr. JACKSON: No, I was passing by it on television. I was channel surfing.
GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.
Mr. JACKSON: Channel surfing.
Mr. JACKSON: And "Jackie Brown" was on television. And I was at the scene
in he van with De Niro when we discovered the money has been gone and I see
the number of books in there and I stop to think about what happened. When we
were doing that scene, I would look in the bag, think for a second and then
say, `It's Jackie Brown.' But Quentin would say, `No, take your time.' And
I'd do it again. I'd count to, like, five and he'd say, `No, no, no. I mean,
you know, go through the whole thing and think about, you know, how these
books got here, what was going on in that place--la, la, la, la, la--and
realize it's Jackie Brown. Take as much time as you want,' which consequently
led me to that almost, you know, 20-second pause in that film that he left in
And I just think that's amazing. That, you know, he trusts the fact that an
audience is going to stay with you and start going through the process with
you that long. Because a lot of times, people don't want dead air in a film
like that, especially a thought process. They want to, you know, feed the
audience the idea, feed the audience the answer really quick before they
get--you know, before they lose their concentration. But Quentin trusts
audiences like I do.
GROSS: My guest is Samuel Jackson. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite from "Shaft" theme)
GROSS: My guest is Samuel Jackson. Let's hear a clip from his film "The
Negotiator." Jackson played a cop who's a hostage negotiator. After finding
out he's been framed by cops, he takes cops and civilians hostage and insists
on speaking to the only hostage negotiator he can trust, Chris Sabian, played
by Kevin Spacey. Here's their first meeting.
(Soundbite from "The Negotiator")
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (As Chris Sabian): All right, now you want to tell me what
I'm doing up here?
Mr. JACKSON (As Danny): I wanted to tell you face-to-face I'm not crazy.
I'm just doing this to prove my innocence.
Mr. SPACEY (As Chris Sabian): I believe you, Danny. Anything I can do to
help you get out of here, you know I...
Mr. JACKSON (As Danny): Don't (censored) patronize me, man. I know you
don't think I'm innocent. So don't tell me, `I want to do everything I can to
help you get out of here.' Don't talk to me like I'm some second-rate HT.
Mr. SPACEY (As Chris Sabian): All right. You're right. I'm sorry. My
Mr. JACKSON (As Danny): Yeah, you are sorry. Get out of here. Lock the
Mr. SPACEY (As Chris Sabian): Now wait, Danny...
Mr. JACKSON (As Danny): Call me when you want to talk.
Mr. SPACEY (As Chris Sabian): Danny, I'm ready to talk. You're right.
You're right. I don't know if you're innocent or not. You could have done
everything they say you've done. You could have killed that cop. I don't
know, and I don't care. There are ways to prove your innocence, but this is
hardly one of them. And now you've got hostages, so let me tell you this.
You hurt one of them, you're going to burn up whatever currency you've got to
deal with me. They're all I care about. You leaving here walking is a
distant second. Now do I make myself clear?
Mr. JACKSON (As Danny): Good. Now we're getting somewhere.
GROSS: Now you've made two recent cop movies that I want to ask you about,
"The Negotiator" and, of course, "Shaft."
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I'm wondering if making those movies changed your attitude at all,
in one way or another, about the police. Now in both of those movies, there
are good cops and bad cops.
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm. Jeez, I guess doing "The Negotiator" had a more
profound effect on me in terms of my understanding of what they do and my
relationship to them in terms of my life. I actually talked to some hostage
negotiators and spent time with them, you know, when they're playing golf.
And I know that they have a difficult job, and there are, you know,
professional liars. Some of them, I guess, have to be pretty good actors
because they have to make up things and say things that sound like truth, that
have the ring of truth to a hostage while they're talking to them. And they
put themselves in some very interesting and dangerous positions to extricate
the hostages or some victims or to make sure that there's no loss of life
while they're doing the things that they do. I gained an enormous amount of
respect for them.
GROSS: Now that you're a movie star, you have to use a gun a lot in your
films. You were very briefly a security guard when you were a lot younger.
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
GROSS: I'm wondering two things: One, did you have a gun?
Mr. JACKSON: No.
GROSS: And two, were you in any real-life action scenes, and were you able to
use the kind of bravado that you can use in movies? Did you ever try that in
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I didn't have a gun when I was a security guard. I just
had a nightstick, which I really didn't want either because I didn't want to
pose a threat to anyone.
Mr. JACKSON: I was out there--as I told them, I was a reporter. If I saw
something happening, I would call them on a walkie-talkie and tell them it was
happening or probably wait until it was over and then tell them what had
happened 'cause I didn't want to walk up on anybody doing anything. It was
just a security job. I don't try and be the characters that I am on screen in
real life because I'm not that person. Yeah, I will defend my house and my
family and my friends in specific kinds of ways, and I've been in
confrontations with people because of that. But I don't walk around looking
for trouble. Or I will walk away from trouble before I'll stand up and let
something escalate to that point, the way it does in movies. Life's a little
bit too volatile and people are a little too crazy out here now.
Mr. JACKSON: And I guess--I used to wonder why Bruce and Sylvester and guys
that like had bodyguards, but they have bodyguards because people watch them
in movies being tough guys and sometimes are drunk or some guy somewhere out
of his mind wants to find out if they really are John McClane or if they're
Rocky and they want to test themselves in that specific way. So you have
somebody else to defuse that situation. Hopefully, I won't have to be
bothered with any of that.
GROSS: Now something happened to you in real life that a stunt man might have
done if it was a movie. This happened in 1988. You were standing on--I guess
you were entering a train in New York City and...
Mr. JACKSON: I was getting off, actually.
GROSS: You were getting off...
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and your leg got caught in the closing door?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. The door closed on my ankle and the train took off, yes.
GROSS: So you were dragged across the platform?
Mr. JACKSON: The length of the platform, yeah. Almost to the--I was in the
middle car of the last--I was in the middle door of the last car and was
dragged to within a car length and a half of the tunnel, yeah.
GROSS: What went through your mind as you were getting dragged...
Mr. JACKSON: It was going to be a very sad Christmas. It happened somewhere
around December 18th, and I couldn't find anything to hold on to. I was
actually trying to figure out a way to get out of it, and then there were
people in the train trying to pull my shoe off; there were people pulling on
the door, people pushing on my foot. I was trying to find some way to figure
out how I could grab ahold of something on the train and get as close to the
train as I possibly could, as the wall approached swiftly.
And then, you know, it was kind of like, `OK, this is it. I'm not going to
make it.' And I just kind of started thinking about how sad it was going to
be, you know. Who was going to call my house and tell them what had happened
or whatever. And my life never flashed before my eyes, so I guess I should
have known I wasn't going to die. 'Cause people always tell you, `Oh, your
life flashes before your eyes.' Well, none of that happened. But I was
actually thinking of ways to survive.
GROSS: Well, what did you think you could do?
Mr. JACKSON: I was trying to figure out how to--what I could grab hold to on
the side of that train that would put me close enough to that train that I
might be able to get past the wall. Or if I could just get my foot out of
that door and, you know, maybe when, you know, I'd get to the end and I hit
the wall the first time, my foot'll come loose and I'll just fall down on the
track or something. Maybe I won't just get dragged along till the next stop.
I was hoping against hope, I guess.
GROSS: So the train stopped in the nick of time.
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. Someone pulled the emergency cord.
GROSS: And you won a lawsuit in 1996. You won about a half a million
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
GROSS: Were you hurt?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. I had to have my right knee surgically repaired. I
mean, it tore all the ligaments in my right knee; had a complete ACL tear, a
partial tear of the meniscus, all kinds of cartilage damage. So they had to
do a lot of work to fix my knee. I was on crutches for 10 months and went to
rehab for, like, a year and a half.
GROSS: Wow. Now is there anything that you remember from that experience
that you've been able to draw on in a movie? Like, what real terror is, what
real fear is that you are about to die?
Mr. JACKSON: Hmm. Well, no, I don't give that much thought. 'Cause I never
felt terrorized, actually. It was a very calming kind of slow-motion kind of
thing. It's almost like people describe in car accidents, where everything
kind of goes very slowly until, you know, it's over and then--boom--everything
comes back to real life. So I never had that element of terror. I've had,
you know, some fearful moments in my life, you know, being in a car or, jeez,
being on a plane, I guess, maybe when the plane drops enormously while you're
riding. You know, hits an air pocket. Or being disturbed in a storm like
that. But I don't terrorize very easily.
GROSS: Samuel Jackson is starring in the new movie "Shaft." He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Samuel L. Jackson.
He's starring in the new movie "Shaft." Let's hear a clip from an earlier
film, the comedy "Amos & Andrew." Jackson played Andrew Sterling, a
successful writer. Nicolas Cage played a thief who, for reasons too
complicated to explain here, meets up with the writer and has him tied to a
(Soundbite of "Amos and Andrew")
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): You tried to kill me.
Mr. NICOLAS CAGE (As Amos): Why would I want to kill you?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Because I'm a thorn in the side of the white man.
I'm the voice of my people; a loud, angry voice that's not afraid to speak the
truth about white America.
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): What's your name?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Andrew Sterling.
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): Mr. Sterling, apart from being a thorn in the side of the
white man, you got a regular job?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): I hold a PhD in cultural anthropology. I teach, I
lecture, I produce and direct. I'm also the author of a Broadway play, now a
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): What's it called?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): "Yo, Brother, Where Art Thou?"(ph)
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): "Yo, Brother, Where Art Thou?" Never heard of it.
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Well, maybe you've heard of the Pulitzer Prize?
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): You won that?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): I did.
Mr. CAGE (As Amos): How much you win?
Mr. JACKSON (As Shaft): Who sent you here?
GROSS: Why don't I hear more about your life? You were born in 1949 in
Washington, DC. Your parents divorced when you were how old?
Mr. JACKSON: Jeez, I don't know, maybe some months, maybe less than a year
GROSS: Oh, OK. And then you went to live with your grandparents in
Chattanooga, where your mother eventually joined you.
Mr. JACKSON: Uh-huh.
GROSS: What was it like moving from the North to the South, or were you too
young to notice the difference?
Mr. JACKSON: I never even noticed. I was already there when I woke up and
realized I was in the South, you know?
GROSS: Right, right, right.
Mr. JACKSON: I was an infant and so I don't know.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Were your grandparents or your mother strict with you?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah, everybody was.
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. I had a lot of restrictions. I had to be at home at a
certain time. I had to make certain grades. I had to treat people with
respect. I was expected to achieve certain things. And I was a lot more
afraid of, you know, them than I was of the peer pressure. So I kind of did
what they wanted me to do and not what everybody else wanted me to do.
GROSS: When you say you were afraid of your grandparents and your mother, was
that fear of their disapproval or was there a more physical kind of punishment
Mr. JACKSON: Well, all of that. I didn't want to embarrass or disappoint
them, and I actually grew up in the age of corporal punishment, you know?
Mr. JACKSON: There's something about getting, you know, hit and whipped with
switches or whatever that kind of makes, you know, pain a motivator,
especially when you're small. The interesting thing about that is people
always say, you know, corporal punishment is bad or it's not good or whatever.
For every spanking I got, there was a hug that came along with it that
explained to me, you know, how much they loved me and they were sorry they had
to do that. But sometimes discipline comes in that form.
By the time I reached the age where I was bigger than all of them and they
just didn't hit me because they didn't want to, you know. They couldn't make
me cry anymore. Punishment was bizarre. I would have much rather have been
whipped and gotten it over with than go through some of those punishment
phases, you know, where you can't go here, you can't use the phone for a
month, you can't--you know, when you were restricted. It's a lot easier to
just do it and get it over with.
GROSS: Now I think I've made it clear that I love the way you speak.
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did your family ever, like, try to correct your enunciation or did you
ever have a teacher who gave you a sense of diction? Or is that something
that you just had or maybe you got it in the theater? Maybe you were just
Mr. JACKSON: Well, my aunt was a schoolteacher.
Mr. JACKSON: She taught fourth grade, basically English and performing arts.
So when I was very small, a lot of things were ingrained into me, especially,
you know, grammatic things, learning how to conjugate. Come on. We all
listen to television, we listen to people talk and we kind of go, `Oh, my
God.' I know I do. Maybe we all don't, but I do sometimes. Or, you know,
when people say, `Well, that's what he should have did.' I go, no, no, no.
That's very simple. It's very simple, you know? So I was taught at a very
early age how to speak, how to conjugate.
And I guess learning to diagram sentences in that particular era was a great
way of teaching people grammar. I don't even know if they still do it. I
mean, my daughter couldn't do it when I was asking her about, you know,
sentence structures. `What are you talking about?' So I don't know if it's
even still taught. But, yeah, English was a very huge part of my school
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Did you know your father?
Mr. JACKSON: We met.
GROSS: What was he like?
Mr. JACKSON: Jeez, when I met him to talk to him, I guess, my daughter was
maybe six months, seven months old. And I went to Kansas City. I was
actually on the road doing a play, and we were doing the play in Wichita. And
he was in Kansas City at his mother's house, my grandmother, who had always
kept up with me. She sent me Christmas cards, birthday cards; she sent me
graduation gifts. You know, every year there was something from her. And I
went to see her because I never met her. And I took my daughter with me, and
he was there.
And it just so happened he had a daughter that was younger than my daughter by
some, like, 16- or 17-year-old kid, which, you know, was kind of disgusting to
me at the time. And we talked about that, and we had some discussions. And
at one point, he said something to me and I think I responded, and he said,
`You can't talk to me that way. I'm your father.' And I went, `Wait a
minute, we're just two guys talking. We can't go to this father-son space.'
And it was, you know, pretty interesting.
GROSS: Did you think that he hadn't earned the right to call himself your
father at that point?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, not really. I mean, you know, having a kid or supplying
the sperm to fertilize an egg and not being around to offer support or
guidance, you know, doesn't give you the right to say I'm your father, you
know. You can say, you know, I'm the guy who made you, but that's about it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. When you were growing up in Tennessee...
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...did you see movies in segregated theaters?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. We had two theaters, the Liberty and the Grand, that were
maybe a block from each other where we went to the movies. We weren't allowed
to go downtown to the theater, so I didn't even bother. I just always--used
to going to my theaters. It was fine.
GROSS: Were there movies you couldn't see because they didn't come to the
Mr. JACKSON: No. They were movies that were edited in specific ways for the
whole South. I mean, they didn't just not show 'em in the black community,
they didn't show 'em that way in the white communities either. What is that?
"Drums of the South"(ph) with Sidney Poitier and Rhonda Fleming when he was
this slave who goes to the North and comes back as a Union officer. There was
a point in that movie where he slaps her because she's like passing for white,
and there was a point in the movie where he slaps her. They didn't show that
at the white theater, and they definitely didn't show it at the black theater
because they just weren't gonna show black people hitting white people in the
GROSS: My guest is Samuel L. Jackson. We'll talk more after our break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Samuel L. Jackson and he's now starring in "Shaft."
The last time you were on the show, you talked about how you were a stand-in
for Bill Cosby on "The Cosby Show."
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I just ran into him not long ago.
GROSS: Did you really? So he must be pleased at what a big star you've
Mr. JACKSON: Well, he actually told me he's having a hard time finding a
really good stand-in for him and asked me if I'd come back.
GROSS: Yeah. I'm sure you said, `On my way.' Do you treat your stand-ins
any differently knowing what it was like to be one yourself?
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, sure. Yeah. I actually know all my stand-ins in a way or
we have conversations. I stand around and talk to 'em. I ask them if they
understand the things that I've done, so they can do 'em while I'm not there.
And I have a pretty good relationship with them. I treat them like they're,
you know, actors on the job doing their jobs or trying to learn to do the
things that I do or use the job the way I did--studying camera technique or
some acting technique, doing all I could to do exactly what he did so that
everybody else can do their job easier. But also gives you a chance to grow
in a certain kind of way as an actor. And sometimes, you know, people are
paying attention, you ain't--you'll end up with another job with that.
GROSS: Now you were an understudy for Charles Dutton in "The Piano Lesson,"
the August Wilson play.
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And you said, you know, to the press that you really were so
frustrated being the understudy waiting in the wings, when I think you had
started doing the role you were told you could play it until Dutton could get
to--I guess he had another job until...
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I did originate the role...
Mr. JACKSON: ...at Yale. I actually did...
GROSS: Oh, I see. You did it at Yale and then he did it in New York?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, he did it on the road and on Broadway because the play was
written for him actually.
GROSS: I see.
Mr. JACKSON: And the only reason I actually did it at Yale was because he
off doing "Crocodile Dundee II."
GROSS: Oh, right. So you've said that during that time you developed a
pretty heavy cocaine habit.
Mr. JACKSON: Well, it's frustrating knowing that you've done something that
was raved about critically, that you had to listen to every night backstage,
and not just saying to yourself, `I would have done that differently,' but
hearing the audience response to it because that's what theater is. It's that
live give and take and knowing that you used to be out there doing that and
the audience was responding to you. And then out of that the disappointment,
frustration of saying, `Oh, my God, he got a Tony nomination now. Oh, no.
Oh, my God. The play's won a, you know, Pulitzer Prize and I wasn't out there
doing it, you know, somebody else was doing it.' And, you know, the job
opportunities coming where he's off going to do "Aliens" now or "Alien 2" or
"3," whichever one he did. And say to yourself, `God, maybe if I had been on
stage, I would have gotten that job.' So the mounting frustrations of knowing
how well you did something, and not doing it and seeing someone else reap all
the benefits of doing it kind of combined to make me a bit crazier than I
probably normally would have been.
GROSS: How did you learn to cover it up?
Mr. JACKSON: I wasn't covering it up. I just--you know, I actually think
that because people saw me in that state for so long, they just assumed that
was my state. I never thought I was covering anything up.
GROSS: Did they know...
Mr. JACKSON: I didn't even try to.
GROSS: Did they know that you were using or did they just assume that's how
Mr. JACKSON: They just assumed that's how I was. I mean that's how people
saw me every day, so it was nothing unusual. I guess if, you know, they
caught me first thing in the morning when I was sober before I left home, that
might have been unusual to 'em.
GROSS: So how did you get off of it?
Mr. JACKSON: You know, rehab, the same way. You know. I did my 28 days. I
figured that if I tried this other way for, you know, 28 years and it hadn't
worked, why not give this a try and see what happens? The result, I'd say I'd
done something right. It's easy for me to understand who I am or to know what
the message was people were trying to get to me when I got to rehab about me
and understanding my personality. I mean, all the men in my family basically
have died from alcoholism or some form of it. And that means that, yeah, it
is a family disease and I could possibly have that. And I probably did
because, like all of them, if I bought a six-pack of beer, I drank six beers.
I didn't drink one and put the other five up. I drank all six of them. I
never, you know, saved anything for the next day. That's my personality. I
also know that knowing that and knowing that it is a disease that's there, I
won't be well from it just because I don't do it. So I don't think there's a
day coming where I can say, `I think I'll have a beer,' because I never could
have a beer or I never could have a joint, you know, so that's just not my
personality. And every day I have to remind myself of that, and that's what
GROSS: Now do you...
Mr. JACKSON: I'm not trying to be well.
GROSS: Do you think that that obsessive quality, you know, of like you have
one, then you have six also has a positive side through your acting? I mean,
are you obsessive about learning parts and, you know, learning them and doing
the line readings just the way you want to do them?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. I'm as aggressive about my job and golf as I was about,
you know, getting high and having the kind of fun that I used to have. I'm
having a lot more fun now because I can remember what fun I had and I can talk
to people about it, and nobody's calling me to say, `Do you really feel that
way about me?' `What? What are you talking about?' So it's better. When I
used to wonder how I would live without that, it was mind-boggling to me.
Will I be as much fun? Will I be able to laugh? Will I even be able to act?
All those questions got answered. And I'm enjoying my life a lot more. And
the interesting thing for me is I was a fine actor, I was a good actor and I
could do things when I was using, but when I stopped using, I became a much
better actor and a lot more successful actor. I don't think that if I went
back to using I would be as successful or everything I have now would find a
way to go away because that's not what God intended for me or what my public
wants from me in terms of what I give them when they come to see me work.
GROSS: My guest is Samuel L. Jackson. Let's listen to a clip from the 1991
film "Jungle Fever," in which Jackson played a crack addict named Gator. He's
pleading for money from his family, money they don't want to give him because
they know how he'll use it. Here he is trying to wear them down.
(Soundbite of "Jungle Fever")
Mr. JACKSON (As Gator): Lookit here, I'm a little light. Help me.
Unidentified Man: What? What? You didn't get your check from "Soul Train"
Mr. JACKSON (As Gator): Oh, you know Don lost my address.
Unidentified Man: Oh.
Mr. JACKSON (As Gator): Come on, hit me, give me some cash in my hand.
Unidentified Man: OK.
GROSS: Now you had a special award at the Cannes Film Festival for your
performance in "Jungle Fever" in which you played a crack addict. Having been
a cocaine user, were there things that you felt you really understood
firsthand about, you know, someone who uses drugs that you could use in that
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, definitely. I understood that it was easy to play the
effects of being high and just do that on the surface of what's going on with
Gator. But I also knew that the family dynamic and how people ruin their
relationships with people in their drug use was the important element of doing
that particular role of alienating everybody around him to the point where
when he dies everybody kind of understands it and knows what his father was
going through and how he just collapsed every bridge that he had to humanity
by doing that because we all did it.
GROSS: Were you close to doing that, just burning a lot of bridges?
Mr. JACKSON: Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, I had used up, you know,
everybody's friendship when I said, you know, `Oh, man, I'm broke, so and so
and so, I need some money to do this,' people knew that, OK, he's gonna buy
some drugs with that. Or I had alienated--everybody in my house, you know,
were scared to talk to me. The few friends that I knew--or the few friends I
used with, we were all kind of looking at each other strange, too, because we
were using each other up. So it's a--it was really important to me to show
that this guy was personable. He used his connections to people to use them,
to abuse those friendships, so that in the end, he was alone. So by the time
he died, his death meant something to the people around him. It was not so
much a tragedy as a relief. And a lot of people that I met or ran into after
seeing that film, you know, described Gator as their brother, their husband,
their sons, somebody close to 'em, any family member because they all been
abused that way.
GROSS: You're kind of a sex symbol now.
Mr. JACKSON: No kidding?
GROSS: Yeah. And I'm wondering if, like, you see your own body in a
different way, you know, now that so many people like would desire you. Do
you know what I mean? Now that there's so many people who are, you know,
imagining you? I don't have to keep going, do I?
Mr. JACKSON: No, I know. Tell me. Tell me. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Tell me.
GROSS: So do you see yourself differently?
Mr. JACKSON: No. I see myself as the same guy I always was.
GROSS: Do you ever sit home alone and bored for a few minutes thinking,
`Well, I may be bored now, but I know a lot of people are probably
really thinking about me'?
Mr. JACKSON: No. But, you know, to be honest, I actually do some days walk
the street and I'll wonder how many people are gonna recognize me today.
Mr. JACKSON: Or I'll walk through crowds of people sometimes to see who will
notice that I walked through that crowd. I do that. I mean, I'm not, you
know, crazy enough to think that people aren't going to notice me, or I'm not
so confident or bored by the attention or bothered by the attention sometimes
that I try to avoid it. Sometimes I'm like, you know, just walking around
just trying to see what'll happen if somebody sees me.
GROSS: One more question now. In "Shaft," you got to wear this incredibly
cool-looking Armani black coat.
Mr. JACKSON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Whereas Richard Roundtree is in his old turtleneck with that brown
leather jacket that he had in the original "Shaft."
Mr. JACKSON: I think that's a different jacket.
GROSS: It's a different jacket?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
GROSS: Looks like the same one. It certainly looks like the same turtleneck.
Do you get to keep your Armani coat?
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah.
GROSS: And do you wear that in the street when you're walking down to see if
people are gonna notice you?
Mr. JACKSON: Not yet. Since I've done that film, I haven't had the clothes
and they're in California and I've been in Canada doing another film, and now
I'm in Philly doing another film. So the seasons haven't come around yet
where I can get wear it, but I will next year. But I also understand though
that they've sold out of that coat already.
Mr. JACKSON: And that they have a huge back order for it.
GROSS: Samuel L. Jackson. He's now starring in the new movie "Shaft."
Coming up, our book critic recommends a newly republished memoir. This is
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Katharine Butler Hathaway's book "The Little Locksmith"
TERRY GROSS, host:
In her newly reprinted memoir, "The Little Locksmith," Katharine Butler
Hathaway writes of herself, `I belong to the fantastic company of the queer,
the maimed, the unfit.' Book critic Maureen Corrigan says that Hathaway also
belongs to the fantastic literary company of the blunt, the original, the
MAUREEN CORRIGAN (Book Critic): I'm jumping the gun a bit with "The Little
Locksmith." It's not officially scheduled to be re-published by the Feminist
Press until mid-July, but I can't help talking about this strange memoir.
Ever since I read it, it's nudged all other books from my mind. Originally
published in 1943, and a best-seller then, "The Little Locksmith" tells part
of the amazing life story of Katharine Butler Hathaway who was born in 1890 to
a well-to-do family and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts.
`Grew up.' How Hathaway must have winced at the buried metaphor in that
common term for Hathaway contracted tuberculosis of the spine when she was
five years old and she spent the next decade strapped down on a hard sloping
bed, her head encased in a leather halter attached to a rope pulley and an
iron weight. `Her horizontal life' is how Hathaway referred to those years.
This treatment was her famous doctor's way of preventing curvature of the
spine. But even as a child, Hathaway sensed that damage, physical, as well as
psychological, had been done. She writes of watching, from her prone
position, the little hunchbacked locksmith who her family occasionally hired
to work around the house.
`Deep within me,' Hathaway says, `I had a feeling that I really belonged with
him, even if it was never going to show. I felt a strong childish amorous
pity and desire toward him so that there was even a queer erotic charm for me
about his gray shabby clothes, the strange awful peak in his back and his
cross unapproachable sadness, which made him not look at other people, not
even at me lying on my bed and staring sideways at him.'
When Hathaway was released from her torture pallet at age 15, her forebodings
turned out to be true. She was mildly hunchbacked and never grew beyond the
size of a 10-year-old girl. But her affliction is not what makes her memoir
so remarkable, rather it's her lyrical yet frank sensibilities. Did you hear
those adjectives Hathaway uses to describe her kinship with the locksmith?
Erotic, amorous--Hathaway's family silently conveyed the message to her that
she could never expect to have sexual relations, so when recalling her
childhood, and early spinsterish adulthood, Hathaway also recalls what she
terms her `sexual starvation.'
Her frustrated physical yearnings spill out into almost every relationship she
had--with the locksmith, her brother, her female friends at Radcliffe College,
even with the rickety house she eventually buys on the Maine coast. Hathaway
is a polymorphously perverse writer, practically everyone and everything she
describes arouses her and her reader. I never got hot before thinking of home
improvements, but the voluptuous way in which Hathaway describes how hired
workmen slowly sanded smooth the wood on her house's front door--Pfew!--it's
like "The Story of O" in overalls.
It almost seems anticlimactic to mention that the second half of "The Little
Locksmith" is also an exquisite work of nature writing, and consequently,
makes for perfect summer reading. Hathaway captures the landscape of rural
Maine when it was still regional and pristine, when giant sea scallops and the
wreck of a British warship could be glimpsed beneath clear shimmering ocean
waves below her house. Hathaway says that the story of that house is the
story of the liberation of a human being. She bought it in her 30s to escape
from the smothering attentions of her family and to give herself over to
writing. That's where "The Little Locksmith" begins in overheated
anticipation of a new life.
Hathaway didn't live in her house's splendid isolation very long. She fell in
love with a visiting Japanese artist and finally achieved the sexual
fulfillment she so desired. She went on to have other affairs, to live and
work in Bohemian enclaves in Paris and New York. And eventually she married.
All of these wayward life surprises were to be captured in two more memoirs
that Hathaway planned. But her constitution was chronically weak and Hathaway
died in her 50s, even before "The Little Locksmith" was published. An odd and
daring life, and thanks to the Feminist Press, an unforgettable memoir that's
no longer forgotten.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed Katharine Butler Hathaway's memoir, "The Little Locksmith," reprinted
by the Feminist Press. It's already in bookstores.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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